The B-Line protests earlier this year were an indication of yet another failed community engagement process. By West Vancouver standards a protest that sees 90-year-olds out stopping traffic (albeit very politely) is akin to anarchy. What motivated such a radical response?
Regardless of your opinion of the B-line itself – whether you think it’s a good idea or not – the underlying (and unifying) issue is the process itself, which left many feeling their concerns had been ignored or overlooked.
Local governments should strive to make it as easy as possible for the public to be informed, engaged and provide their input, but time and time again this is made unduly and unnecessarily challenging. When community engagement silences rather than highlights and addresses areas of public concern, we all lose.
There are a number of steps that can be taken to improve community engagement in West Vancouver. I’m going to focus on just one: We need to replace many of the ubiquitous “open house” community information sessions with “town-hall” type meetings. In my opinion, Open House/Information Sessions are more about managing rather than soliciting public opinion.
I am not alone in this viewpoint, but it seems no matter how often the public expresses dislike of the “open house” format as a means of community engagement, it remains the District’s preferred approach. You have probably attended an open house/information session. Some displays are set up and attendees wander through, and often there are “experts” available to talk to. Information provided by these experts may differ depending on who asked or who answered the question. Attendees rarely learn the questions posed by others or the answers they received. For instance, at the recent open houses held for the B-Line, there was no means for the participants to capture public comments and/or opinion. Not so much as a blank piece of paper to jot down comments or questions!
I don’t believe it’s a stretch to connect public frustration (as evidenced by the B-Line rally) to the systemic limitations of the “open house” process. Without proper capture and sharing of public comments and questions, this format is merely about promoting a pre-determined message and has nothing to do with actual consultation.
At best, those staffing the event report a few comments back to Council or earnestly tell participants that “we are listening to you.” This mirrors the W.V. Guidance document on Community Outreach and Engagement which lists “inform” as the lowest type of engagement and defines it as follows: “This is one–way sharing of information about a District plan, project or policy decision. It has been determined by the decision maker or project lead that all aspects of the plan, project or policy have been decided and community input is not required. The District provides the community and/or stakeholders with information about a project or decision in order to raise awareness and create understanding.”
Now I could nit-pick that “sharing” is not ever supposed to be “one-way” but I will agree there are occasions when community input is not required and one-way information may be appropriate. For instance, minor issues or ones that do not lend themselves to alternate solutions (such as the replacement of a damaged sewer line) would be good examples.
However, for many issues, particularly ones that involve significant changes, the community expects to have both input and genuine influence on important decisions. For these, the community wants and deserves processes that cannot silence their concerns, but rather highlight and address them. Such a process should include town-hall type meetings. I say town-hall “type” as there is no need to hold a town-hall meeting in an actual town hall (city hall, municipal hall, etc.). In fact, they are more appropriately held in neutral community space such as a church basement, library or school gym. The format is simple: presenters – designated subject matter specialists – provide information to those in attendance, followed by a question-and-answer session. This is about as direct as democracy can get.
Town-hall sessions can be age-friendly for those hearing, mobility, visually or cognitively impaired. Attendees usually get to sit while they hear and see the same information at the same time. Everyone hears the questions posed and the answers provided. Slides are magnified on a large screen and can also be provided on print handouts, as well as online. Speakers have microphones allowing all to hear. A summary of the presentation, questions, and answers should be compiled for public record and available for those unable to attend. Attendees get to hear differing concerns and viewpoints, a first step to developing collaborative solutions. The meetings need not be expensive as special “consultants” are not needed, just some subject matter specialists.
Most importantly, public concerns are not silenced, but instead they are highlighted. The consultant hired by the District of West Vancouver when they revamped their Public Involvement Policy heard the community wanted town-hall meetings as an alternative to the ubiquitous “open houses”, but to no avail. I am skeptical when municipal staff claim town-halls are cumbersome because they constitute a “special council meeting”. The cynic in me thinks that for some it is the fear of direct democracy, especially if it may deter their preferred outcome. Only when public concerns and opinions can be easily voiced and shared can we begin to consider options and determine the best solution