Sunday, August 9, 2015

Public Consultation - How Can We Get the Best Bang for Our Buck?

This past Thursday I took a tour of Ward 3 with the Director of Planning and Development.  We were looking at the various recreational sites that the ward has to offer (not many), and also at some of the problem areas - vacant lots, abandoned houses - that are scattered throughout the area.

The director plans to hold public meetings in each ward to get a sense of the needs in each area on a wide array of topics - everything from crime to roads to garbage pick-up to recreational facilities.  The output of these meetings would then guide the development of the official community plan.

I understand the potential value of public meetings.  They give people a chance to voice their concerns about the issues where they live.  They give the people who are directly affected by the decisions being discussed some input into those decisions.  They provide a broader perspective, and in some cases, an under-represented perspective, to the people drafting the plans.  Although people don't like to acknowledge it, the unfortunate fact is that not many people in the higher levels at city hall live in Midtown or the East or West Flats, and likely have a bit of an unconscious bias about the actual wants and needs of the people who live there.  And finally, those people who feel that they have been a part of the process will also help to support it with the broader population.

However, there are those who discount the value of public meetings, pointing out that they tend to draw relatively small numbers.  Two recent meetings, about a splash park and playground equipment,one in the East Hill and one in the West Hill, had fewer than twenty people at each.  Considering the amount of time and effort that goes into organizing and running such meetings, that's a pretty high cost per participant.

So how do we get people out, and make sure that we get valuable input?  I think that giving the meeting focus helps.  On the other hand, you don't want too much focus.  Perhaps the splash park meeting was too focused - it might have given the impression that a decision had been made.  On the other hand, thinking that you're going to be able to have meaningful discussions on everything in one evening is being more than slightly ambitious.

I think that a more productive approach for the ward meetings that are being proposed for the fall would be to have a series of meetings, with a focus subject for each meeting.  Perhaps one to discuss safety concerns, another to discuss infrastructure issues, another for recreational opportunities.  An initial meeting could be held to gauge the interest in each topic, and subsequent meetings scheduled for topics with the greatest interest.  Another advantage of more focused meetings would be that only those administrative staff who are directly involved would have to attend.  This would also give people the opportunity to spread the word.  People in attendance at the first meeting could tell their friends and neighbours - "Hey, you've been concerned about the state of the tennis courts.  You should come to the meeting when they're going to talk about recreational opportunities in the ward."  As they say, word of  mouth is the best way to advertise.

Partnering with groups in the area to spread the word is also something we should try.  I suggested to the director that, rather than have the Ward 3 meeting at Midtown Hall, we should have it at Riverside School instead.  The active parents' group there could give us a lot of help, both in publicizing the meeting and in providing us advice on when good times for meetings are.  And I'm a big fan of direct advertising through mail drops - not everybody is on social media or reads the paper.

Our responsibility is to be sure that we have the appropriate base line information at these meetings.  I'm not talking about what we think should happen, but more information about what we currently have, or know.  The focus of the meeting should be on listening, not on talking and presenting our ideas.

I think that public consultation is an excellent forum for communication.  It gives residents the opportunity to voice their concerns and give their ideas.  And it lets residents know that we don't have all the answers, but that together, we think that we can come up with better ideas than we can working on our own.

"Men often oppose a think merely because they have had no agency in planning it, or because it may have been planned by those whom they dislike." - Alexander Hamilton

No comments: