The difficulty in finding a balance between public expectations and operational reality in conducting meaningful, useful and relevant consultations about civic projects is displayed in stark detail in the City Auditor’s Public Involvement Audit. The Auditor spends nearly 18 pages of footnoted, academically worded prose to tell us a simple truth: the system is broken.
The City of Edmonton takes its obligations to consult and involve very seriously. There’s even a City Policy. It’s Number C513. You can look it up. And there’s even a detailed set of guidelines that explains how things are supposed to work. That’s called the Involving Edmonton Framework. But it’s not performing as originally envisioned about 10 years ago, when the then Council determined that it had to do a better job of letting Edmontonians know what it was thinking of doing about things like bike-routes, traffic management, LRT expansion and the thousands of other items that affect us all.
Part of the difficulty in assessing whether the policy is effective is that you get a very different answer depending upon whether you ask a member of Council, someone from the Administration or a regular citizen. The Auditor makes the point very early on in his report that the Administration is “compliant with the Policy”. Big deal. The Policy, in essence, says there needs to be consultation, and of course, there is. But it doesn’t achieve what it’s supposed to, and that is leave everyone with the sense that, while the decision may not have gone their way, at least they had a chance to make their case. Now let’s not kid ourselves, this is no easy task. Competing interests, diverse viewpoints, differing experts, multiple agendas, varied stakeholders and good old human nature ensure that there will be plenty of people upset with no matter what decision emerges following a consultation. But we need to do a better job of making the consultation feel more like a consultation and less like an information dump on an ill-informed community. Sitting passively in an audience while someone from the City explains statistics, traffic flow, demographics and financing as the justification for a decision that has already been made is not involvement.
The Auditor’s report pinpoints a number of issues that need to be addressed and Council should act swiftly to address all these items either one at a time or, more appropriately, with a comprehensive review of both Policy C513 and its companion framework document. The expectations among Council, Administration and the public are all different, both in terms of what actually is a consultation, how such a consultation should be conducted, and what such a consultation should produce as a result. Administration believes “information sharing” to be consultation. Council and the public do not. The public wants a say in everything, it seems, yet barely a third of eligible voters participate in the biggest consultation of all, the civic election. Subject matter experts often lead a consultation effort, but if the crowd gets agitated, they have no skills or experience in getting things under control. These kinds of deficiencies can be fixed. They must be fixed.
But there’s one important aspect of consultation that wasn’t addressed in the report. Time. Inserting a properly functioning and useful public consultation process into the time line for any project will expand the time it takes to go from idea to implementation. But it’s time we have to spend. We need time to establish and operate the consultative process. More time to crystallize that consultation into meaningful input. More time to produce a report that Council can evaluate in its deliberations. It’s going to take longer to make decisions, but I expect we’ll get better decisions as a result.
Now some will argue that things that are obvious should just get done, and forget the burden of a rigourous consultative process. And there may be some validity in that, but we found out through the Auditor’s report that “experts” often don’t know everything about the impact an “obvious” decision will have on the affected community. We saw that with the discussion of surplus school sites. It’s obvious that these lands are civic resources and the first priority should be to re-purpose them as civic assets. While waiting for Council to act, the community had transformed the vacant sites into park space or temporary sports fields. The experts determined the sites should be converted to civic functions such as fire halls or affordable housing. And while that would be in keeping with civic policy, community residents felt they were being deprived of a facility they had come to rely on and appreciate. How would you like to facilitate a meeting where the Administration was telling the residents that their soccer field was going to become a seniors’ residence?
So Council faces a pretty big problem here. We need a new policy and a new methodology to direct our future public involvement process to ensure we engage the citizenry, give them a chance to provide input and perspective. And vent if they want to. But we also need to apply what the experts tell us on certain matters. And we need to balance the good of the entire City with the specific demands of our wards. And then there are the money questions. And you can’t make everybody happy. I look forward to the first round of consultations on the new consultation policy.