Don't waste the people

by Leslie Campbell, January 2011

How the City turns off the very citizens it needs. 

Do you have the sense that we are on some sort of cusp? People are demanding greater transparency from institutions as well as more involvement in decision-making the world over. “The public is feeling abused,” said a friend of mine. Yet, the powers-that-be are resistant—both on the macro, international levels, and the local ones—to sharing information and power. They have to be dragged into it via forced referenda, whistleblowers and auditor generals.

Yet most democratic bodies do pay lip service to such values as inclusivity and transparency. In Victoria, for instance, the City Council boasts about having a public engagement strategy that is remarkably progressive. Based on principles developed by the International Association of Public Participation, the strategy’s key promises are first to provide balanced, objective information, and second, to allow the public a timely, meaningful way to participate in decision-making. Inherent in this is “the promise that the public’s contribution will influence the decision.”

These are lofty ideals, but the pay-off in putting them into practice is clear: The City’s report on the subject cites as benefits improved quality of decisions, improved effectiveness of programs and services, and greater understanding, trust, and ownership of decisions by citizens.

Diane Carr, an already fully-engaged citizen who I got to know when she formed a team to enter (and win) Focus’ “Solve Homelessness” contest four years ago, recalls that in 2005 she was so excited about the International Association’s participation principles she photocopied them onto cards and passed them out to everyone she ran into, urging them to lobby City Hall to adopt them. Four years later, in June 2009, it happened. 

Trouble is, according to Ms Carr and others, the City isn’t living up to them—as was particularly evident from the “acid test” of the Johnson Street Bridge. Citizens were not involved in developing the all-important options, felt left out of decision-making, and the information provided by the City was highly biased towards replacement. One observer described the City’s actual engagement strategy on the bridge as DEAD (for Decide, Educate, Announce, Defend). Such disingenuous engagement fosters cynicism and distrust, making it difficult for the City to make progress on other matters.

Recently, I met with John Farquharson, who has written a critical analysis of the City’s performance utilizing its own civic engagement guidelines. The City can’t seem to distinguish public engagement from pubic-relations spin, he claims, showing me the City’s Connect newsletter and the Vote Yes brochure as evidence. He’s been inviting people to join him in a “City Hall Watch” to help the City improve its performance and rebuild trust—pointing out when and how they get it wrong—and right.

Mr Farquharson has been volunteer chair of the Public Advisory Planning Committee, a citizens’ advisory committee set up by the City to provide “advice and input on significant urban planning policies, encompassing community and transportation planning.” In mid-November, he wrote a public letter quitting in disgust over the City’s bridge campaign. “The gall in labelling this campaign as public engagement is breathtaking,” he wrote, adding, “That it is funded from the public engagement budget is outrageous.”

Over coffee, Mr Farquharson told me that besides the City ignoring its own guidelines, he feels he wasted a good amount of time in a meaningless role. “After 12 to 14 months,” he admitted, “we were still trying to figure out how to get the attention of Mayor and Council.” His committee made submissions to the Government and Priorities Committee via the Mayor on such matters as the downtown core area plan, new zoning regulations, and the Official Community Plan project charter. But they seemed to evaporate into thin air.

Said Farquarson: “If they aren’t interested, then don’t make us jump through hoops…Minimally it’s rude behaviour—when you have a committee of people who are giving up their time, putting their grey matter in gear.”

But the “capper” was the so-called public engagement campaign on the Bridge. Instead of balanced information, he says the City went out and tapped into the fears of an uninformed public—around costs, safety, earthquakes and the like. “Do they not understand they have violated to a shameful degree the principles they themselves endorsed—or are they thinking the only people complaining are a couple of cranks?”

Lest you think Carr and Farquharson are a couple of cranks: Mr Farquharson runs a consultancy business helping organizations develop effective cultures. He also chaired steering committees for both the Gonzales Neighbourhood Plan and the Victoria Greenways Plan. Ms Carr has chaired both the Vic West Community Association’s Land Use Committee and the City’s Advisory Planning Commission. Last civic election, she worked on Mayor Fortin’s election campaign.

For my part, I see so much waste here that it makes me feel queasy. HB Lanarc Consultants spent four months interviewing citizens, stakeholders, City staff, and local “key informants,” resulting in a 94-page report that lays out in detail what needs to be done to build engagement and trust among Victoria’s citizenry. There’s a wealth of good, practical advice in it, from making information easier to access to avoiding role confusion (e.g. clarifying the role of citizen advisory committees such as Mr Farquharson’s) to shifting to two-way dialogues and setting up “wisdom councils.” Let’s not waste the time and money that went into it.

But also, there’s the waste of people and their spirit. Good people like Carr and Farquharson become cynical, wondering why they bother devoting so much time and energy to the City. At a time when we face many expensive challenges, we need such people to be paying attention and speaking up. They deserve our encouragement.

Leslie Campbell wishes you all a joyfully engaged 2011. You can download the above-mentioned report at www.victoria.ca/residents/engaging-our-citizens.shtml. Contact Mr Farquharson at johnfarquharson@telus.net.