More on public participation

Here are some comments from David Daniels  on the draft participation plan. He describes it as a “running commentary” on the two documents. The comments are  page by page and therefore won’t make sense without reference to the documents You can access the documents in PDf via the link or obtain a paper copy at Town Hall.

Public Engagement Framework:
page 1:
Background- >>> para 2: How much is the interactive website actually used.  My experience is that few people place comments on the website.  If so, why is that?  Could improvements be made to make placing comments easier?   And make it easier to read comments.  Perhaps the website could have a category which is clear on the home page that says something like:  “what your neighbours are saying” and then have the comments divided by subject.

>>>> it says “notices to all homes about public meetings”  If by this you mean placing notices in mail boxes for “public meetings” this is not accurate.  Almost all meeting are “public meetings”.  My experience is that notices about particular meetings which the public will have the ability to participate at the meetings are the ones that have individual notices.  There are only  few of these town wide meetings a year.  Meetings concerning planning require individual notices.

>>>> There is mention of “limited resources” throughout the documents.  I may address this wider issue.

>>>> Method Summary

>>>> I would refer to the discussion in this section to be at a “meta-level”.  That is, it is talking about the process of drafting the PPAC policy.

>>>> I have two questions/comments about this.  First, was it necessary to explain how the policy was written.  Second, you limit this meta-discussion.  So, for example, you did not discuss why consultants were used and how they were chosen.  Of more concern was what was done with the suggestions/comments received from the interviews the consultants had with individuals.  Were all the members of the Working Group given information about all the suggestions, or were they pre-screened?

>>>> My point here is that if you are going to discuss how the policy was written, then how do you decide what to include and what to exclude from your description of the process.

>>>> Page 2: >>> “research was conducted to gain an understanding of international best practices . . .”  There was no reason to hire consultants to do this.  What ideas from non-Canadian municipalities have been added?  It may have been more worthwhile to spend time “on the ground” to investigate how decisions were made in Wolfville.  What is missing from the analysis is to see how public participation has occurred in the past.  Compare the MPS where the public was engaged, yet not particularly well informed in the early process, versus decision on Central Avenue and Town Centre, where there was little public communication and virtually no opportunity for public input, at least in the latter stages of the project.

>>> Page 3: >>> >>> Guiding Principles:  “Communicate  how public input will be used”  The extension of this is to show where possible how public input was used.  That is, show how decisions made address public input  or say where input/questions were not followed in the actual decisions made.

>>> There is nothing so far in the document that describes/analyses the informal methods of residents’ participation, eg. the Grapevine.  Rather than spend time looking at international best practices, time should have been spent with outreach to those who do not participate.

>>> Where you can provide input >>>  When to engage the public:  “There is interest from potential participants to get involved”.  This is a chicken and egg issue.  Perhaps no participation because no engagement.

>>> Page 4.   >>> Under “Questions regarding . . .” and How? Place information in the local library.

>>> Under express and opinion and How:  I do not find the “comment” section on the the Town’s website so easily accessible.

>> Page 6:>>>> Public Communication

>> Para 1:  “For example,  . . .  This statement is unnecessary, and in my experience, and I suspect in the experience of many townspeople, the obverse is the case.  That is, the Town has in the past done a poor job in communicating with the public.

>> Para 3:  Town provides an excellent website.  Whether or not the Town’s website is “excellent” is beside the point.  The real question is how often it is used to post comments.  My observation is that few actually post comments in general or about particular issues.  If my observation is correct, then why not? and how could it be improved.

>> 1.2  I would have hoped that this Objective would have been part of the present study–out reach should have been done as part of preliminary investigation and not just as a future goal.

>> Goal 2:  It might useful to know the paths of communication that are not part of the governmental structure.

>> 2.4  What “criteria” is being referred to here.

>> Page 7 >> 2.5  The template at page 11 of the Toolkit has sections for Benefits and Disadvantages of Request for Decisions.  What about explaining to the public after the decision has been made, the reasons for the Council deciding one way or another.  This may not be doable for all decisions, but perhaps on major decisions.  So, for example, “The Council (or the majority of Council) concluded that the project should go forward because of the  . . . .”

>> Public Participation: >> >> Para 1:  last sentence:  “It is not always . . .”  The above comment on 2.5 may in part deal with this issue.  Explaining the reasons for a decision, might include enumeration of the comments/input received from the public.

>> Para 3:  Explain what W’s unique conditions

>> Page 8: >> >> 6.2:  This should have been accomplished at the outset by the Working Group and consultants and not now be left as a future goal/objective.  I recall raising this very issue early in the process.  Were any of these “under-represented” individuals interviewed?

>> Roles and Responsibilities: >> >> point 3: Rather than monitor “public engagement policies and Framework” attempt to monitor actual public participation.

>> Page 9: >> >> “Engage in positive, constructive communication . . .”

>> I have concerns about by whom and how the terms “positive, constructive” are defined.   Many of my comments, including this one, might be viewed as “not positive” and just “critical”.    What some would call “destructive” or “negative” I might call making sure the government does what it is supposed to.  If a member of the public just plain disapproves of a decision made by the Council, does that make the communication “negative?”

>> Look at the definition of Public Participation at page “any process that involves the public in problem-solving or decision making and that uses public input to make better decisions.”  There is no reference that public participation only includes that which is “positive” and “constructive”.

>> Finally, I am concerned about the legality of this sort of standard.  If you are going to permit an open forum, then there may be limits which the government can place on the content of the communication.  And if you try to limit what can and cannot be said, versus, a time and place limit, then vague standards such as “positive” and “constructive” may not be appropriate.


>> Page 1: >> I.  Para 1:  One could argue that participation is itself a goal worth achieving.

>> Para 2:  The question below  . . .”  This approach to “public participation” is very formalized and perhaps unnecessary.  All decisions should be open to public participation.  What should be said is that only particular projects/decisions will trigger more formal steps.

>> “Do we have a least three months. . . .”  Again, all decisions should be subject to some PP, just some might be subject to extra.

>> “Is Council . . .”  What is the “traditional approach”.  Might give egs. in the past to make this clear.

>> Page 2: Para 2:  This should have been part of the initial study.

>> Page 3: >> No. 2:  Why go through the steps/trouble of figuring out the particular purpose .  All PP involves some or all of these purposes.  Will it matter if ony 1, 2 or a few purposes exist for a particular project/decision.  PP still should be done.

>> “Level of involvement”  Why try to answer this question.  Just do it.

>> Page 5: >> Distribution.  Grapevine, Post Office, Library.

>> Make meetings of Council available in MP3 or podcast form.  Rebroadcasting on local radio.

>> Page 7:  Information requests.  Give examples when request too much for staff.

>> RFD:  >> Have another section for “public comments” when feasible”

> Finally, a comment on a theme that runs through the documents and may not be particular to this overall project: that is, the lack of staff resources.  There are numerous references to the fact that the goal, the proposed actions may be subject to staff time.  This raises two issues: first staff resources need to be prioritized.  Public Participation is a fairly high goal.  Second, and more general, staff resources are stretched because of all the things they do.  It might be worthwhile to step back and ask: why is the Town doing so much? is it doing too much?  I told and asked the consultants in my meeting with them that from what I could see  the Mayor and Councilors work very hard and perhaps too hard.  I have no doubt that the staff often, if not always, has too much on its plate.  Perhaps increasing public participation/engagement is one way to deal with these issues.


3 responses to “More on public participation

  1. I read this latest “Public Engagement Plan” about a week ago. My reaction was, what a load of pointless long-winded hoopla. All the consultants and all the bureaucrats and all their baffling procedures are simply an expensive firewall to ensure that Council hears what it wants to hear and a foil for those that Council prefers not to hear. And that is also why you won’t find a bunch of creative ideas and thoughtful analyses posted upon the Council website.

    When a politician says “communication” they really mean “controlling the message”. “Public participation” is code for “citizen management” and “please inflate my ego”. In short, Council speaks with a forked tongue. A very expensive forked tongue.

    • We can’t disagree. That has been the experience of many residents in dealing with the Town so far. Can a few expensive consultants change the character of our masters? We are not optimistic.

  2. OK, my previous comment was a bit on the negative side. Taking my cue from David, I have sent the following constructive suggestions to the Town website:

    I thought we had elections to elect people who would represent the views of citizens?

    Surely a citizen, or group of citizens, can simply write or speak to some subset of the elected representatives?

    Please don’t waste time and money hiring consultants and writing reams of unfathomable bureaucratic procedure? I find it ironic that the scientific method, surely the most potent human invention, can be accurately summed up in a few quick sentences… yet the rules of governance are an unending quagmire.

    Please, toss aside procedure and doctrine. Debate and act upon submissions according to their merit, relevance, and cost:benefit ratio… whatever.

    Of course, participation is a two-way street. If Council ever feels a need for my analysis of some matter, all they need do is drop me a line. Just don’t ask me to sit around a “community circle”… we all have different styles, you know.