When I was growing up there were a couple of small sized cities at the head of Lake Superior named Port Arthur and Fort Williams. Everyone referred to them affectionately as the “Lakehead.” Including the people who lived there.

The time came to amalgamate the cities. The choice of names seemed obvious.

There was a wrinkle, however. A wrinkle with a capital ‘T.’ A sizeable number of people preferred, “The Lakehead.” Another group preferred, “Lakehead.” Whoever heard of a city with a “The” in front of it they snickered?

City Council in their democratic wisdom gave the residents three choices: The first two you know.  The third choice was Thunder Bay, named after the bay beside which the twin cities reside.

Guess which choice won? With less than 40% of the vote.

Ah democracy, where is the elegance in thy design? Where is thy subtlety?

Alas, splitting the vote and coming up the middle to win is an all too familiar feature of democratic decision-making.

Two challenging questions for democratic innovators arise:

  1. Can we design better questions? Questions that sort out some of the complexities of a decision in advance and clarify the options. The answer is yes and few do it better than Peter MacLeod and his team at Mass LBP. Their Citizen Reference Panels and Civic Lotteries address tough public policy issues by encompassing the intelligence, perspective and sensitivity of the ordinary citizen. Here is a link to a recent New York Times article about their work.
  2. Can we canvas opinions that capture the nuances of decision making? The answer is yes and few do it better than John Richardson and the folks at Ethelo Democracy. (Ethelo is an ancient term for will power.) Ethelo uses an on-line platform that not only, engages more of your members, clients or electorate but also, weighs their preferences (first, second, third, etc. choices) so that you arrive at a clearer group consensus. Which of course makes implementation so much easier.

Just ask the folks in Thunder Bay. The decision-making that led to their renaming set in motion a pattern of controversy that I’m told continues to this day. Too bad. It might have helped to know and factor into the final decision, everyone’s second choice.

If you want to do something about that or any other decision-making challenge check out John and Peter’s work. They specialize in well designed deliberative processes. Which is not surprising, since both believe in the inherent capacity of people to make good decisions. Imagine that! What a pleasant alternative to those who spurn the average voter as unsophisticated and unable to act in their best interests.

EH!

My art speaks and will continue to speak, transcending barriers of nationality, language and other forces that may be divisive, fortifying the greatness of the spirit that has always been the foundation of the Ojibwa people. (Norval Morrisseau, former resident of the Lakehead, often described as the Picasso of the North.)

Musical accompaniment this post can be none other than the Lakehead’s finest singer ever, Bobby Curtola. Here he sings Fortune Teller in true stereo no less!

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