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.