Archived columns and blog posts by Matt Elliott

What the Death Star can teach us about civic engagement

It seems fair to say that most people in the GTA don’t feel overly engaged with local government. To fix that, I’m thinking we should take a cue from the Americans and their government’s official response to a petition calling for the construction of a massive planet-destroying spaceship.

Let me explain. In January, the United States government did something kind of weird: They released a statement explaining why they were opposed to the building of a Death Star.

The Death Star, you remember, was the place that bad dad Darth Vader called home in the original Star Wars trilogy. Aside from a minor design flaw that left it vulnerable to a couple of missiles sent down a ventilation shaft, it was a real marvel of Imperial engineering.

But still President Barack Obama’s administration opposed construction of the trillion-dollar moon-sized space station. “The Administration does not support blowing up planets,” they wrote. Which is fair enough, I guess.

The point to all this nerdiness? Civic engagement. Obama’s White House didn’t lay out their feeling on the Death Star because they particularly wanted to. They did so because a group of citizens got together online and, using a pretty simple process involving a formalized online petition, forced them to. And that’s kind of amazing.

The Death Star thing is only one example. Obama’s government has now responded to more than 100 issues raised directly by citizens through online petitions. They’ve been forced to lay out policies on tough issues such as the legalization of marijuana, Wall Street reform and gun violence.

The process is simple. The White House maintains a platform for online petitions. Anyone can start one, but you need 150 signatures to get going. From there, you have 30 days to get 100,000 more signatures. Hit the threshold, and you’re guaranteed a government response. No ifs, ands or buts.

It’s not hard to see how easily this idea could translate to local government, with different thresholds for action. Across the GTA, politicians are fond of saying they have a mandate from the people to enact certain policies. At the same time, it’s too easy for them to duck the media and avoid hard questions. This could force more transparency and accountability.

Meanwhile, citizens who do rally and start petitions on local issues are too easily ignored. Councils that have formalized processes for accepting petitions don’t do much to encourage them. Petitions mostly end up only as footnotes in meeting minutes. Real inspiring.

A more formalized online system like the one offered by the White House could change that. We probably wouldn’t get our own Death Star out of the deal, but a more engaged population is a worthy outcome all its own.

This post was originally published at on 2013-03-04T00:00:00.000Z

About the author

Matt Elliott

City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
Website / Twitter / Email Archived columns and blog posts by Matt Elliott


Follow Me on Twitter

Recent Posts

Recent Comments