This episode explores the role of civic engagement in fostering greater government transparency and clearer privacy policies that work for everyday people. Commissioner Kosseim speaks with community activist and bestselling author Dave Meslin about barriers that keep people from engaging in societal issues and ways of overcoming them to effect change.
This post is also available in: French
Hello, I'm Patricia Kosseim, Ontario's Information and Privacy Commissioner. And you're listening to Info Matters, a podcast about people, privacy and access to information. We dive into conversations with people from all walks of life and hear real stories about the access and privacy issue that matter most to them.
Welcome listeners, thanks for tuning in. There's no question that we're living through a time of great upheaval. Recent experience has shown us the vital role that peaceful and constructive community activism can play in supporting a healthy democracy. We're seeing such protests take place today across the country and around the globe, expressing fundamental disagreement and horror with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. And sadly, we're seeing similarly held views, get stamped out among many courageous Russians standing up against their government.
While protests are the most obvious way for communities to get involved, there are so many other forms of everyday community activism that can bring about positive change. While it can be hard to find the time to pay attention and get involved in our communities, with work, kids, home responsibilities, et cetera, democracy depends on the active participation of citizens, the engagement of everyday people who stay informed about what's happening around them, whether it's reading the local paper, reviewing the local council minutes, or filing a freedom of information request to dig deeper into government policies and programs. All of these steps can actively contribute to a more informed conversation about issues of public concern.
Today's episode will explore the role that civic engagement can play in bringing about greater transparency of public institutions and better privacy protection for the benefit of citizens. My guest is Dave Meslin. He's a community organizer, activist and TED Talk speaker. He's also the author of the bestselling book Teardown: Rebuilding Democracy from the Ground Up. He's been described as the ultimate ideas guy who firmly believes that communities are stronger, better and smarter when everyone gets involved. Dave, welcome to the show.
Thanks. It's an honor to be on the show. Thanks for inviting me.
So to start things off, can you tell listeners a bit more about yourself and the nature of your work and what inspired you to become a community organizer and activist for a living?
Wow. My work is very hard to describe. I'm kind of a political entrepreneur. So I'm often juggling half a dozen political projects that none of them really fit into a traditional box. So I don't do partisan work, I work with people right across the political spectrum. What I try and do is rally people together around issues that they care about and help find ways to amplify their voices, to make real change happen. And along the way, I try and pay the rent as well. And those two things don't always go together, but I'm in my mid 40s now. And surprisingly, I'm finding that there are ways to live your life as a politically engaged leader, and actually do that in a way that is economically sustainable to you as an individual. They don't teach you that in school, they describe careers in a more rigid way. I think I call myself a political biologist in the opening chapter of my book, is I'm constantly exploring and learning as I go.
Fascinating. You gave a TED Talk a few years ago, called The Antidote to Apathy in which you challenge the view that people simply don't care enough to get involved in community issues, identifying instead the kinds of systemic barriers that keep people on the sidelines. Can you tell us about some of those barriers?
For me that came out of a period of my life when I was really engaged in traditional street based protest activism. That's what a lot of people do when they're young and want to be involved politically, including all these amazing kids who are marching out of schools, every Friday to protest against climate change. But I started to realize that I had become part of kind of a fringe subculture.
There was this group of people. We called ourselves activists and we would go and march and protest. And it just kept nagging at me that in a city of 3 million people, why was this group so small? So I started thinking about other people in my life, my parents, my siblings, my old friends from high school. These are smart people, caring people, they feel passionate about all the same issues I do. Who isn't scared of climate change right now, who doesn't care about poverty, who doesn't care about economic equality, harm reduction, immigration issues, war, yet for some reason most people don't know how to translate those passionate views into action.
I just felt really strongly that it can't be because they don't care, something else must be holding them back. So I started exploring what those barriers are and the more I looked, the more it actually became incredibly obvious that almost every government structure and program and service almost seems designed to make sure that no one knows it's there, or if they find it's there, wouldn't know how to use it. And if they do figure out how to use it, they won't enjoy the experience. And they're unlikely to do it again.
I have a chapter in my book called The Mechanics of Exclusion, and I talk about how it can be the tiniest details that might make someone feel unwelcome or feel like an environment they're in, it feels hostile. I use an analogy where I talk about how a multi-billion dollar sewer system in a metropolis like Toronto or New York or Chicago, when it breaks down, it's usually be because of the tiniest things like dental floss and baby wipes. But these little tiny things together become very powerful and can interfere with a very large machine.
Likewise, I think when we talk about inclusion, when it comes to political spaces, I think there's little details that my most people would notice, but combined, they send an important message and the message they send to an ordinary person is, you're not welcome here, you're not part of the inside club. And the inside club, of course, is the municipal staff or provincial federal, they like civil service. It's their job to be there. And of course know how the systems work. You've got politicians, it's their job to be there. They're paid to be there and they know how it works. You have political staff and then you have lobbyists and you have the media. All those people make up this kind of political ecosystem, but they're all employed and trained to know how to navigate that space. You walk into those spaces as a citizen, and it just feels like a labyrinth.
There are examples in the book you use about doors being closed or meetings being held during the daytime when people are working or agendas not being available. So you don't actually know when your agenda item is coming up and having to wait long hours before you can actually participate in that discussion. So these are some of the systemic barriers, I think you're referring to that alienate every day citizens.
Most of the examples I talk about where there's a barrier, those barriers would never exist in the private sector, or when I propose a method in which you could make a city hall, for example, more inclusive, there's examples of the private sector already doing it. So for example, it would be harder for a single parent to attend an evening meeting at city hall if they can't afford a babysitter. Well, could city hall have a room full of plastic balls where you could drop a kid off for an hour? IKEA does, because IKEA knows that a parent is more likely to come and shop. And it's all about getting into a head space where you're just thinking about, how do I attract people into this space? And I think most government spaces aren't designed that way. In fact, I think ordinary citizens aren't seen as a resource, they're seen as a headache.
So I don't think they're intentionally going out of their way to exclude people necessarily, but they're sure not going out of their way to create an inviting experience, which every restaurant, every store, every cafe does. If you own a cafe, you're constantly thinking about, "How do I get people in this door." And that'll affect your choices about the music and the design and the art, and even the placement of the door, does it swing in, does it swing out? Is there a little sign? Every time you leave at Tim Hortons, there's a little sticker that says, "Thanks, see you tomorrow." Right? Just like these little things that someone spent time and money on-
Sounds like a we need a little inclusion by design.
In your book, TearDown, you set out a roadmap for addressing some of the barriers you had diagnosed in your TED Talk and you explore ways people can become more involved in their communities. In a nutshell, Dave, what's your essential message that you hope to get across in your book?
My message is incredibly optimistic and perhaps it's even naive. I don't feel it is in my heart, but I'll admit that my level of optimism about ordinary human beings is incredibly high. And I think that everyone has a unique experience, which means they have a unique type of wisdom to offer. And when we have a political decision making process that is centralized and elitist, it's not that's a moral problem. It's that we're actually missing out on that collective wisdom. Like we all lose when there's just a handful of insiders making decisions on behalf of millions of people.
So I really believe that the best path forward for our species is somehow creating systems that allow everyone to have their voice heard. So the simplest way to explain it is that you and I update the operating system of our phones multiple times every year. And that's because they've found a bug, they have some improvement, or they're trying to steal our data. We'll talk about that later, but we haven't upgraded the operating system of our democracy in 150 years. And any ecosystem benefits from evolution, from change, every business sector is going through enormous change. We call it disruption. And we like disruption. And we like entrepreneurs with startups who try new ideas.
And in the most important space of all, which is democracy itself, we've chained ourselves to tradition. And we just feel like we should do it the way that we've been doing it for a century and a half. Instead of actually looking at the operating system and saying, "Is this working?" We've just gotten a little too lazy about it. The best way to respect the people who have died in the name of democracy, whether that was overthrowing monarchs a 1000 years ago, or fighting in World War II. The best way to do that is by continuing the project, not by getting stuck in a rut but by constantly reevaluating, whether there's further to go on the journey of making democracy actually work.
So Dave, speaking of evolving democracy, what role does transparency of government institutions play in supporting civic engagement and upholding a healthy democracy?
I think transparency is everything. And I think it's almost more important than the mechanisms we've created themselves. Any mechanism we can create to improve the democratic process can end up being self-defeating or disruptive if people don't know how to access it, or don't even know it's there.
So one way to achieve transparencies through freedom of information requests. And I imagine as a community organizer and activist, you've availed yourself of the FOI system. And I was wondering if you can give us some examples of your experience of how access to information has, if at all assisted you in your efforts.
First of all, what's really frustrating is that I don't know why we have to fill out forms to get information that should just be publicly available in the first place. If you want to get some data or information that isn't openly available on the city's website, you can fill out a form. There is a small financial barrier, which isn't really a problem, I think it's five or $10. It's a little headache, but whatever. But the main thing is, first of all, you have to know it's there. And I would guess that 99.9% of the population has no idea, there's an office where you can fill out this form.
Number two, you have to know a bit about how the system works, to even know how to fill out the form. It'll ask you questions like which department is this for? Even how to phrase the proper wording of what you're looking for. But in the end they usually say yes, which opens this question of well, wouldn't it be cheaper to just make all the information available in the first place, instead of having these gatekeepers funded by tax dollars, to just process all these forms?
But I'll give you two examples. One that didn't work, and one that did work. One was, I wanted to send an email to every city councillor and mayor in Ontario. Very simple thing. I was working on a piece of provincial legislation that would allow every city council in Ontario to use a better voting system. And I wanted to email every council and say, what do you think? There was no publicly available list. These are people who their salaries are paid by tax dollars. Their offices are for by tax dollars. They are our servants, they work for us, and there was no centralized list available. I had to end up paying thousands of dollars to the Association of Municipalities of Ontario, which is an association of counselors. Also indirectly funded by our tax dollars to get the contact information for our own municipal servants. So that was annoying.
But another example, I'm working on a project regarding illegal billboards in Toronto. These are 200 square foot corporate signs, we've all seen them on top of buildings, in parks, beside highways. Many of them don't have permits. There are pieces of corporate garbage that have been lying around for usually about 50 or 60 years. The problem is there's no proactive enforcement, you have to file a complaint. You can only file a complaint if you have access to the permits and you tell if one has a permit or not. And I have submitted a whole series of freedom of information requests through the City of Toronto to ask for billboard sign permits for specific locations.
Now, what I've learned through that research is that many of these signs, in fact, don't have permits and now I'm working with the city to actually remove them. So on the one hand, it's a success story because I was able to get the information. On the other hand, I shouldn't have had to fill out a form and really by-law enforcement should be doing this work anyways. It shouldn't be a volunteer citizen doing the work of the city.
So quite apart from government institutions, responding to FOI requests like the examples you gave, and providing information to individuals when asked, transparency is also achieved and some might say even better achieved when governments choose to be proactively transparent in the first place. So you alluded to this earlier, Dave, but I want to ask you, how would you rate Ontario's public institutions generally at being proactively transparent with citizens about decisions and actions that they take?
I think everyone would agree that things are more open now than they were, let's say 20, 30 years ago, primarily because the internet makes it so much easier to share information. Whereas before, and I remember this pre-internet, you'd have to go down to the city if you wanted a document, they would charge you for the photocopying. And there was no PDF sent to your email. That said, my experience leads me to believe that there's still enormous amount of work to do and we're just scratching the surface.
And I know one of the criticisms of the open data movement so far, or a criticism coming from the movement towards governments is that they want to be able to brag and say, "We've released X amount of data sets" but they're releasing the most useless ones first that no one actually cares about like registered dog names rather than actually releasing data that people could use to visualize the geographic dispersion of poverty, for example, or other things.
So what I'm hearing from open data advocates is that there are countries that are doing it great, and we are not yet a model. I think when it comes to open data and access to information, we have to shift the default. So the default shouldn't be, everything's behind a gatekeeper, but there's ways you can get it if you fill out this form and fill out that form, that's not really access to information. The default should be that everything is open unless there's a good reason why it shouldn't be. And that would switch us from having 3% of the current data open and let's say 20% available through freedom of information and 60% not available at all. I don't think that added up to a 100, but it was close. The default should be a 100% is open unless for some reason, the solicitor says, for whatever legal reasons this can't be. So transparency, complete open transparency should be the default option.
As you said, there are many efforts being made to make Ontario more digital. But one of the things that struck me in your book is, you can be a transparent about things, but sometimes that transparency can be quite obscure or quite blurred if you will, if it's not meaningful. And you use the example in your book of public notices, posted by municipalities. And I really like that interesting challenge you launched a while ago called The Dazzling Notice Awards, where you called on municipalities to come up with better and more effective ways of posting their public notices in a transparent manner. I was wondering if you can tell listeners a little bit more about that story, how you came up with the idea and more importantly, what was the take up on your challenge?
So in this case, we were looking at development notices, which is, it goes up on a location where a new building has been proposed, or it goes in a newspaper to let people know what's happening in their neighborhood in terms of development planning. And I noticed that most of these ads were designed so poorly that no one would ever notice them. They're just black and white, there's no pictures, there's no color. But even if you did notice it and try to read it, it's just all this bureaucratic jargon, all these technical words that normal people don't speak. So The Dazzling Notice Awards was a project I launched, originally I was asking ordinary citizens to show me how you would design a notice. It was an open call for artists across Canada, that if you worked for the government and you were trying to inform people, how would you design it?
And then I got this submission from the village of Pemberton from British Columbia. And this wasn't a random artist. This was an actual town. They saw my TED Talk, they read my book and they redesigned their public notice based on the criteria that I had put forward, which is it's got to look great. It's got to have the most important information, highlighted really bold. It has to explain the access points for an ordinary person to participate. And number four, the proactive call to action, "This is your chance to be heard. Your voice matters." It use exclamation marks, right?
Anyway, so I thought, "This is really cool, I should give Pemberton an award." And I talk in the book how this is kind of a fun tactic you can use as an activist because everyone likes awards. What I learned is that if any ordinary person designs an award, prints it out and then frames it in a glass frame, people get really excited. So I flew to Pemberton and I delivered the first Dazzling Notice Awards.
But the story gets even better, because then other cities started calling me and saying, "Dave, when do applications begin for next year's Dazzling Notice Award?" So I've essentially been using this carrot and stick method. Everyone wants the award and everyone who doesn't have it just feels ashamed that they don't have the award yet. So one by one municipalities have been actually redesigning their notices to make sure that the development process isn't just transparent, but that people know it's happening.
Amazing. Your enthusiasm is contagious obviously, and that's a great story. One area I'm interested in as are you is public education. And in your book, you talk about a Toronto Civics 101 course, and the great work being to done by TVO Ontario, to teach citizens about what governments do and about citizens rights, vis-à-vis the state. Do you think civics curriculum should include a component on access to information rights, for example, to teach the public how they can seek and obtain information held by government institutions?
Absolutely. What we should be given as students in elementary and high school is we should be exposed to all the building blocks that make up the democratic process. And I think it's such a crime that we don't do this. And then we wonder why most adults aren't engaged in these processes, right? We only have, for example, party membership in Canada is less than 1% of the population are involved with parties, but they don't teach us in school, what parties are and how they work and how they function and the role they play in nominating candidates. When the city has their annual budget process, very few people will participate in that. But a lot of citizens don't actually know the difference between the city's operating budget and their capital budget, let alone all the subcategories.
So we're miles away from teaching them about freedom of information and privacy. They should be learning all of these things. You can't navigate a complex labyrinth with without having some kind of roadmap. And so what happens is, as people grow up and they feel intimidated and confused about politics, they find that it's easier at that point to just look away.
So you have this space, it just seems uninviting, but also just really confusing because no one ever explained it to you. And I think I use an analogy in the book where baseball, if you didn't understand the rules of baseball, when you hit the ball who hits the ball, who catches it, where you throw it, three strikes, four balls, not only would you not be able to play baseball, it would be impossible, but watching baseball would be incredibly boring if not infuriating. So if we don't teach people the rules of the game, they're just not going to play and they're not going to watch. And then we call that apathy as if it's their fault, which is really blaming the victim.
So let's turn to privacy now. One thing lament the most is how people nowadays are completely overwhelmed by privacy policies and feel like their only practical option is just to click, I agree, so they can just get on with it and access the product or service they need. And it just seems so discouraging to me, especially when people do care about their personal information, but feel like they virtually have no other choice in the matter. Your whole career, Dave has been about engaging citizens and empowering them to have a say about important things that impact them and to say no to things they disagree with. How would we even start to engage individuals and democratize the so they can push back on things like privacy policies that they don't agree with, let alone understand, without losing access to the service that they need or that they ultimately want.
That's an amazing question. And I don't have a simple answer. What I will say is that I feel this relates back to what I was saying or about decentralizing decision making. And there's something similar here as well. I don't think the onus should be on citizens to have to decipher these long contracts. I don't think the answer to this is that we need to give people the tools and the knowledge so these contracts make more sense. That would be like saying we should teach people which chemicals are dangerous to drink, instead of regulating industries and saying, "You just can't use those chemicals. You can't put that in a drink. It's not allowed." Because it wouldn't be fair to put that onus on ordinary people to have to read through the ingredients and say, "Oh, this soda's going to kill me. It has cyanide in it. And cyanide, I remember that I'm not supposed to drink that."
So the same thing here, I click on these things every day, every day I click on these buttons and I feel like we need to regulate the rules around what they can ask. I would like to see a word limit on it and it should be in the range of a 100, if not 50. And I'm sure if any lawyers are listening, they're choking. Because they're like, "Well, we're at 20,000 words now." But there is no rational way, there's no pragmatic way in which any ordinary person should ever be asked to click, yes I agree, on a legal document that is more than a 100 words, especially if it's full of legal jargon, the onus should not be on ordinary people. These digital sectors need to be regulated to not poison us. They can't put cyanide in their pop anymore, because I keep drinking it.
I think you're absolutely right, Dave, individuals shouldn't have to read long privacy policies. And even if we could get it down to 50 or a 100 words, they have to be able to make meaningful choices. And that means feeling empowered. A lot of that empowerment has to start from a young age and you recently participated in a webcast my office hosted for Privacy Day, about how we can empower the next generation of digital citizens. You are quite outspoken about the need to reform civics education in schools, and to start empowering youth to understand and navigate the digital world they live in. So, Dave, how do you get youth fired up about things like this?
This is also an amazing question. And a lot of the research I did in my book was looking at different ways that we could help young people exercise their democratic muscles and get them accustomed to speaking out, but also listening and being part of deliberative processes and learning how to compromise, learning how to come to decisions as a group. And I'll share two ideas with you. One is that I actually visited schools that are called democratic schools, these are schools where the kids are kind of in charge. They create the curriculum, they can even teach each other classes if they have certain skills, which many young people do. They are involved with HR decisions in the school. They're involved with budget decisions at the school.
And what I found is that these kids were not only incredibly intelligent and showing up by the way, they weren't just skipping out, but they were at a higher level of emotional intelligence. They were actually ensuring faster than their counterparts were in more of a rigid based environment that was based on obedience and doing what you're told. They treated each other with more respect as well. There was less bullying.
So I talk a bit about the invisible curriculum, which is a term that refers to not what you learn out of the textbook, but rather what you learn in school based on how the school itself is designed and how you're treated by the principal, how you're treated by your teacher, how you treat each other. And I think we could do a lot to reimagine what the education system looks like. The other idea I wanted to share is actually a quick story. I was in a high school about 10 years ago, it was in Markham and I was invited to speak to the kids about political engagement.
And I was standing in front of this room of a few hundred high school students. And I was really having trouble connecting with them. And I was talking about all the issues that resonate with me personally. I do a lot of work around cycling, building bike lanes. And I do stuff around corporate billboards and public space. And I do stuff around voting systems. These are my own personal political passions. But they didn't care. I could tell that their eyes were glazing over and they were kind of falling asleep.
So I tried a different approach and I asked them what they care about, like, "What political issues matter to you?" And I started by saying, "If you were the prime minister and you could change anything in Canada, what would it be?" And kids are really shy at that age. There's a lot of kids could be insecure, especially around topics they're not sure about. And no hands went up, the room was silent. And so then I said, "Okay, what if you were the premier of Ontario, you could do anything you want. There's got to be something in Ontario that drives you mad, that you just want to change." And no hands went up.
So I said, "Okay, what about Toronto or Markham? What if you could be the mayor for one day? What would you change? You don't think the world's perfect, do you?" So then I brought it really, really down to home and I said, "Okay, you're the principal for one day, you can change anything in your school." And finally one hand went up, slowly and shy. And I said, 'You, what is it?" And he said, "We're not allowed to wear hats." And I was like, "Okay, why is this important?" He just said, "I don't think it's fair. We should be able to wear hats. It's a stupid rule." So I said, "Well, have you ever thought about trying to get the rule changed?" Which of course they hadn't, because we're taught that rules are carved in stone, like the 10 Commandments.
And so I started talking with them about how you would go about changing a rule, that rules are created by decision making bodies that, any rule that's created can be undone or amended. And we talked about tactics, start a Facebook group. See if you can get any of your parents to support you, try and set up a meeting with the principal. You could probably get a meeting to talk about this with your principal. Look for academic studies that show that there isn't any correlation between dress codes and school behavior, and a great tactic for any political movement is to ask for a pilot project. So what if you had hat Fridays and on Fridays you could wear hats. And I bet if you offered that as a proposal with the backing of a few parents, you could probably get it.
And by the end of this discussion, all their eyes were open. All their heads were up and everyone was listening to a discussion about political participation. And obviously I hadn't transformed these individual human beings from apathetic beings to caring beings, but I'd helped them connect the dots between something that they understood and something they care about. Connect that dot to the notion that there are decision making processes that you can influence as an individual person. So if I can get them hooked on the idea that they can change the hat rule, then as they grow up and they see that they're worried about climate change or poverty or social justice rights, they know that just because there's a rule they don't like, doesn't mean that it's fixed in stone. You can change it. It's not the principal anymore, it's your city councillor, it's the mayor, it's the ombudsman., It's the privacy commissioner. There's all these people you can talk to.
I love that example. I feel so fired up, just listening to that. So Dave, thanks so much for joining us on the show today. I certainly feel tremendously inspired after this discussion with you. And I know our listeners will too. You've provided lots of ideas and inspiration about how people can become more engaged on issues that matter to them, working with their communities from the ground up. For listers who want to learn more about Dave's work as a community organizer and activist, you can listen to his TED Talk or read his book. For others interested in learning more about their privacy and access rights generally, I encourage you to visit our website @ipc.on.ca. You can also call or email our office for assistance and general information about Ontario's access and privacy laws. Well, thanks everyone for joining us for this episode of Info Matters, and until next time.
I'm Patricia Kosseim Ontario's Information and Privacy Commissioner, and this has been Info Matters. If you enjoyed the podcast, leave us a rating or review. If there's an access or privacy topic, you'd like us to explore on a future episode. We'd love to hear from you, send us a tweet @ipcinfoprivacy or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org Thanks for listening. And please join us again for more conversations about people, privacy and access to information. If it matters to you, it matters to me.