Laine Johnson

Creative Citizenship and Democratic Participation: Mary Parker Follett


20 August 2018

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Here at Synapcity we have been thinking a lot about how we can further bring people together to improve community life. This blog is the first in a series that will examine different thinkers and methods for getting more citizen voices into decision-making.

Today we reach back to the beginning of the 20th century to recognize one of the pioneers of organizational management, Mary Parker Follett. Although she wrote mainly around management and leadership theory in business, there’s no doubt that her foundational principles ring true for anyone who is looking to lead, inspire, and mobilize amongst others.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of MPF’s seminal book, The New State: Group Organization the Solution of Popular Government. This book stresses that membership in a democratic society does not simply mean to get out and vote. Democracy, at its core, is utterly transformative: it depends on the creative power of every one of us. Her central thesis is that politics, if it is to realize its potential, must be inherently creative:

“Democracy is not worked out at the polling-booths; it is the bringing forth of a genuine collective will … Thus the essence of democracy is creating … If politics are to be the highest activity of man, as they should be, they must be clearly understood as creative” (p.21). She writes, “Democracy is an infinitely including spirit. We have an instinct for democracy because we have an instinct for wholeness; we get wholeness only through reciprocal relations, through infinitely expanding reciprocal relations” (p. 157).

MPF’s principle of reciprocal relationships stands out for me as we move Synapcity into 2019. There’s no doubt it’s felt that our current systems aren’t as welcoming as they could be. We don’t always know how to make our voices heard. Synapcity was founded on this very idea. However, some of the success of Synapcity has been our continued emphasis on how a more participatory approach benefits all – not only those who are underrepresented but also institutions that serve the public. I don’t mean to say there isn’t a time and a place for stronger advocacy, and we engage in that question often. But our role as a neutral third-party organization is to create those spaces where multiple interests and perspectives can come together and explore what can be mutually gained from working together. There are benefits to reciprocity that can be felt regardless of political leanings, access, or upbringing. We work to help people, across their differences, discover this for themselves.

MPF argues that the creative, active force of this social process, that generates new ideas and paradigms that transform the future, depends on “unity, not uniformity” (p. 39). She condemns like-mindedness as a democratic false positive. People can often behave similarly but act under individual motivations: if they’re facing pressure, if they want to please someone else, if they will be rewarded. There is no opportunity for creativity under these conditions. There is no bringing out of a larger sense of common purpose when our system is set up to reward uniformity.

Unity, however, is produced by the formation of a collective idea. This process is described “not [as] mechanical aggregation, but by the subtle process of the intermingling of all the different ideas of the group” (p. 25). Given the timing of her publication, having just come through the First World War, it is no surprise the MPF was reaching for a different way of organizing groups and democracies that would behave more harmoniously. “ … If you want the fruits of unity, you must have unity, a real unity, a cooperative collectivism. Unity is neither a sentiment nor an intellectual conception, it is a psychological process produced by actual psychic interaction” (p. 174).

And so we too, at Synapcity, are looking for methods and models that can support interaction and creative collective participation. Our Boot Camps are less talking from the front of the room, and more group participation to deepen our collective understanding. Our work in support of organizations like the Ottawa Police Service, or the Somerset West Community Health Centre, or the Quartier Vanier Business Improvement Area, use participatory methods to elicit meaningful dialogue and valuable data that all benefits all decision-makers. And looking to 2018-2019, we will begin to experiment with our What Would It Take Conversation Series that aims to push our own boundaries. What would it take for Ottawa to move away from more individualistic tendencies and to embrace the possibility of the collective citizenship? What advantages can be discovered that will attract all sorts of different folks to participate and engage?

MPF, one hundred years ago, put the charge to each one of us, claiming that the state is only made visible through the actions of the political person. We can’t afford to wait for the system to go first, the people must go first. A just and democratic society cannot stand only as a product of rights and duties. That argument can only get us so far; it only appeals to a certain set of values. A system of aggregated units doesn’t ask people to innovate: under this regime, a person can position their contribution as only a small part of the whole and therefore non-essential. We can see how far this approach has got us in the 21st century: growing mistrust in institutions and with each other, each person’s experience losing value alongside each other’s.

But a ‘new’ democracy acknowledges that living in a democratic state doesn’t transform a person’s lack into abundance. A new democracy, posits MPF, suggests that the system is failing if any of the people within it fail. And so this system, and the organization thereof, strives for the creative citizenship as its ideal  — “a citizenship building its own world, creating its own political and social structure, constructing its own life” (p. 222). Not out of a sense of duty, but to strive for the transformative opportunity that is generated when we work as a collective, when we each relish the chance to contribute in our own right.

MPF’s book is now in the public domain. You can download your own version here.