There is perhaps nothing quicker to cure the average person’s insomnia than to engage them in a long discussion about municipal affairs. For a lot of people, their understanding of municipal government and the services provided is fairly slim to marginal, most likely escaping notice except when the property taxes go up or an essential service is suddenly not available. Also, given a recent spate of scandals in some municipalities, this resulted in what some may call a protest vote that introduced new faces on local councils. The “throw the bums out” vote is indeed a sign of life in citizen engagement, but what happens after that? And, how can we encourage more citizen engagement that need not just be about the negative?
There are strategies councils can adopt to increase citizen engagement and participation - the latter of which is key to sustaining or improving volunteerism. Some strategies work better than others. For example, posting notice of a public meeting is a good step to demonstrate an elected council’s transparency and accountability, but if it is a notice posted only on the municipality website, it may as well be announced from the bottom of the sea. Announcements of this kind should be made where people naturally congregate, and where they prefer to obtain their information. It isn’t a guarantee that everyone will be paying attention, but it has a much better chance of reaching more people. Some councils maintain a Facebook page and email lists to make good use of the digital communication venues. As some residents are not as digitally connected, it is necessary to supplement digital communication with paper copy notices in a mail-out.
But it cannot just be posting notices of meeting. Updates in general can be a good means of informing citizens of what council has been doing, and these should be prepared like a compelling narrative - not in the dry procedural language so common to Robert’s Rules of Order. Telling the story of what council has been doing, what it is currently considering, and what it plans to do is a good way to place issues at the forefront of people’s attention.
Communication works both ways. Simply broadcasting to the public is not enough. Soliciting input and participation on key issues that matter to residents is vital feedback. Inviting local experts to participate on council-created standing committees can also enrich expertise and understanding on key issues. In the changing landscape of municipalities, it is essential to make the public more part of the discussion, and in ways that are much more substantial than casting a ballot every four years.
There will always be residents who complain about taxes. That has always been since the invention of taxes, and will most likely always will be the case. Although it may not appease everyone, “explainers” may be useful here. A lot of people simply see a rate increase and do not fully understand why the increase was necessary. Showing how the increase was calculated should be tied to the real costs of the services residents use. For example, it could be partly because of a hockey arena many residents enjoy that is in dire need of renovations to be brought up to code, or a new zamboni is needed, or the cost of utilities is going up. It should be understood that costs increase to maintain the same level of service year after year. Facilities get worn out, machines break down, utility costs increase, and so does labour costs. It is much more dangerous for municipal government to hold to unrealistic campaign promises of zero tax increases since it simply kicks the can down the road, and some future council will have no choice but to raise taxes. In some cases, a slight tax increase to keep certain services, facilities, and equipment in working order is an ounce of prevention rather than a pound of cure (full replacement, for example, which may cost more than simply making repairs and adjustments). "Explainers" go some distance in appeasing "complainers."
And even an explainer does not make things so easy. Councils have an obligation to set priorities that benefit the maximum number of residents while deferring or declining to factor in some asks in the budget. However, an explainer can, indeed, explain the reasoning behind the sticker shock of a tax increase.
Public input on major decisions is vital to the process, and this is why a strategic plan as a blueprint for change ideally ought to solicit the input of the public. Strategic plans are necessary in informing the official plan, which can be considered the municipal mandate required by the province.
Citizen engagement is more than just electing representatives on council; however, some citizens may feel that there are barriers - real or perceived - that discourage them from participating and engaging. It is important to identify possible barriers and develop a strategy for removing them. Accessibility to public spaces where discussions are happening is a must, but so are the ways in which discussion unfolds - nothing fortifies a barrier and damages good will than to dismiss what a resident says, calling it unfeasible or silly. Obviously, being patronizing or monopolizing the conversation is a big no-no. There are going to be suggestions by the public that are, in fact, absolutely unfeasible for whatever reasons (provincial rules, budgetary constraints, bylaws, jurisdictional boundaries), but there is a way of informing the public in a diplomatic, polite, and fair way where the public’s input is considered valued - even if no action can be taken on the suggestion.
PUBLIC INPUT IS SACRED
Not only is public input an incredibly valuable asset politically, but it should also be treated with maximum respect and consideration. It is not always easy to get members of the public to talk about municipal issues for several reasons, such as lack of interest, lack of understanding, or real and perceived barriers. Once the public feels confident to speak up, any mistreatment of that trust is liable to losing that valuable input. Active listing is essential to the process, and that also means not foreclosing on possibilities.
ENGAGEMENT IS INTEREST
Once a multi-prong engagement strategy is in place for implementation, it is no secret that successful engagement has to focus on what the public is actually interested in. There are some fairly nuanced discussions about things that the general public have no understanding or interest in. The fine minutiae about manhole covers may not be the most “engaging” of topics. However, start talking about introducing or enhancing public transportation networks, extending walking trails, or renovating a community centre to meet new needs, and this will get people talking. Most people will respond actively when an issue is something they perceive to be of personal stake.
KEEP IT POSITIVE
There are times when public consultations can get off the rails, quickly becoming a clearinghouse of angry complaint. Some light facilitation can circumvent this by keeping the discussions positive. There is not much sense in dwelling on past actions that cannot be undone, or reopening old wounds to settle a score. Focus instead on the “go-forward basis.” Facilitation can include posing some guiding questions while keeping the discussion open-ended. For example, something like “I had a terrible experience with your staff trying to sever a piece of land,” this can be refocused into a question of “what can we do better, and how can we achieve it?” Finger-pointing is not constructive, and so statements such as “previous council failed to do x” or “we missed an opportunity a decade ago for the province to subsidize a ring road, and now look where we are” are not constructive go-forward statements.
I’ve recently been introduced to the NOW/LATER model of consultation and facilitation whereby stakeholders on council, management, staff, and the public can come to consensus on what the community ought to do now, and what it can reasonably put off until later. To give such meetings an additional sense of satisfaction for all involved, agreeing to timelines will be a source of reassurance. For every proposal for change there should be an ACTION and a TIMELINE for delivery. Having management and staff present for these discussions is important since they can speak directly to the feasibility of whatever is decided in the consultation, and recommend adjustments as befitting staffing and budgetary resources. It is also very important to limit the number of action items so as not to dilute focus, and being mindful that an elected council may not be able to achieve everything in a four year mandate.
WHERE ARE THE PEOPLE?
As French philosopher Gilles Deleuze once remarked, “the people are missing.” In municipal matters this need not be the case. Inviting people to attend council meetings is a good step, but not the only one. Keep in mind that council meetings might occur at times that are inconvenient for the public, such as when they are at work. It is also not the most comfortable environment for some people to freely express themselves. The formal aspects of a council meeting can also make input feel like a non-event: an issue is raised by council, the public is invited to respond, and there is no response from council. There are much better and naturally fluid ways to have dialogue that a formal meeting cannot accommodate. For that reason, it is important for council members to reach out to their constituents and physically go to where the people naturally congregate, on their “home turf,” to so speak.
* A successful citizen engagement strategy should aim for the following statements to be true:
We are listening
What you say matters
We will keep the discussion going for as long as it takes
We will aim for consensus
Constructive change will result
Community interest is the top priority