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Samara Centre for Democracy

July 29, 2020

Michael Morden from the Samara Centre for Democracy on the importance of institutions to maintain a high bar of democratic practice while adapting to shifting terrain.

Tell us about the Samara Centre for Democracy. How would you describe its purpose and what makes it unique?

The Samara Centre is dedicated to strengthening Canadian democracy. We focus on citizens, on institutions, and on intermediaries like political parties. We work hard to find concrete solutions to both institutional and cultural problems, and we really believe that ethical and effective public leadership is central to a functioning democracy. We pride ourselves on being rigorously non-partisan, and empiricist.

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

When the lockdown started, we launched our Democracy Monitor to study how representative democracies were adapting in real-time. One of the big lessons, for us, has been that when faced with a set of hard choices, and when normal is impossible, it’s important to return to first principles and identify what matters most. Starting from those core values makes it possible to embrace adaptation, while also maintaining a high bar for democratic practice. We’ve applied that approach to legislatures, for example, by arguing for the adoption of a quasi-virtual Parliament which, while imperfect, can guarantee ongoing scrutiny and representation in the short-term.

We have seen a lot of discussions recently about governments potentially using digital contact tracing apps to help contain the spread of COVID-19. This raises some important questions about balancing effectiveness with privacy. How does this relate to Samara’s work?

Our frustration with this conversation is that so far, it has too-often overlooked the governance dimension. On the one hand, there are very significant concerns with respect to digital contact tracing which can’t be satisfactorily solved in app design alone. On the other hand, this challenge of balancing concerns like privacy and equity with concerns like public safety is not radically new or unique, and it’s possible that solutions may lie in well-designed democratic governance. Institutions matter and decisions need to be made in public. We’ve set out some simple recommendations for how democratic oversight of contact tracing apps might work, grounded into multiple dimensions of internal and external review.

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

The political class is still fairly insular and unrepresentative, and most Canadians don’t sense an invitation into public life. We see this starkly in our surveys of citizens, who overwhelmingly don’t see themselves in political parties or public leadership. We want to address this problem from a variety of angles. We’re starting by looking at the gatekeepers—specifically, we’ve been studying how parties select their nominees, and how law and policy can make those processes more open and fair. But we also want to send a message directly to Canadians that politics isn’t a dirty word, and that they have a contribution to make.

Could you share an idea or initiative related to increasing civic engagement or democratic participation that inspires you? 

We’re inspired by the so-called “deliberative wave” happening across the world, in which everyone from national governments to community associations are convening randomly selected citizens for long-form discussions based on public learning. The benefits of deliberation in a representative democracy are broad, and they include giving people a unique opportunity to practice and master democratic citizenship. We think the next step is to strengthen the relationship between these kinds of deliberative exercises and representative institutions like legislatures.

Tell us about how Samara 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 and increasing participation?

We’ve been exploring our role in conversations with new friends and sector partners, and are keen to discover how we can be useful to different communities. Internally, we’re looking at how we can mobilize the research resources we have to tell a truer and fuller story about how Canadians are experiencing this democracy differently. But we’re not experts on this front; we still have lots to learn.

Are there specific requests that Samara has for the broader sector? Things you need help with, problems you’re trying to solve or wishes you have?

We’re eternally asking ourselves how we can turn the knowledge and experience we have into application-ready resources for the broader democracy sector. We’ve accomplished lots of research over the years but we could always do a better job of getting that research out to the people who could benefit, in an accessible way. We’d always love to hear from colleagues, particularly those working at the grassroots and community level, about what aspects of our work are useful, and where else you think we could be a service to the democracy sector.

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

We can be reached at info@samaracanada.com, and I’m personally available at mike.morden@samaracanada.com. The best way to follow along with our work is to sign up for our newsletter at www.samaracanada.com.

 

The Samara Centre for Democracy is a non-partisan charity dedicated to strengthening Canada’s democracy. The Samara Centre produces innovative, action-oriented research that illuminates the evidence and reforms needed to make Canadian politics more accessible, responsive, and inclusive. Through original engagement programming, we provide active citizens and public leaders with tools and resources designed to engage Canadians in their democracy.

 

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!

Michael Morden, Research Director at the Samara Centre for Democracy

Michael Morden joined the Samara Centre from the Mowat Centre, a public policy think tank at the University of Toronto. Previously, he was a SSHRC postdoctoral research fellow in Canadian politics at Western and Wilfrid Laurier Universities, a senior policy advisor in the government of Ontario, and a research associate with the Mosaic Institute. Mike holds a PhD in political science from the University of Toronto. He is responsible for leading the Samara Centre’s program of democracy-boosting research and contributing to its mission of asking critical questions, producing new evidence, and linking knowledge to action. Michael is originally from London, ON, and he aspires to one day have a small cabin in the woods.