Consultations on “consultation”

BY BOB BROCKLEBANK

Throughout the month of April, the City of Ottawa held meetings and conducted an online survey on the question of public engagement. One might wonder why.

In theory, municipal government is closest to the people. This is supposed to be the level of government at which ordinary citizens can most readily have access to decision-makers and take a direct role in how they are governed. Expectations run high. Citizens want access to their elected representatives, and councillors do faithfully show up at innumerable community meetings. The flow of city information, whether to explain garbage collection or to entreat people to conserve water, is continuous. So what is the issue?

In fact, there is a fair amount of discontent in the community. The phrase “you can’t beat city hall” is batted about.

Complaints take many forms – “they don’t listen;” “they deliberately prevent meaningful discussion;” “it’s all been decided in advance” or “the so-called consultations are just for show.” Among elected officials, there is some acknowledgement of this discontent. At the first meeting of the current council in December 2010, city staff were asked to “conduct an in-depth review of public engagement.” A report was to be produced in the second quarter of 2011. Two years later, the earliest target date for the report is late 2013.

But Ottawa does have a policy on public engagement, as adopted by Council in October 2003. As approved, it consisted primarily of a statement of good intentions, but it also called for a “public participation community of practice” to be established at city hall. There was to be a committee to guide staff in adopting good practices in public engagement, through training and evaluation of city actions. Council also endorsed the establishment of a Roundtable on Citizen Engagement as a means to hear public input on the quality of city consultation. Neither the roundtable nor the community of practice was ever put into place. City staff, who are earnestly working today on the current round of consultations, have been asked about the dead policy from 2003. They make no reference to the past and only speak of the future.

The consultations in April centred around values and principles to guide the relationship between city staff and the public. Much of that material is simply a restatement of the good intentions from 2003. Participants in the consultation sessions were often frustrated by this focus on principles. They felt that they were just endorsing motherhood statements. The city staff countered by saying that many of the comments triggered by the talk around principles have been useful in pointing to specific operational content for the final report.

Frustration at the April meetings was high. It is clear that the current study is limited to the staff–public relationship. Discussion of the relationship between city staff and Council or between the public and Council seems to be out-of-bounds. Many criticisms were levelled at city “open houses.” Usually these events are simply for the public to learn what city staff thinks; staff explain the material being presented but they take no notes on comments made by the public. Participants suggested that the city should clearly distinguish between events that are to inform the public, and events at which the public is invited to share its views and concerns.

Some suggested that consultation with the public is something staff wish to avoid, or that staff engage in only to a minimal degree. One example cited was the city’s rush to adopt a policy on laneways. When asked about public consultation, the staff representative told Council none was undertaken because the law did not require it.

Further concerns about public engagement in the city’s affairs touched on staff reports to council (only one recommendation is presented when there could be a range of options) and the nature of council debate. Some said that they have spoken to council standing committees for their five minutes, but get the impression that councillors have no interest in what is said. The view was expressed that the current council suffers from “an excessive degree of collegiality” in which little real debate takes place and a diversity of views never emerges.

To understand the longer-term significance of this gap between citizens’ expectations about meaningful participation and a city’s institutional capacity to receive and process diverse expressions of interest, people need to step back and look at the bigger picture: We now live in a big city. With the amalgamation of the old municipalities into the new City of Ottawa, this is no longer just the largest town in the Ottawa Valley, but is the second most populous in Ontario. Add in our neighbours in Gatineau and we find we are living in the fourth or fifth largest metropolitan area in the country. The complexity of issues and the delivery of services at the municipal level have undergone substantial changes in scale and volume. Have changes in the political structure kept pace?

In the near term, the April “consultations on consultation” will not be the end of the story. Either there will be meaningful improvement, or disillusionment will deepen.

Bob Brocklebank represents the Glebe Community Association on the Federation of Citizens’ Associations.

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