A new culture grows in Edmonton

Edmonton is an oddity. It is one of the few cities in North America that is systematically tackling public engagement, notes Crossing Boundaries CEO Don Lenihan.

In 2005, the City started up the Office of Public Involvement (OPI) to reshape the dynamics of municipal politics. “The overall goal is to change the culture of the city so that public involvement becomes a part of our day-to-day business,” says coordinator Jill Bradford-Green.

The OPI is charged with developing and embedding processes that will provide all stakeholders – municipal staff, politicians, business and most importantly citizens – with a consistent and genuine approach for public involvement in all city works.

“There was growing pressure from the community that too much time and energy was being spent in debate – not about the merits of a project, but about the lack of public process,” says Bradford-Green, explaining the impetus. “The public has been less than meaningfully involved in decisions that impact them, and that really ticks them off.”

While some of Edmonton’s municipal departments have worked hard to involve the public in their decision-making in the past, others haven’t, she says. “Many departments act as though they’re entities unto themselves.” Politicians and senior administrators acknowledged the issue, and established the OPI to develop a consistent framework for all city staff.

“We know this is going to take five years, from a structural point of view,” she says. The OPI is cultivating cultural change by instituting new policies and procedures, and setting up training programs for all staff involved in project management and implementation of programs. “We believe if we’re to change the way we do business, then everyone’s got to know that and take responsibility, from the line-person up.”

Bradford-Green points out a milestone was reached this February. “City council now expects to see, in every report that goes to them for decision, a template that asks about public involvement – in the same way we’ve always asked about financial implications.” Managers are now obligated to attach a plan detailing their public consultations, or to provide an explanation if citizen feedback wasn’t solicited.

The OPI is exploring digital mechanisms such as online surveys and e-voting to connect with the public, while also trying to move away from town hall meetings. “This electronic area is growing, but it’s not balanced yet,” she says.

“We’re not nearly where we could be with it, partly because we have a community that’s yelling at us for not having more public meetings. I don’t think the online stuff will usurp personal connections, but I think more functionality can be gained from it. We shouldn’t limit ourselves to eyeball-to-eyeball contact.”

In the future, municipal workings in Edmonton will not look different, but they will sound different, she says. “Projects will be debated based on their merits instead of lack of public process. There will also be an understanding in the community that the squeaky wheel doesn’t always get what he wants. And there will be real clarity that we’re a growing community where consensus is not always possible, but everyone who has an opinion has the opportunity to weigh in, in a meaningful way.”

While most areas where city managers spend taxpayers’ money or implement projects with a public impact are open to debate, Bradford-Green also emphasizes there are areas that may not be appropriate for public involvement. And there will be scenarios where the politicians’ judgements will prevail without public process – and rightly so, she says.

To illustrate, she describes a recent debacle. “We have a growing homeless problem,” she says. The mayor recently made a decision to allow low-income housing development on municipal reserves of land that were going unused, without consulting neighbouring communities.

“He did it partly to avoid the not-in-my-backyard syndrome, and also because it takes time to do public consultations,” she says. “He said, ‘It’s my call – this is the right thing to do and I don’t care what people think.’ Some say that while his intentions were good, the process was incorrect. Others say we should be putting housing on public land and you can’t fight motherhood issues.”

Elected politicians must worry about the common good and have the privilege to use their judgement, but city administrators don’t, she says.

Bradford-Green believes Edmonton’s systematic approach to citizen engagement would also work at provincial and federal levels of government. “I believe we’re being irresponsible if we don’t involve our citizens at whatever level,” she says. “It doesn’t mean we need to agree with them, but we do need to know what they think to temper our decisions.”

In Canada, there have been examples of good public process around large policy issues at higher levels of government, she says. “But there have also been some horrific ones, particularly at the provincial level,” she says.

“A lot of work was done providing roundtables, involving a lot of people, spending a lot of money, raising expectations – and then the government did squat. It’s disrespectful, and you never get that credibility back; so it’s important that it works.”

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