The time is nigh for public engagement
by David A. Walden
Editor’s note: This article is in response to Bob Brocklebank’s invitation in his Viewpoint article (Glebe Report, March 14, 2014) to share opinions on improving public participation in civic issues.
I don’t know if it was intentional or accidental that Bob Brocklebank’s viewpoint article, “Your city listens – or pretends to …,” appeared opposite Brian Mitchell’s article, “Preparing for Lansdowne Traffic,” in the March edition of the Glebe Report.
For those who may not remember, in his article, Bob Brocklebank traced the decline of citizen consultation in Ottawa during the past decade. Brian Mitchell provided a very current example of how City of Ottawa bureaucrats rationalized ignoring a public petition, submitted in accordance with established procedures, asking to reduce existing parking times on streets in proximity to the revitalized Lansdowne Park. The reason given was that the on-street parking spaces would be needed for parking during football games. According to the Ottawa RedBlacks website, there will be nine home games this year.
“This case does illustrate what happens when
municipal officials seek, but don’t understand, the purpose or value of public input.”
As outlined in both articles, it seems that forms of citizen input were encouraged – and then ignored – by City employees and elected officials. It was also suggested that “public engagement” is currently part of the lexicon of officials and councillors alike, and might even be part of official City of Ottawa policy, but has never been implemented. Public engagement means different things to different people, but fundamental to the concept is ongoing community involvement in decision-making through dialogue, transparency and accountability. It is an active process that involves the identification of stakeholders, information about the impact of the intended action or decision, communication during implementation, and reporting and follow-up upon completion. In all its forms, public engagement should include a promise to the public to at a minimum keep it informed, and in the best of all scenarios, empowerment of the public by implementing what it recommended.
Public engagement therefore goes beyond traditional public consultations whereby advice or input is sought about a specific proposal and where city officials and/or politicians passively listen to citizens’ concerns.
A quick search of the Internet immediately demonstrates that many cities across Canada – Oakville, Edmonton and Kelowna, for example – and some provinces such as British Columbia and Newfoundland and Labrador have adopted official public engagement policies. According to its website, effective December 10, 2013, the City of Ottawa has also approved a public engagement strategy “to effectively and consistently engage with residents on issues that affect them,” but as the two articles in the March Glebe Report suggest, it has done little or nothing to implement it.
The March 19, 2014 Ottawa Citizen included a sidebar story (page A10) entitled “Man arrested for talking too long at civic meeting” that tells of a Michigan man who was arrested after he refused to stop talking past the three-minute time limit for public comment at a meeting of the Bridgeport Township council. While this may be an extreme case, and it was not reported whether Bridgeport Township has a public engagement policy, this case does illustrate what happens when municipal officials seek, but don’t understand, the purpose or value of public input.
To be both meaningful and successful, public engagement must be more than a policy that is forgotten as soon as it is approved. One hopes the City of Ottawa will both revive and abide by its strategy for public engagement, as it is clear that the public is ready, willing – and perhaps demanding – to be engaged.
Glebe resident David A. Walden is a consultant in international organizations and governance with an interest in stakeholder engagement and community relations. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Your city listens – or pretends to…
By Bob Brocklebank
Residents of Ottawa are regularly invited to attend meetings or send comments to the City. Both city officials and ordinary citizens have started to ask how effective such initiatives are. Some residents have said that consultation is meaningless – that the decisions are all taken in advance and residents’ comments are ignored.
“Engagement” is the current buzzword used in discussing the way citizens and their government interact. As far back as December 2010 at the very first meeting of the present Ottawa City Council, a motion was adopted calling on city staff to “conduct an in-depth review of public engagement and report back through the Governance Renewal Sub-Committee, with a target date of the end of Q2 2011.”
Some seven years earlier, in October of 2003, the council of that day had adopted a policy on public participation. The concept was that “community feedback is valued and used to further develop and deliver programs, services and policies in the City.” According to the 2003 decision, a list of principles was to govern how the city and its citizens would work together. A roundtable on public engagement was to be established to guide the implementation of the principles in the city’s activities.
Somehow the 2003 decision got lost in the flood of other responsibilities that faced the municipality. As a result, development of a pool of best practices for engaging citizens was never implemented and funding for the roundtable on public engagement was never secured.
“Some residents have said that consultation is meaningless – that the decisions are all taken in advance and residents’ comments are ignored.”
Thus, many observers of the 2010 municipal scene were pleased to see that public engagement, having been left aside for seven years, was attracting interest from members of the new council. However, time seems to have to flown by and the Governance Renewal Sub-Committee has met only occasionally. (To be fair, that sub-committee did deal with the introduction of the lobbyist registry, so it can take credit for some achievements.) Although Council’s motion called for a report by June 2011, it was only in 2013 that any sign of activity could be detected. An outsider can only guess at the cause of the delay, but one possibility is that the “hot potato” was passed around in the city bureaucracy for two years because no one wanted to touch it.
Nonetheless, in the spring of 2013, meetings were held around the city, at which citizens were asked to share good and bad examples of interaction with the City. The City staff took notes and the press began to refer to this process as “consultations on consultation.” In this initial phase, it became clear that the project was only to deal with the relationship between citizens and members of City staff. Discussion of citizens’ engagement with elected officials or of the relationship of City staff to members of Council was clearly beyond the scope of the study. Finally a report calling for a public engagement “strategy” was delivered for consideration at the December 3 meeting of FEDCO (Council’s Finance and Economic Development Committee). The report made reference to the experience of other cities, but cited nothing specific that could be adopted in Ottawa. It indicated that guidelines and a toolkit for employees would be developed, but little detail was provided.
Complaints heard in spring consultations were duly reported, but ironically had no impact on the way this report was handled. One complaint was that information was provided to the public with insufficient time to allow for a thoughtful response. For this report, as for most reports to Council, the public (and probably Councillors as well) was granted access to the report only six days prior to the meeting in question.
Groups already active in engaging with the City (such as the Federation of Citizens’ Associations (FCA), the city-wide umbrella group for community associations) were concerned about the report and spoke up at the FEDCO meeting. They were pleased that a report had come forward at last but had expected much more. Some Councillors on FEDCO indicated their surprise that their role in representing the public did not figure in the report, but the only change they introduced was to require that public input be conveyed in its raw form, unedited, to elected officials. At full Council, the report was adopted without debate.
The FCA has decided to monitor the implementation of the public engagement “strategy” closely, to assess whether implementation is proceeding as promised and whether the City’s engagement practices have improved. For many activists, an initiative that began in 2013 with promise ended the year under a shadow of cynicism.
How well do you think City officials or Councillors listen to public concerns? Should anything be done to improve matters? Could this topic become an issue in the autumn municipal election campaign? Readers of the Glebe Report are invited to share their opinions on improving public participation in civic issues. Send in your letters to the editor or, if many are interested, we could incorporate your views in a subsequent article.
Bob Brocklebank is an engaged member of the Glebe community and is currently the GCA representative on the FCA.