Modernizing participation in civic government: Part I

Post by Daniel Fontaine in

6 comments

horse and buggy
Vancouver's horse and buggy citizen engagement process needs to be modernized

About a week ago, I contacted Laurie Best to discuss how technology could improve citizen engagement in Vancouver. Best is the former Director of Communications for the City of Vancouver (as well as spouse of Vision Vancouver operative Brent Humphrey) and is now working on a two year project to upgrade their award winning website. According to documents we received through a Freedom of Information request, Ms. Best will not be returning to her former post and will be working in this gig until the latter part of 2011. As for what she’ll do after that, “I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it” states Best.

It was the Mayor’s recent F-bomb and open disdain for members of the public who came to speak to him at council that inspired me to think about how technology and procedural changes would allow for better citizen engagement at City Hall. The first phase of Best’s project is geared toward finding better ways to display and organize the 60,000 or so pages that make up the City’s website. Best is open about the fact that her two year project is unlikely to result in any significant changes in the way council engages the public on major policy issues.

Unlike previous council’s, the current one dominated by Vision Vancouver has quickly earned a reputation for being less than enthused about having to sit through long public meetings and listen to citizen concerns. Is the criticism fair, or is it that we simply have the wrong model for engaging the public? When I worked as Chief of Staff to the former Mayor, I joked with him about how cities have a horse and buggy citizen engagement system and a wired, tech savvy citizenry. Most city halls, including major cities like Vancouver, have yet to catch up to the reality that most people are interested in civic government, but are not prepared to sit around in the corridors for 7-8 hours in order to get their 5 minutes before council.

In Vancouver, if you want to speak to council on any particular issue, please follow this makeshift A-Z guide:

First, you need to check Vancouver's website every day to see if a new report on a particular issue is coming before council. The reason you need to check every day is because of something called "late reports". These are reports that are posted on the website at the last minute. They are normally slipped onto the agenda with little fanfare to help guarantee the least amount of public input as possible.

You then need to hope that the issue will be discussed on the date and time indicated on the City’s website. In many cases, the date originally listed is not actually the date of the public hearing. That's right, even though a report may be coming before council on a Tuesday it may be days later before the public gets a chance to speak to it.

Once you have finally confirmed the date, you then need to phone, email, fax or write to the City Clerk’s office and advise them you want to speak on a particular issue. You are then placed on the speakers list on a first-come, first-served basis. If you don’t want to wait any longer than you have to, you’d best call sooner, rather than later.

The next stage is showing up to council at the appropriate date and time indicated by the Clerk as to when the issue will be discussed. If your item is third on the list, and you have a lot of councillors who want to hear themselves speak regarding the first two items, you can expect a long wait. It is not uncommon for some people to wait 8-10 hours in the halls outside the Mayor’s office to get their paltry five minutes before council.

If you can master all the tasks listed above, then hopefully your name will eventually be called and you can proceed with your verbal submission. During your presentation, don't be surprised if the Mayor and his council colleagues (at least in Vancouver anyhow) are checking emails, fiddling with their Blackberry and surfing the web while you make your presentation. In cases such as Councillor David “Carbon” Cadman, they are often not even in the chamber to hear your concerns as they are traveling the world representing Vancouver on your dime.

Overall, the current system can also justly be described as an uneven playing field. While most citizens dutifully pay their property taxes and tend to their properties, a small group of lobbyists (some paid and others unpaid) make it their business to visit City Hall chambers on a regular basis.

I first noticed this a few months into the job back in 2006 when the same people who spoke to one issue, also appeared weeks later to oppose another unrelated city proposal. Then a month later they showed up again...and so on and so on. In other words, it’s a rarity for the average Joe Citizen to show up to council and voice their concerns. Thus, this provides an incredible opportunity for a small group of individuals to punch well above their weight on a number of key policy issues. After all, who has the time to spend several hours waiting to speak to Vancouver's elected officials...only to be ridiculed once you leave the room.

It is worth noting that Council also uses a series of sanctioned committees to provide them with feedback on a myriad of issues. However, each of these committee members are patronage appointments of the government in power and as such they cannot claim to represent the broader public.

It all sounds quite bleak doesn’t it? Hoping that you’re notified of a particular issue. Waiting around for hours in the hope your name gets called. Praying that the elected officials will put their Blackberries down long enough to listen to your well crafted presentation.

The current system sounds eerily similar to something the bureaucrats in a 1950’s Russian Kremlin would have dreamed up. Few would argue that the current system to give council feedback is in dire need of massive reform. In Part II of this series on modernizing citizen engagement, I will delve into how technology may offer a solution to what has become a costly, frustrating and painful exercise in futility for most citizens.

- post by Daniel

6 Comments

EXACTLY

I completed a series of 5 community meetings on issues of consultation and engagement. Working on recommendations to be discussed at community forum in the fall. Results of our meetings similar to those in your article. Looking to develop a framework that is owned by community and City.

It's unfortunate that the City isn't currently considering more online tools for citizen engagement, given that public meetings are so horse-and-buggy for busy people (especially those of us with jobs and children, which for both reasons makes camping out at City Hall or an evening public meeting almost impossible to pull off).

It would be interesting for someone to actually do some research (or find existing research) on how the public prefers to receive information and provide input, rather than always defaulting to public meetings where four people show up. What the City really needs is a professional, modern approach to citizen engagement based on best practices in other cities, not just somebody's hairbrained idea they came up with over beers...

You might want to check out some of the very interesting work and astute observations that Ron Lubensky, a past City staffer, has been carrying out on online deliberation and citizen's assemblies at: http://www.deliberations.com.au/

And also a presentation he recently submitted to the International Conference on Online deliberation at:
http://www.deliberations.com.au/2010/06/online-deliberation-conference-presentation.html

Hi Barinder, I'd sure like to learn more about your recommendations when they're ready if possible.

This is a very timely article by Daniel.

The sad fact is that by the time you actually get to speak to council, the staff have usually already stamped "Recommended" on the report under consideration and in most cases plans are already too far along to change.

t's time for us to reform broken government processes and implement constructive engagement that helps address community concerns by incorporating ameliorative measures into plans before they're approved, thus ensuring better communities while providing more predictability to business.

Communities deserve a say in shaping development in their area and should have input into the horse-trading involved in balancing density, neighbourhood amenities and necessary citywide infrastructure.

Developers need a more predictable, less ad-hoc business environment so they can accurately calculate costs and profits in each project before they've spend millions putting together proposals.

And finally, spot rezonings, often the focus of much citizen ire, are undermining the entire planning process. We need a new CityPlan that offers broad planning and zoning guidelines to help shape our city for the next 125 years.

Important post Daniel. We do need to make the public process more meaningful, efficient & effective. Your comment about the same faces showing up is not new. We saw the same in the 70's. That is one place where the elected representatives of all need to be able to realize these people are having an undue voice & allow for that in their own decision-making. Its' not easy to do. A room full of screaming people is hard to ignore.

Improving the process you speak of is an important part of such a reform. In addition though, particularly for another broken part of the public process, neighbourhood planning, sufficient real data & information must be available to both stakeholders & planners so consensus can be achieved. That does not currently seem to the case.

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