FCA submission to FEDCO - Public Engagement Strategy
Public engagement and consultation is a topic we take very seriously. The FCA has public engagement in civic affairs as its first objective in its by-laws.
In the spring, representatives of various community associations attended meetings on the topic of public engagement. The FCA worked with the City to organize a meeting on April 17 specifically directed to community groups. We pressed our city partners for their notes on our consultation and published the results on our website. Then in late September, several of us attended what was termed a “validation session”.
Late Tuesday of last week, the public (and I expect members of this Committee) were allowed to see the documentation prepared for this meeting. By coincidence we held our general meeting last night and had an opportunity to discuss the report.
That discussion was heated. Some asked why a report on consultations prepared in late August had to remain secret until late November. Others asked why we have a report indicating that thirty-three ideas were received through an online “ideas campaign” but not a single idea was revealed for consideration. Finally many asked why it was not possible to provide the public (and Councillors) with more than six days to review the recommendations.
After all this is not a new issue for Ottawa. The City of Ottawa adopted a Public Participation Policy in 2003 and it was to establish a Roundtable on Citizen Engagement. The roundtable was never created and the policy proved to be dead on arrival. At its first meeting on December 8, 2010, this Council adopted its Governance Review plan including a motion calling for “an in-depth review of public engagement” with a report by the end of the second quarter of 2011. Somehow this topic has taken much longer than expected.
Against that background our meeting was badly split. Some argued that half a loaf is better than none. At last we have something and public engagement is on the agenda. Others said that the report is so devoid of meaning that FEDCO should reject the report
and ask for more. A committee of volunteers from the FCA is willing to come up with an alternative proposal by the end of February.
What were our concerns? First there is no policy. There is a possibility that guidelines and a toolkit will be developed. Our members think that a policy is what the City should do. A guideline is what might be nice to do but it is a mere statement of good intentions. We have had statements of good intentions for years. They have proven to be meaningless.
In any event we have no indication of what might be in the guidelines and toolkit.
Should Council not be given some insight before approving this proposal? It is intended to implement improvements step-by-step. That is fine, but there is no indication that the public, or this committee for that matter, will receive regular reports on progress. We hoped that a champion to press these changes forward would be identified by now. There are oblique references to commonly understood concepts in this field, such as the idea of a spectrum of consultation. In our view, this idea, promoted by the International Association on Public Participation and widely accepted by governments throughout North America, should have been explicitly presented to Council for its consideration and approval.
It is said the experience of other cities has been considered. We believe that Councillors should have been told what was learned. Consider Edmonton Alberta. Edmonton has a public engagement champion who oversees that city’s experience. There the City Manager requires that all public engagement activity be conducted through a standardized corporate software program, allowing experience from one department to benefit another. There are brochures and web pages explaining to the public what they should expect from public engagement. What’s good for the capital of Alberta might be worth considering here.
In Ottawa, public engagement is only described as an activity by city employees, not by elected officials. Surely the contrary is true. There is no conflict between representative democracy and participatory democracy.
In summary, we are disappointed to read this report. If you truly believe this is best that can be done, go ahead and approve it. Or possibly you share the view of our members. ie. You believe this report is too modest and needs improvement before being recommended to full Council. If so, we would be happy to work with the City in making such improvement.