How many of you live in communities where community meetings are boring affairs punctuated by outrage? How many of you feel like influencing your local government means showing up en masse with a pettion or an organized campaign to get them to make a small change? How many of you are just plain disillusioned with your local government and have given up trying to help them involve citizens in decision making?
And how many of you are leaders that are frustrated by citizens who just yell at you all the time? How many of you don’t actually know what you are doing, but could never admit that in public? How many of you have tried to involve the community once, failed and vowed never to do it again? How many of you have strategic communications strategies (public or secret) for dealing with your own citizens?
This is what it has come to in many places. In my local community, not unlike many others across Canada, our local Council was elected on a tide of resentment that was stoked against the previous Council. For most of the previous Council’s term, a group of citizens mounted a campaign of smear and slander, including starting a newspaper funded by developers devoted to criticizing almost every Council initiative and culminating in an election campaign where four of the sitting members of Council were branded “The Gang of Four.” And even subsequent to the election 18 months ago, there has been an ongoing litany of blame against the old Council and people considered to be nsupportive of the old Council (and I count myself as one of them). The result is, on our local island, there is a real sense of cynicism. The new Council has not created any new initiatives with respect to involving citizens, and has, if my records are straight, only one “town hall” meeting. We have been short on dialogue and deliberation and if there are any decisions being made at all, they are being made without the invitation of the community. It feels sad, not because somehow the old Council was better than this one, but because our community can be so much more interesting and engaged.
Over the years citizens on Bowen have self-organized not just is lobby groups to advocate for particular policy decisions, but to actually build things that local governments should otherwise be doing. A group of citizens from across the political spectrum participated in a unique group called Bowen island Ourselves, which sought to undertake these kinds of initiatives to compliment local government services and functions. As a result, we did things like develop a crowdsourced road status tool, hosted a parallel process of Open Space dialogues alongside the formal consultation process for our official community planning process, sponsored deliberation meetings on issues such as local agriculture and the proposal to create a national park on Bowen Island, organize and implement BowenLIFT as an alternative transportation system. Lots of stuff.
But when the well becomes poisoned and citizens and elected officials begin just screaming at each other, fear takes over and stuff like that shuts down. We are in a period like that right now on Bowen, and the result is that a number of decisions are being made that have a significant impact on the future of our island, especially with respect to our village centre, without having any creative public dialogue. There is simply no place for the public to be a part of co-creating the future. We will get open houses on the plans that Council designs with a few advisors.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. There are thousands of tools out there that can help people do interesting and creative community engagement. This list of decision making tools from the Orton Family Foundation came through my inbox today. What is required to choose these tools?
Well first, a local government must be brave enough to stand in front of it’s citizens and ask for help. Assuming that you have the answers to complex questions is unwise. Better to be learners in office than heros. Second, a local government has to trust it’s citizens and create a climate where ideas can be discussed respectfully. Sure there are always going to be people wanting to take shots at you (especially if you played that way before you were in office) but as local leaders, there is an art to opening space where citizens can be in dialogue rather than debate. Third, local governments have to be serious about using what they learn and being clear an transparent about why they are choosing some ideas over others. Lastly it helps if local government leaders actually relish their jobs and see their community members, even the ones they disagree with as interesting and worthwhile neighbours. I have heard many local elected officials over the years express outright contempt for their citizens (although rarely does it happen while the official is sitting in office)
If you get some of this right, things can open up. If that’s what you want. But it takes leadership, and not just the kind that massages agendas and works behind the scenes. It requires leaders to stand up in front of their citizens and declare their willingness to make a new start and to leverage the best of their community’s assets. It requires leaders to trust their citizens and to relish working with them to create community initiatives and services that are loved and enjoyed by all.
I’d love to hear stories of local governments that changed their tune midstream to become open and excited about inclusive and participatory decision making processes. It would inspire me to hope that maybe something like that is possible where I live.