Lighting the candle of democracy at both ends

When it comes to solving societal problems democratically, we need to make sure we’re putting as much focus on listening as we are on speaking up. It’s time to burn both ends of the candle, says Jim Macnamara, Distinguished Professor of Public Communication at the University of Technology Sydney.

The old saying ‘burning the candle at both ends’ refers to overdoing things and excessive action and, therefore, is to be avoided in most circumstances. However, when it comes to finding solutions to the current malaise in Western democracy and civil society in which the voices of many are being ignored, we need to address both ends of the problem.

Calling on people to ‘speak up’ and raise their voices only goes so far in illuminating problems and solutions in contemporary societies. Unless the organisations that make policies and laws, regulate, govern, and provide products and services are listening, the voice of the people will be only a flickering flame in the darkness. It will soon burn out or be snuffed out.

Are organisations really listening?

Since the foundation of Western democracy based on vox populi – the voice of the people –there has been intense focus on voice, speaking, representing, debating and dialogue. But, inexplicably, there has been relatively little attention paid to listening beyond interpersonal communication.

What about the powerful organisations that allegedly represent people and which determine and control many aspects of people’s lives – government departments and agencies, political parties, corporations, large non-government organisations (NGOs) and institutions. Are they listening?

Research shows that they are not. In Organizational Listening: The Missing Essential in Public Communication (Peter Lang, New York, 2016), I reported two years of research inside 36 corporate, government and NGOs in the UK, USA and Australia examining their public communication. The conclusion was that “most organisations listen sporadically at best, often poorly, and sometimes not at all”. A year later, six-months of full-time study inside the UK government before and after Brexit also found a serious lack of listening.

Listening is more than ‘lending an ear’

To be fair, it must be said that the lack of listening by organisations including our governments is not necessarily intentional. To the contrary, there are many dedicated civil servants and some politicians who are interested in engaging with citizens including marginalised and under-represented groups. So what is going wrong?

Organisational listening requires more than ‘lending an ear’. Only a limited amount of listening can be done face-to-face such as in meetings when it comes to governments and large corporations which need to engage with thousands, hundreds of thousands, and even millions of people in some cases.

They need to listen through various systems, technologies and processes, such as social and market research, public consultations, processing public complaints and correspondence, monitoring social media, and other methods.

Organisations are too focused on speaking

But research shows that many if not most of the organisations that govern our lives lack the tools and skills for listening inclusively and effectively, noting the challenges of scale and diversity.

This is totally avoidable and unforgivable. Why? Because those same organisations spend hundreds of millions of pounds, euros and dollars on systems, technologies and processes for speaking to disseminate their messages. For example, organisations – government, corporate and NGOs – spend upwards of US$600 billion a year worldwide on advertising. Massive amounts are also spent on public relations, mostly focused on spreading the messages of organisations.

Organisations have created a massive ‘architecture of speaking’ through media of various kinds. But public communication requires organisations to also have an ‘architecture of listening’.

Building an architecture of listening

Today, the voice of the people is not simply shouted in the town square or a town hall. It is mediated through submissions to public consultations, letters and emails, complaints, petitions, calls to call centres, responses to surveys, websites, posts on social media, and other channels.

An ‘architecture of listening’ involves systems, technologies and processes such as effective ways of:

  • Analysing and responding to written submissions to consultations and calls to call centres
  • In-depth qualitative research instead of simple opinion polls
  • Engagement with marginalised groups and silent majorities rather than the ‘usual suspects’ and lobby groups that dominate public debate
  • Listening to conversations in social media instead of politicking and self-promotion.

The research referred to found that organisations lack the tools and skills to process the voice of the people in our mediated age, despite their massive investments in media and professional communication advisers and systems.

Terms such as ‘engagement’ and ‘dialogue’ are used regularly by leaders and elected representatives. But don’t be misled – even dialogue is about speaking. The term is derived from the Greek word dia meaning ‘through’ and logos, which means ‘words’ or ‘speech’. Dialogue is often no more than turn-taking at speaking.

Lighting the other end of the candle

It is important for people to speak up and raise their voices to shine light on issues of concern. But it is also necessary to light the candle at the other end. The organisations that are central to contemporary industrial and post-industrial societies need to be listening –really listening in the sense of recognising, paying attention and considering what people are saying.

They also need to be listening inclusively – not just selectively to a few loud voices, which are usually those of economic, political and social elites.

If the organisations that make policies and laws, govern and provide essential services are not listening to their stakeholders and constituents, the light of democracy will dim and even be extinguished. We are already seeing alarming signs of this in the collapse of public trust in government, business and even NGOs; disengagement in many political processes; and marginalisation and disenfranchisement of many in our communities.

It’s time to light a flame under the organisations that purportedly represent us and serve us. Some fingers may get burned in the process. But in the current ‘crisis of democracy’, we need to burn the candle at both ends.

Making sure voices are heard: practical tips

  1. Speaking out
    Express voice in new and innovative ways
    . Traditional methods such as petitions and protest marches are increasingly seen as clichéd and ignored. Follow the advice of Leah Bassel, author of The Politics of Listening: Possibilities and Challenges for Democratic Life, who says that micro-politics[1] can disrupt power and privilege, but it needs to involve new methods. These include citizen journalism, online crowdsourcing campaigns and creative methods such as video mashups, digital sampling in music and other convergence of creative arts, popular culture and news.
  2. Listening
    If you work inside an organisation, get out of the office and go to the communities affected by policies and decisions to hear and see first-hand. Map all the channels through which voices can enter your organisation (for example, research, submissions, letters, phone calls, social media comments) and ensure you have an architecture of listening[2] – methods to process, understand and respond to this information


[1]    Leah Bassel, (2017), The Politics of Listening: Possibilities and Challenges for Democratic Life, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, UK.

[2]    Jim Macnamara, (2016), Organizational Listening: The Missing Essential in Public Communication, Peter Lang, New York.

16th May 2019