The City of Edmonton is failing at public involvement

In my opinion, the City of Edmonton needs to completely transform its public involvement practices. Over the last few years there has been the odd glimmer of hope that things are changing for the better, but I don’t think progress is actually being made. Sometimes it even feels like we’re moving backwards.

Here’s an excerpt from Mayor Mandel’s Swearing-In Address on October 26, 2010 (PDF):

Looking ahead to some of the major projects entering the consultation stage – the arena, LRT design and EXPO 2017 – it’s clear that we need to refine our consultation process and vastly improve how we communicate with our citizens.

Methods are changing, people contribute their opinions and receive information in different ways, and we are not keeping pace.

A City with a bold creative vision has to be able to communicate clearly with its citizens – we simply must do better here.

And from better process will come better solutions – ones where our citizens can witness their impacts and know that together we’ve all done the best for Edmonton.

Nothing has changed in the five months since he gave those remarks, and there’s no indication that anything is going to change.

The most recent example is the Walterdale Bridge project. There are so many issues I almost don’t even know where to begin. It’s a good illustration of some of the larger issues plaguing the public involvement process.

Oh look City of Edmonton, a dictionary!

The terminology used for public involvement is inconsistent and confusing. What’s the difference between an open house, an information session, and a community consultation? All three have been used on the Walterdale Bridge project, and I’m sure you have seen other terms used for other events. Can I always give feedback? Are some events more heavily geared toward sharing information than others? Does the name imply a certain stage of the process? There’s absolutely no way to tell based on the terminology used.

There are a bunch of other terms that are poorly defined as well. Who’s a stakeholder, for instance?

No consultation on the consultation itself?

Why doesn’t anyone ever ask how we’d like to be consulted on something? Is a bunch of private meetings with “important stakeholders” followed by an information sharing session open to the general public always the best approach? Why don’t more consultations make use of the vast array of effective technologies we have at our disposal? It wasn’t without fault, but at least the online questionnaire on the arena project was different. I think one of the simplest ways we could improve the public involvement process would be to gather feedback on how the process should work before starting it.

What’s happening?

Do you know when the public involvement process for the Walterdale Bridge started? Me neither. The first time the public became aware of the process was on November 15, three days before the first open house. Some “selected stakeholder groups” were interviewed prior to that event, but when? A couple of weeks before? Or years before as the issue popped up with each rehabilitation?

I went to the open house on November 18, and wrote about it here. At the bottom of that post, I captured the “next steps” as they were presented. There would be an interim plan in January, followed by a public information session (different from an open house apparently) in February or March, and then the final plan would go to Council in April. I added my email to the contact sheet at that event.

The update that was presented to TPW on January 25, 2011 came and went without any notice. No press release, no email. Unless you’re checking the agenda of each Council and committee meeting, there’s almost no way you’d have found out about that update. Part of the information shared at that meeting was an update on the public involvement process. The report mentioned the stakeholder interviews and the open house, then finished with this:

The balance of the Public Involvement Plan, to be undertaken in February and March, will be comprised of a series of meetings with key stakeholder groups to further discuss options and recommendations that will have been developed since the November Open House, in addition to another widely publicized public Information Session.  The purpose of this Information Session will be to communicate the content of the final report to City Council.  This Information Session will be held in late March.

So basically if you wanted to provide input but you didn’t attend the November open house, too bad. Unless of course you’re part of those secretive stakeholder groups that may or may not have taken place – no update on those was ever provided.

Finally we come to yesterday’s “widely publicized public information session”. The open house in November got a press release, this one didn’t. The only notice that went out about the event, in addition to a tweet the day of, was an email sent on March 14 to people who signed up at the November open house. That and the web page was updated, though unless you constantly check it, you’d never know that. Hardly a “widely publicized” event, if you ask me.

Actually there is one other way you could have found out about the event – at the City of Edmonton’s Public Involvement Calendar. That would be the calendar without email or text notifications, no RSS feeds, and no ability to search by keyword. None of those events show up in the much more functional Events Calendar, for some unacceptable reason.

You mean you didn’t see my tweet?

Sometimes there are comment forms, other times there are sticky notes, sometimes you participate in a group discussion with someone recording notes, and other times you fill out a survey. There are two problems. First, it’s not clear what I need to do to ensure my comments are going to be read and considered. Second, nearly all of those mechanisms for providing input require me to physically attend an event!

There are so many tools that we’re simply not making use of. It doesn’t even have to be Twitter or whatever the popular online service at the moment is. Why can’t I just send an email? Why can’t I fill out the survey online? Why can’t I just send a link to my blog post?

The very, very, very few speaking for many.

The January update boasted that the November open house was “heavily attended” at 225 participants. Just 80 comment forms were submitted, and there’s no word on how many sticky notes were written. Yesterday’s event apparently had around 150 attendees. Just 15 interviews of “stakeholder groups” were conducted.

We’re a city of nearly 800,000 people, and we’re basing the public involvement part of the decision on 80 comment forms and 15 interviews? I truly believe more people want to provide feedback, it’s just too difficult to do so at the moment.

At the November open house, the City shared a number of alignment and style options for a replacement bridge. Yesterday, they declared they had chosen the arch. There’s no opportunity to question this. It’ll go to Council without any additional public involvement.

Just going through the motions…

I want to be engaged. I want to contribute and help to make the outcome a better one for Edmonton. But all too often it feels like the City is simply going through the motions when it comes to the public involvement process. I can see why the vast majority of citizens find it hard to get engaged. Look at how much work it took to keep up-to-date on the Walterdale Bridge project!

The Walterdale Bridge Public Involvement Plan violated City policy.

Did you know the City of Edmonton actually has a policy on public involvement? Policy C513 (Word) outlines how administration should involve the public when making recommendations to Council. Let’s ignore for a minute that the policy itself absolutely needs to be improved (“…designed to involve the appropriate people at the appropriate time in the appropriate way…”). The trademarks of any City of Edmonton public involvement process are meant to be: clear purpose, consistent approach, and commitment to involve. The “commitment to involve” is pretty hard to get wrong as it is described in the policy, but the Walterdale Bridge public involvement process completely missed the boat on the first one, in my opinion, and we have to trust that the consistent approach was achieved.

Clear purpose is achieved by using the “Continuum of Public Involvement” which essentially states that you start by sharing information to raise awareness, then you consult people to test ideas and build commitment, then you share decision making with stakeholders.

  1. Sharing Information
  2. Consultation
  3. Active Participation

This was not followed with the Walterdale Bridge project. There was no information sharing or awareness building at the start, instead there were consultations with stakeholders. That’s supposed to be the third step of the continuum, not the first! Then we got the November open house, which combined steps one and two. It doesn’t seem like steps four or five, partnering with stakeholders to make a decision, ever took place.

Consistent approach is meant to be achieved using the City of Edmonton Public Involvement Roadmap:

  • Understanding the overall project
  • Defining the purpose and outcomes of public involvement
  • Clarifying the public involvement commitment
  • Public involvement process details
  • Developing the public involvement plan

Did this happen? Maybe, but it was never shared. The public doesn’t know the purpose or outcomes of the public involvement, nor did we know the process details. There was no plan available.

We simply must do better.

The Walterdale Bridge project is not unique. The same problems plague the vast majority of Edmonton’s public involvement efforts. I’ve been to so many open houses, or information sessions, or whatever you want to call them, where attendees have expressed their frustration at the lack of clarity about the process, or the fact that they feel the consultation is happening too late in the process.

In October 2009, I wrote about the proposed Centre for Public Involvement. I’m going to repeat the opening statement of the prospectus:

The timing is right for establishing the proposed Centre. In reality, the timing is probably late by ten years.

Toward the end of 2010, there was finally some movement and the Centre is now being organized. It took more than a year to get started, when we’re already so far behind.

Is this really the best we can do? I think we can do better. We simply must do better.

  • Rob Davy

    Thank you for posting this Mack, and for being so appropriately critical.

    I went to some sort of public event at City Hall about the airport redevelopment. It was a showcare of sorts from the consultants bidding for the contract to design the redevelopment. There were surveys with each firms display, but they were a waste of time. Why? Because the displays were all pie-in-the-sky dreams with many amazingly impratical and impossible concepts in them. In talking with the Planning and Development staff on hand, I found out that they ‘designs’ weren’t really designs, just an opportunity for the firms to show off their drawing skills and ability to make stuff up. Just because one firm was showing a solar-heating-tower-thingy didn’t mean they actually proposed we should build one, just that they know that they exist (or could)!

    One of the designs showed a tennis court with no fence around it, 10 feet from people’s houses. There was a cafe at one end of the court too, with people sitting outside, just waiting to be hit with a tennis ball. The whole design was just stupid and impossible. Why would they show us that? It didn’t make sense.

    The one thing you didn’t touch on is the cost of these consultations and open-houses. I don’t know about the City, but the province farms out a lot of that work to companies like Calder Bateman who charge hundreds of thousands of dollars for their flawed services.

    • Thanks for the comment Rob. You make a good point about the amount of money spent on consultants and other external companies.

  • Andy Grabia

    And you didn’t even touch on the arena issue, which has been a whole other communications fiasco.

    • I think there are lots of examples you could use!

  • I agree with your sentiments here Mack, definitely from the time people know about an open house or some sort of feedback potential on an important project, to the time a decision is made, there are some missing steps. Sometimes there may be what is considered adequate ‘consultation’ by the City with citizens to fulfill their internal criteria, but there is no follow-through or correlation with the final decision that is made.

    I guess I personally and others I know have been tenacious enough to insist at times that we are consulted. I know not everyone can or is willing to do this or be confrontational about it. You are fighting a bureaucratic culture in some cases that does not want public or community consultation. Definitely the younger the planner, the more in-tune and understanding they have about the importance of citizen or community ‘buy-in’ to a project to make it successful. I have been hoping for a long time that the City would understand this, but many planners, and many departments in general are very resistant.

    Many times Council is not aware of the lack of consultation or citizen’s concerns unless they have been contacted directly. You also have to insist the process is transparent and that whatever solution is put in place is not just a facade of public involvement that does not correlate to the final decisions made. Obviously there are professionals within various departments and consultants hired that have their own opinions and views. The process could be and should be significantly improved so that these views are apparent to the public in the final decisions made before they are presented to Council.

    Chris Buyze,
    President

  • Cathy Walsh

    Very well said Mack. Will share this piece liberally.

  • I’ll be sharing a link to this post with my community league (Strathcona Centre) because Scona Road has been even worse than the Walterdale.

    There’s also some displeasure at a new bike path on the Strathcona-Garneau border that had very little input from the public.

    I hope this swell of people wanting to be involved continues to grow until City Hall has to listen more and open up the information-gathering process.

  • Bruce Winter

    Hey Mack not only is the policy and process out of whack, so is the design they came up with for the bridge. A minimalist tribute to budgetary buffoonery. What ever happened to daring dynamic and iconic. Guess it got lost in revitalization. Edmonton thinks big, acts small.

  • Honestly, it’s time for Council to start incorporating a degree of public involvement into Bylaw. Policy and Guidelines have become far too easy for City Administration and Council to ignore or disregard. The EFCL’s proposed public involvement amendments to the large site DC2 re-zoning process would be a good start.

    If the City wants an example of how to do public involvement, it would do well to check out Calgary’s WLRT conceptual design public involvement plan.

  • Mimi Williams

    “Involving Edmonton citizens in the dialogue on the proposed arena and entertainment district is a priority. Currently there is no formal public consultation process underway, however, Edmontonians can continue to stay informed and engaged through this web site, calling 311, speaking with a member of City Council. There will be additional opportunities for people to be involved as the discussion continues.”

    reads the city’s website regarding the arena. If you stop reading the second sentence right at the first comma, it borders on the hilarious. So, anyway, I wrote to Council February 23rd asking when that opportunity to get involved in the discussions might arise. I didn’t even receive as much as an acknowledgement of my e-mail. I tweeted about this endlessly. Several councillors would have had to have seen that. No response, nevertheless.

    Today, I marked the 4 week wait with a new e-mail asking when the public might be given an opportunity to be heard on the matter. And a new tweet. That did the trick. I received a response from an admin assistant that the matter will be on the agenda for the April 6th meeting.

    Meanwhile, we have the Mayor pushing Council to make a decision at the April 6th meeting. The same Mayor who has said for months “there’s nothing for the public to talk about at this point.” The same Mayor who has denied the public the opportunity the comment ever since we read those immortal words “Why downtown? It has to be downtown.”

  • nnbnb

  • Graham

    Looks like the city has chosen to build one bridge while burning another – the one it needs to maintain with the public.

    Luckily, the new design – while handsome and modestly modern – nicely echoes what it’s replacing.

  • Hey Mack,

    Great post. My question for you (and all Edmontonians) is: do you support your tax dollars going towards full public consultation practices? They are pretty expensive. I work every day on trying to get feedback from citizens within a VERY tiny budget. Administration also gets asked ( and/or criticized?) regularly on how many dollars are spent on consultants…often to conduct telephone, web, focus groups, online forums, etc.

    It’s a problem for any municipality (or any large organization, for that matter) to get adequate feedback, but are citizens truly prepared to start forking out the cash that extensive public engagement practices require?

    Or another point: how many of us, when the phone rings at dinner time, choose to ignore or snap back at the “telemarketer” on the other end of the phone? Often times, that person is hired by the very people who are seeking to get their opinion, any many don’t even take the time to listen to why they are calling, or even engage. Coming from someone who does this day in and day out, getting the public’s feedback is certainly easier said than done.

    Finally, while I agree some form of public consultation is key, isn’t it the role of a democracy to elect officials and trust the decisions that they make on our behalf?

    • Hi Kenna, thanks for the thoughtful comment. Good question about tax dollars going to the public involvement process. Yes, I support it, but I think the way we’re doing it now is much more expensive than it needs to be. I think we could be getting more bang for our buck.

      The telemarketer is another example of the public involvement process not working for the people being consulted! Would anyone choose to be interrupted during dinner with a phone call? Why can’t that consultation process use a mechanism that actually works for the person being consulted?

      Sure, we have elected officials who represent us. But that doesn’t mean they have all the facts. They spend a lot of time learning and doing research before they make a decision, and that should include getting feedback from the public.

      • Completely agree about your point to do better and be more effective, and I think what needs to be recognized is that a lot of people are definitely working hard on this.

        Regarding the telemarketer – unfortunately that’s the only way for market researchers to get a “statistically valid” number – through a random telephone survey. I agree that it’s often not the best approach, but if the issue wants to stand scrutiny, that’s the only way to get it right now.

        Do you trust citizens to learn and do the proper research, though? Most don’t even do the research to go out and vote, let alone figure out the ins and outs of a complex issue. That’s where key stakeholders come into play – by soliciting feedback from engaged and passionate citizens (like yourself), we can have more confidence that the issue is understood from all angles.

  • Rob McDonald, Strathcona

    JEFF, thanks for linking me in here.

    MASTERMAQ, I feel your pain. Walterdale Bridge was an public involvement lovefest compared with Scona Road. One important error in your pretty good summary of the City’s PIP policy is this: the Continuum is a snapshot, not a sequential process. Each team gets to pick where their project sits on the scale. Scona Road was pegged at the bottom, Information Sharing. Walterdale Bridge notched it up to Consultation, which actually started three years ago – remember The Trench?. The Arena project appears to be seeking the Active Participation of the public, if the online survey is a fair indicator. The Oilers skewed that with their sleazy telemarketing scheme but the process can’t be faulted for that.

    I want our City personnel and our Councillors to make big decisions on my behalf – that’s what they’re paid for. What I don’t want is for them to miss the benefit of my imagination, or more importantly that of my neighbours. We live here, right here. We know our community better than anyone, what works and what won’t. It hurts when they don’t ask and makes us bitter when we must suffer the consequences, while they just go on to the next project.

    There is an amazing person in the position of Public Involvement Coordinator, Angela Turner. She gets what the policy is intended to do and could convince the worst sort of cynic that it can work. Invite her to your next knock-down, all-out, no-holds-barred brawl with Transportation or Planning & Development. The room will be better for it.

  • Trevor Moyer

    Hi Mack,

    Great post! But there is a detail you might want to update in your comments. The city did in fact publish a notice of the meeting for the Walterdale Bridge in at the very least, the Edmonton Journal. I saw that ad -and clipped it. I was at one of the two meetings to observe the presentation.

    Based on what I heard from those who rose to speak and ask questions of the city reps, there wasn’t a whole lot of concern. However, in the meeting I attended, there were a couple of aboriginal nation representatives who voiced some concerns. It seemed pretty clear that the city hadn’t yet satisfied the issues and concerns they raised over the burial grounds near the proposed north terminus of the new bridge. Clearly the city staff had more work to do there.

  • Anonymous

    I have to agree with Kenna. As a developer who is constantly waiting for public consultation periods to end, I have to say there is ample opportunity to provide input when bylaws change, neighbourhoods get planned and redevelopment occurs.
    I have been in many public meetings where there has been no constructive input at all. Just a lot of NIMBYism.
    My experience with the PIP is that citizen involvement is not useful when the project is in it’s infancy because the concept is too vague or obscure for the general public to understand or know what feedback is useful. Design charettes have started to address this issue.
    As a project moves from concept to design there are so many guidelines, standards, and stakeholder feedback loops to adhere to there often isn’t much flexibility in the design anymore.
    And finally, when the project gets to the point where the developer is confident they can address the original need, be within budget, and not piss the wrong groups off they take it to a public meeting. At this point the developer has invested so much time (and money) they really aren’t interested in hearing about what the public thinks. If it is a smart developer, they know exactly what the “market” wants and they have created a project that delivers this.
    The few times that a civilized/constructive/engaging comment is received it often gets shot down for not meeting the above mentioned guidelines, standards or stakeholder demands.

  • Hi Mack,

    Thanks for posting, we appreciate your passion and interest in City projects. The City of Edmonton feels that it’s important to clarify some of the points that you made.

    On the Communications front, only in special cases does the City of Edmonton do a news release for TPW reports that Administration feels are complex issues that require some explanation to the media in order to ensure accurate reporting. It’s a standard practice for residents and media to check the committee agendas for the latest reports. Both Communications and City spokespeople are always accommodating in answering questions about reports when they are released. From our media tracking, the media did an excellent job in capturing the facts of the story with a high degree of accuracy.

    You are correct in stating that the March open house did not have a news release. Future open houses of this nature will include a news release, or public service announcement, for the media. There was however an exhaustive effort made to publicize the open house. The City posted information on the project webpage, the City’s public involvement calendar, and on Twitter. Direct mail ads were sent to area residents, businesses, and stakeholders. E-mails were sent to attendees of previous open houses. Posters were displayed and distributed through the surrounding community leagues, farmers markets, libraries, and attractions. Print ads ran in both The Edmonton Journal and The Edmonton Sun on March 10th and March 17th. Finally, portable roadside display signs were placed at six different locations leading up to the Walterdale Bridge.

    The Public Involvement Plan (PIP) for the Walterdale Bridge project was developed in accordance with policy C513 ( http://www.edmonton.ca/for_residents/C513.doc ) . The plan was reviewed with key stakeholder groups and overviewed at each event. Documentation is available online at http://www.edmonton.ca/transportation/roads_traffic/walterdale-bridge.aspx For those who could not attend the November 2010 open house, information was uploaded on the web and comment forms were available online and accepted up until December 3, 2010.

    The Continuum of Public Involvement is used to ensure involvement processes align with the scope, complexity, and outcomes of the decision being made. This means the role input will play in the decision-making process will vary based on the scope of the project. So, sometimes the process involves sharing information. Other times the process involves consultation or active participation. These are not “steps” that are followed for each project. Rather they are used by administration to ensure we are designing process and making commitments that we can keep in how we use public input.

    It should be noted that the recommendations presented at the March open house are recommendations. City Council will decide whether to accept the recommendations. Further input from the public and stakeholders can shared with City Council members.

    We continually evaluate public involvement projects to seek improvements for future projects. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and ideas. We look forward to discussing these with you in more detail.

    • “It’s a standard practice for residents and media to check the committee agendas for the latest reports.”

      “Both Communications and City spokespeople are always accommodating in answering questions about reports when they are released”

      “The plan was reviewed with key stakeholder groups…”

      “Documentation is available online at http://www.edmonton.ca/transpo…”

      These type of comments highlight exactly what Mack was saying. They reflect an old-school type of communication that places the responsibility on the audience to approach your website or communications or spokespeople. You again mention the ever elusive “key stakeholders” etc.

      Looking forward to hearing how your meeting goes.

      • Tom Opgenorth

        Sounds like the CoE doesn’t get new media or how to engage in the 21st Century.

  • Monica I.

    Thanks for the article Mack. And thank you CoE for taking some time to review and respond.

    I do find that the last “consultations” I participated in felt ominously like “going through the motions”, not genuine requests for input. I do contact my councillor regularly, however, since the last election, I don’t always get a response I was used to previously.

    All are very valid points – the City thinks they are doing adequately within the policy, and because that baseline isn’t as specific as it might be , it is easy to miss the needs of the groups that should be targeted.

    Because the stakeholders were notified with a mail-out doesn’t mean that I received it, I may not live in the target area and I might just have something to contribute. Cost doesn’t have to be such a factor – many new media methods should be incorporated. Your example of mailing a link to your blog – excellent idea.

    I do peruse the Journal, I also follow their twitter feeds for information – but adverts, no, I don’t get those electronically, and at work where we receive the print edition of the Journal, I don’t read every section. Time is precious, and I can’t be combing through every page “IN CASE” there is a public announcement. Tying the calendars together (Events etc.) could be handy, or at the very least – link them, without merging them. Having it all in one place could be a little overwhelming.

    WHY do projects have to be so expensive? Because the plan started out with either too small a budget dedicated to explore options, or too nebulous a project plan to come up with appropriate options. There are about as many ways to tackle a project as there are opinions, but Mack, you are right. Without defining the components and terminology, no project is provided a standardized framework or timeline so we can understand at what point we are being asked to be involved.

    Having worked for an Engineering firm in the past, all projects and reporting followed a very rigid standardized outline. Not every project implemented every section of the outline, however it did acknowledge every single component that was laid out. No different than working in a lab and producing standard reports which people without the same background can peruse the appropriate sections to obtain the information required to grasp the results without being an expert in the field (or reading the report in it’s entirety).

  • Monica I.

    Thanks for the article Mack. And thank you CoE for taking some time to review and respond.

    I do find that the last “consultations” I participated in felt ominously like “going through the motions”, not genuine requests for input. I do contact my councillor regularly, however, since the last election, I don’t always get a response I was used to previously.

    All are very valid points – the City thinks they are doing adequately within the policy, and because that baseline isn’t as specific as it might be , it is easy to miss the needs of the groups that should be targeted.

    Because the stakeholders were notified with a mail-out doesn’t mean that I received it, I may not live in the target area and I might just have something to contribute. Cost doesn’t have to be such a factor – many new media methods should be incorporated. Your example of mailing a link to your blog – excellent idea.

    I do peruse the Journal, I also follow their twitter feeds for information – but adverts, no, I don’t get those electronically, and at work where we receive the print edition of the Journal, I don’t read every section. Time is precious, and I can’t be combing through every page “IN CASE” there is a public announcement. Tying the calendars together (Events etc.) could be handy, or at the very least – link them, without merging them. Having it all in one place could be a little overwhelming.

    WHY do projects have to be so expensive? Because the plan started out with either too small a budget dedicated to explore options, or too nebulous a project plan to come up with appropriate options. There are about as many ways to tackle a project as there are opinions, but Mack, you are right. Without defining the components and terminology, no project is provided a standardized framework or timeline so we can understand at what point we are being asked to be involved.

    Having worked for an Engineering firm in the past, all projects and reporting followed a very rigid standardized outline. Not every project implemented every section of the outline, however it did acknowledge every single component that was laid out. No different than working in a lab and producing standard reports which people without the same background can peruse the appropriate sections to obtain the information required to grasp the results without being an expert in the field (or reading the report in it’s entirety).

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