Faux democracy

Public consultation is a rigged game, a lie designed to mislead and disenfranchise citizens and give cover for public officials to do what they were going to do anyway.

Why do I get nervous whenever government talks about "engaging the public in a conversation about the future?" You hear that talk a lot in HRM. Do they ever get it right?

If they did, communities wouldn't need public demonstrations to be heard. When councillor Sheila Fougere proposed a one-year moratorium on the Chebucto Road widening project, the Chebucto Road Neighbourhood Association and friends showed up in yellow droves, adorned with buttons and signs (which they had to leave outside) touting their new slogan: keep it livable.

They filled HRM council chambers. Some had to wait outside. The rest waited silently through two-and-a-half hours of deliberations before their issue was raised.

Several councillors made arguments in support of Fougere's proposed moratorium. Some thanked the neighbourhood association for being so well-behaved. One of the last councillors to comment was Bill Karsten.

Karsten was kind in his dismissal of the Chebucto residents. He said their love of neighbourhood was laudable. He wondered why they weren't protesting the provincial highway twinning project, which was killing way more trees.

Council rejected the moratorium by a 13-nine vote. Thanks for coming out.

Bad as the outcome was, the process was worse. Karsten was essentially saying that it's the citizen's job to hold the collective political feet to the fire every time they fuck up. That's a full-time job and doesn't pay a cent. Instead of berating citizens over which decisions they fight, aren't politicians supposed to take heed of their concerns?

Public consultations are the a la mode for listening to the masses. But even our busiest and brightest have trouble keeping up with the paperwork.

"When I'm really cynical I think public consultations are a way to keep advocacy groups busy," Christine Saulnier, director of the Nova Scotia branch of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, tells me with a laugh. Saulnier wrote her doctoral dissertation on the question of who is involved in the development of government policy.

"Why is government doing public consultations?" she wonders. "Is it just because they have to? The public consultation process speaks to the broader issue of democracy and government's ability to represent the complexity and diversity of public opinion."

If our public consultation processes indicate the health of our democracy, we're in trouble.

Right slap left slap

In the case of HRM vs people of Chebucto Road, the neighbourhood association has been in constant contact with HRM since residents near the Armdale Rotary received notice of the widening project in December 2005. The decision to widen the road had already been made in response to a closed staff report in May 2004, without any consultation at all.

Two years later, the city finally decided to hire an independent consultant, Phil Grubb of Paradigm Consultants, to review the project, mainly because the issue was threatening support for a Regional Plan that was already three years in the making. " consulted with citizens for one hour and then the rest was with staff," Kevin Moynihan, secretary-treasurer of the neighbourhood association, told me in November. "We were invited to a consultation which involved viewing a 90-minute PowerPoint presentation."

Joe MacDonnell, another resident of Chebucto Road, tells me of the frustration he's experienced in regular conversations with city staff. "I had the sense that the consultation process wasn't a genuine one," he tells me. "It was more of a pretence of consulting."

The Chebucto neighbours were asked to choose which side of the road they wanted widened. "We didn't want either," MacDonnell says. "They both involved people losing property."

"It's like a schoolyard bully asking if you want to be slapped with the left hand or the right hand," Moynihan told me at the time.

Such decisions occupy the mind, provide the illusion of control over one's destiny. In the words of MacDonnell, "It's the appearance of choice. I feel that's kind of worse than doing nothing. I'd rather not be consulted at all than invited into a disingenuous process."

That's the cardinal sin in public consultation, says Paul Pross, professor emeritus at the Dalhousie School of Public Administration. "Anyone managing a consultation process has a commitment to existing policy and may manage the information coming in," he tells me. "Organizers sometimes see consultation as a means to educate the public but, if it is manipulative, the public tends to sense it."

Call Chebucto Road exhibit A, in which public backlash is severe. Exhibit B brings us to the North End Public Library on a Saturday in April, where a presentation on threats to Uniacke Square ends in a series of complaints from north end residents.

Their anger has as much to do with past slights as with future fears. Those in attendance quip on a litany of phony consultations, false choices and broken promises.

"Will I live to see the change we've been promised on Gottingen since I was five years old?" a middle-aged woman asks Roger Wells, a land-use planner for HRM. Wells tells the crowd that HRM is open to their visions for north end Halifax.

The crowd in turn wants to know how it was decided that downtown was the top priority in the regional planning process. "Council took HRM by Design in the wrong direction by starting downtown," another north end resident observes.

But HRM by Design is the golden child of community consultation. It is, according to the website, "a highly consulted community visioning project for the Regional Centre." It is entering its sixth phase and third year of consultation. Its numerous forums, open houses, workshops and meetings have been well-attended by a diversity of planners, designers, contractors and real-estate wizards. How can anyone question the pinnacle of public consultation?

"A lot of people told me they felt managed by HRM by Design," Graham Read explains. As a former city councillor and active citizen, Read has been involved in more than his share of public consultations.

He explains that something has been bothering him about the array of public consultations cropping up around HRM these days. "There are factions within bureaucracies and elected people who believe they know better than the community and have better vision," he says.

"They've become more sophisticated at controlling information. Rather than elicit an incoherent public vision in a coherent form, they manage it with their own vision."

Phil Pacey, president of Heritage Trust Nova Scotia, says that HRM by Design is an exercise in information control. "They held workshops and let you vote for option two or three," he explains. "You get five minutes to speak and it goes on a flipchart. The rapporteur mangles your words in a report back to the audience."

Irvine Carvery, president of the Africville Geneology Society, was a speaker at the north end presentation on Uniacke Square. "HRM by Design was frustrating," he agrees. "People felt as though we had important input, but we were being led through the process. The end result would be the end result; participants didn't have the opportunity to lay ground rules."

Open manipulation

Paul Pross, the Dalhousie prof who specializes in the role of public-interest groups in a democracy, interrupts his lunch to reveal for me the secrets to a successful public consultation. He warns me first that there is no academic consensus on how to build political consensus.

Pross notes the primary importance of consulting in good faith, being prepared to take the public's advice even if, as a government or organization, you disagree. Otherwise you just annoy the people who care enough to come out and speak their minds.

Pross identifies three common ways of structuring a consultation process. In the traditional method you have a few expert speakers and a passive audience. There was a lot of that during HRM by Design.

Then there is the community hall style, with microphones and free license to use them by anyone with something to say. Someone neutral writes down all comments. There hasn't been much in the way of wide-open sessions like this in quite a while. Sometimes an open mic session is tacked onto the end of a long evening of speakers. In this format, strict time limits are enforced.

"It used to be you had thousands of people pushing an iceberg in different directions," Graham Read remembers fondly. "It moved where there were the most pushers." Now public consultation has become a game for special interest groups, he says, where instead of seeking the opinion of Joe Public, decision-making authorities consult with the usual suspects on two sides of an issue. The general public's opinion is ignored or left by the wayside.

Lastly, there is the open-house method of public consultation, where displays are set up explaining different options, and the public wanders around talking to consultants or city staff. Somebody writes down the content of those conversations. Surveys are sometimes available.

While every consultation method has its strengths and weaknesses, this open-house method has the least opportunity for consensus, and the most opportunity to turn a consultation into a sales pitch. This method has been applied in both HRM by Design and the recent council-led drive for tax reform.

The tax reform consultation is, frankly, a gong show. A slick, well-presented, poorly attended sales pitch of a gong show.

It started with a series of meetings in January '07, during which a committee of six councillors and seven citizens (almost exclusively from the business community) chatted with folks who expressed frustration with our current municipal tax system. From those meetings, the tax reform committee decided that tax reform is essential and went on an open house road show. The public is invited to come participate.

Participation involves sitting in a group at a table and discussing the proposed changes presented in a mountain of documents and display boards. All of these materials explain the benefits of tax reform---it will make us competitive, it will attract immigrants, it will keep our young people around, it will combat sprawl. None make mention of potential drawbacks.

There is no public presentation on the rationale or impact of tax reform, or what exactly is being proposed, and no opportunity for citizens to address the audience. At the downtown session there was some pretty good debate at the tables about what tax reform should look like, but no one recorded anything that was said. No one questioned whether tax reform is needed---that was a given. Maybe we do need tax reform, but I still don't know how the committee reached that conclusion.

No doubt the report back to council will be favourable.

Vote, don't bitch

"We wish more people turned out," Andrew Murphy, a member of the tax reform committee and a chartered accountant, tells me. There were 20 people at the downtown session and only 10 in Burnside. "It's been mostly older people."

Going by the downtown session, mostly well-dressed, white older people. It's hard to imagine many working poor people wandering into the Westin to offer their two cents, or any of those people from the north end library who complained about HRM by Design, outspoken as they were. No sessions have been scheduled in north end Halifax or north end Dartmouth.

Coincidentally, during close to two years of HRM by Design public consultations, only one session was held in the north end. This is significant because most of the highrises are slated to pop up in place of the hated Cogswell Interchange.

Will they replace one barrier between north and south with another? Will Gottingen once again be isolated rather than bolstered by this development? Dunno. Maybe we should ask the people who live and work around Gottingen.

By comparison take Imagine Our Schools, an imperfect attempt to create a 10-year master plan for HRM school facilities, led by Maureen O'Shaughnessy of CP&P Consultants. Howard Windsor, AKA the Halifax Regional School Board, points out that the consultants "added public meetings to provide feedback when community members felt it was necessary, when winter weather resulted in low turnouts and when they noticed that too few African Nova Scotians attended large community sessions."

O'Shaughnessy started by re-writing her own job description, excluding school advisory councils (community-based groups of parents, students, teachers and administrators) from the process. According to Windsor, this move was in order to "move it further from HRSB staff and the Board and to broaden input."

She then held a series of community forums attended by more than 800 people, where some spoke their minds publicly. She conducted focus groups, workshops, surveys and took written feedback.

The resulting plan recommended reviewing 14 schools for closure. On the upside, O'Shaughnessy also recommended several investments like new playgrounds, alternative education in junior highs, increased accessibility for children with special needs, life skills training, daycare in high schools and lunchtime programming.

After receiving feedback from parents, students, the community-at-large and school board staff, Windsor overruled much of O'Shaughnessy's plan. "I took a different view," he says, "by recommending seven schools for future review and naming three schools for immediate review." As for the investments, those decisions will be made by a newly elected board this fall.

Despite the genuine attempt to include broad and diverse perspectives, Imagine Our Schools was a top-down process. What seemed like life or death for our schools turned out to be one of many factors in a decision ultimately made by the man. Literally, the man at the top of the school system.

The question, according to Saulnier, is "How do we find the balance between ground-up and top-down decision making?" She says that in most cases, those doing the consultation are elected to lead us, so giving them a certain amount of control over the agenda is acceptable, as long as government is accountable. Unfortunately, this means that sometimes the best consultation processes, those by and for a specific community, are ignored or overruled by government.

Damn consultants

"Since amalgamation the public consultation process has been consultant-led," Bev Miller from Friends of the Halifax Commons tells me. "There is huge potential in the people who live here, but consultants try to decide what's right for people."

Miller remembers when consultation was facilitated by one or two city staff members, allowing citizens to take the lead in the process. "The present municipal planning strategy was a hugely successful consultation in the late 1970s because the plans were developed by people who lived in the affected area," she says. "Developers are the ones who think the plan is outdated, but it was grassroots."

The consultation most near and dear to Miller involved the Halifax Common. When the Halifax mayor and council wanted to pave part of the Common for road racing, residents worked with staff to create a Commons Plan to save green space. "The Commons Plan was generated by people who live near it and use it," Miller recalls.

Then came amalgamation, and in the years since, the Commons Plan was shelved, forgotten and finally pulled out, dusted off and put on the HRM website. "Now the city ignores it," Miller says.

It's becoming a formulaic story arc: Affected community sees neglect by government and takes the bull by the horns, sets the wheels in motion, displays old-fashioned initiative and puts together a viable plan based on what the people say they want. Government steps in, spends big dough to hire consultants to legitimize the work that's already been done. Community walks away from process shaking its dissatisfied head.

It's a self-perpetuating cycle. As Bev Miller puts it, "The city thinks we don't understand ourselves." So they hire pros to figure it out, and the pros make the process too complex for most people to follow.

Call it expert culture, call it consulting ourselves to death, call it what you want, it's a disservice to that 250-year old democracy thing (discounting all those democratic Native American systems Europeans stole the idea from). The irony is that, as a real estate consultant explained to me, the professionals are needed to make community visions into viable policy for our democratically elected officials.

Better than Athens

Perhaps the greatest crime of the public consultation game is its peddling of false hope. There are cases of positive outcomes from positive public consultations, like in 2000 when the Northwest Arm Heritage Association saved historical Dead Man's Island from condo development with the help of mayor Walter Fitzgerald (a history buff), city council, residents and developers.

But it was a struggle for me to find anyone who wasn't embittered with the process. "People are frustrated because they don't see that governments are listening," Saulnier feels. "We don't know that it results in a better decision.

"There was a recent consultation on how to increase the number of people who vote," she adds. "But this is a very narrow view of democracy. We should be asking why it is that voters are disengaged in the first place."

Saulnier's recommendation is visionary if still vague: A re-thinking of democracy. "I don't think we'll go back to Athens, though."

Maybe instead we should think back to our own source of democracy. More than 250 years ago, more than 500 years ago, governance in this place was by and for the Mi'kmaq and the Maliseet.

The consultants, lawyers, politicians and bureaucrats might be well served by this passage from Daniel N. Paul's We Were Not the Savages:

The Grand Council's influence was derived from the esteem in which the District Chiefs were held. The council did not have, beyond friendly persuasion, any special powers other than those assigned to it by the Districts. At sittings of these Councils, all men and women who wanted to speak were heard, and their opinions were given respectful consideration in the decision-making process.

Maybe public consultation really is as simple as giving that respect to the collective wisdom of the people.

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