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November 11, 2020

John Richardson on how we can meaningfully participate in the shaping of big policy decisions in spite of our current pandemic reality.

Tell us about Ethelo. How would you describe its purpose and what makes it unique?

Ethelo provides the world’s leading digital democracy platform, and is dedicated to connecting community members with informative, accessible, and fair public engagements which directly affect the decisions being made in their communities. 

The Ethelo platform goes above and beyond to ensure fairness and inclusion in our engagements using a few unique features and services:

  • Education: Most important decisions come with a great deal of background information and constraints to consider, but community members rarely have the opportunity to review pertinent facts and see how they interact with their choices. The Ethelo platform overcomes this by walking participants through the decision, and simulating trade-offs, ensuring all solutions reached are actionable and realistic.
  • Eliminating Polarization: Polarization is often the result of over-simplified problem solving. By taking complicated issues and isolating the millions of possible solutions, our platform is able to give participants the freedom to express the underlying root of their stance, and problem solve for scenarios which address everyone’s concerns. 
  • Consensus Building: We ditch the winner v loser mentality of other voting methods, instead taking participant’s likes, and dislikes into account, and forefronting the solutions that are the most widely agreed upon.
  • Citizens’ Panels: We conduct micro-targeted campaigns to ensure each unique community demographic is weighing in on the decisions that will affect them, especially those that have been traditionally under-represented.
  • Demographic Weighting: In order to overcome skewed results, we are able to take the data sets that come out of our engagements, and re-weight them based on an individual community’s makeup, and the demographic input submitted by participants. In this way, we are able to get results as close to a representative sample as possible.

We are all navigating the global pandemic in different ways. What’s a key insight from how Ethelo is responding to the crisis? 

The pandemic has meant that in-person consultations are no longer possible, or are extremely limited. We are helping to ensure that while people move to remote and online life, they can still meaningfully participate in the shaping of big policy decisions, including budgeting, and climate action. We are also looking at the digital divide and how our engagement processes can ensure those without stable internet connectivity can still participate in these processes, even with the limitations of the pandemic.

Over the past few months we have seen groups seize this moment of uncertainty to advance racial and economic justice in their communities. How does this relate to your work?

We have put on two webinars designed to engage the country around frank discussions regarding police budget reallocation in response to the recent De-fund the Police movement (webinar recordings available here), which featured three city councillors of colour from across the country. We then created a demo model of how our platform could be used to host discussions about police budget reallocation. Longer-term, Ethelo is looking at how we can engage more deeply with communities who use our platform to micro-target under-represented communities using online communication and traditional relationship-building approaches. 

What’s one big challenge you see Canada’s democracy facing? How are you working on this challenge, what solutions do you propose?

As evidenced by declining voter turnout, worsening political unrest, and the general lack of progress when it comes to vital issues (climate change, racial injustice, healthcare crises, etc.) we need a better approach to civic engagement than what our present methods have to offer. Consider that over 88% of Canadians own mobile phones. And yet, despite the fact that the vast majority of us carry the internet with us everywhere we go, most of the influence we have over the decisions that affect us is still collected using physical paper ballots, and in-person events. 

eDemocracy, of which Ethelo is a part, seeks to combine the use of modern technology and communications methods with more traditional offline approaches in order to include a diverse pool of community members in democratic engagements. It is an electronically accessible democracy, but it can mean so much more. It can increase equity, help educate while engaging the public, and can empower citizens by providing easily-accessible methods to participate in civil society. 

In response to the climate crisis, many municipalities across North America have declared a climate emergency, but struggle with how to create a plan of action. Our carbon budgeting tool is specifically designed to provide them with an engagement process around climate that pulls in a representative sample of the population. It educates, helps the population come to an agreement, and provides decision-makers with a suite of policies that have the most public support.Transition Salt Spring (Salt Spring Island’s Climate Action Committee) used the Ethelo platform to build consensus around a new Climate Action Plan while engaging residents of diverse backgrounds, ages, interests and political views. In addition to educating the community on local climate action efforts, eDemocracy Solutions successfully attained a Citizens’ Panel, with over 10% of the island’s adult population participating. This engagement generated over 5,000 comments, and resulted in an agreed upon an Climate Action Plan with a projected 58% greenhouse gas reduction by 2030 – all amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tell us about how Ethelo is making its work more inclusive and building engagement with different communities. Any tips or lessons to share with others in the sector about decreasing barriers to participation? 

On November 24, we are launching a new eDemocracy Network of everyday people who are passionate about spreading equitable and fair online approaches to civic engagement, and who are looking to participate in the decisions that impact their communities. We are using our platform to consult with a wide spectrum of these stakeholders which will ensure the Network is relevant, useful and diverse. 

We offer Citizens’ Panels to municipal partners who use our engagement technology, where we work with communities to identify groups that have been traditionally under-represented, and then employ a variety of strategies to ensure their voices are being heard. This brings those engaging in community decisions as close to a representative sample as possible. We have also created an Ultimate Guide to Equitable, Effective Public Engagement, and a blog which offers resources on how to reach beyond the usual suspects. This includes identifying who is your representative sample, who will be most impacted by the decisions being made, who has lost faith in consultations, who will need to be reengaged, micro-targeting your communications to these groups, and not forgetting about traditional outreach when using a digital approach. In addition to municipalities, we have relationships with and work with a number of Indigenous groups. 

For people looking to engage with you, how can they get involved? Who can they contact?

We need your voice in designing our eDemocracy Network. To join,  To join, visit and click on “Join eDemocracy Network”. You’ll help us collaborate in forming an active community around online democracy and get an opportunity to try out the Ethelo platform. 

You can also follow us on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. Are you a part of a group, municipality, business or organization who wants to run an engagement? Reach out to us for a consult at:


Ethelo was created to improve group decision-making using democratic principles. It harnesses the reach and computational power of the internet to aggregate the intelligence of groups in a fair and broadly supported way.


This is an unprecedented moment for democracy in Canada so we created Sector Spotlight to learn about how leading practitioners are responding to it. Have ideas for our next Sector Spotlight? Get in touch!

John Richardson is the founder and CEO of Ethelo, a Canadian social enterprise dedicated to empowering people to solve hard social problems through digitally-enabled direct democracy. John was trained as a mathematician, and developed the patented group decision algorithms that power Ethelo. John’s career focus is systemic approaches to social impact. In 2001 he founded Pivot Legal Society, which conducts strategic litigation for marginalized communities. Over the following decade, John built Pivot into one of Canada’s leading human rights organizations. A recognized social innovator, John was awarded an Ashoka Fellowship for Social Entrepreneurs in 2005.