Collaborative dialogue sharpens civic decision-making

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We all know irritating people who always insist on taking over. But we rarely object if it is volunteer work we would otherwise have to do ourselves. In this third part on citizen engagement, I focus on how the role of citizens is eroded by politicians, experts and bureaucrats who think that they know best, and always insist on taking over. This is government that sees itself as a wise and powerful father charged with minding a great many children. Canadians are partly to blame for the paternalism. As Seymour Martin Lipset pointed out in Continental Divide, we believe in the government. We like to have Big Daddy watching over us. But does that mean we are stuck with weak democracy, where our role as citizens is limited to voting once every three or four years?

In reality, Big Daddy is poorly positioned to make every decision. Politicians, bureaucrats, and their expert advisors can be better equipped to make decisions based on knowledge about specific issues, but they are hardly equipped to make decisions based on values. Citizens must decide for themselves what they value. Do we build a park or a soccer field? The decision should be based on what residents value most. Still, it is easier for most people to let government take over everything. Just pay your taxes and trust government will make the right decisions. After all, everyone has so much to do and so little time.

Nevertheless, there are opportunities for working together. They arise when local government on its own fails to address an issue. Local government is the best place to start because here citizens have the best chance of working directly with politicians and bureaucrats. The International City County Management Association, whose members are city managers and senior bureaucrats, has long advocated a barn-raising approach to solving local problems, where local government works in partnership with residents. City councils and some other forms of local government have been moving slowly in this direction.

But in Canada most local governments have yet to forge working relationships with citizens groups such as neighbourhood associations. Most rank the need for control and efficiency above the need for citizen involvement. Most undertake "hit-and-run" public participation as a way of avoiding blowback on serious problems and new initiatives. But few seem interested in an ongoing adult relationship with citizens.

But this can make life easier for both parties. Let me tell you the story of Tara who tried a different kind of relationship. As a first time councillor on Oak Bay's municipal council on Vancouver Island, she had a lot of questions about how things were done. She wondered why certain practices were taken for granted when they produce such poor results. One particular problem bothered her. It was the way the municipality was handling a long-standing neighborhood dispute. For 22 years, local residents had argued about whether a boulevard at the edge of a popular playing field should be used as parking or green space. Staff had responded with various fixes, but none seemed to satisfy everyone. Recent littering and vandalism at the site had reignited the problem, prompting another flood of letters to Municipal Hall. Thus, one day, Tara found herself at a meeting where councillors were once again being asked to decide on a solution for the boulevard.

Council meetings are one of the few places where citizens can interact directly with elected representatives. But when meetings become public hearings (formal or informal) they can become so combative, time consuming, and so unproductive that many people swear after participating in one to never take part in another. It's hard to think of a better device for driving genuine citizens back into private life than a public hearing.

Typically what happens is that staff makes a recommendation for solving the problem. Then residents divide themselves into two groups, one that approves the recommendation and another that opposes it. At the hearing councillors listen to vitriolic arguments that ramp up over the course of the meeting. They then vote on whether to approve or reject the recommendation. The process resembles a court battle, a process far distant from the dialogue and collaborative problem solving needed to resolve issues involving many different people. Whatever the outcome of a public hearing, some people always leave angry and disgusted.

So Tara decided to try something different. She asked council to put off the decision until she could work with local residents to find a solution through a process focused on collaborative dialogue. Having enrolled in Simon Fraser University's Certificate Program in Dialogue and Civic Engagement, she wanted to see if she could apply the techniques taught in the program. With council's skeptical assent she proceeded to organize a community event that would bring all the affected parties together. On a Saturday afternoon she sat down with residents and other stake-holders. Using a technique called World Café, they worked out a solution acceptable to everyone in the room. When the issue finally made its way back to council, there wasn't the usual fight. It was simply a matter of council approving a solution that residents themselves had created.

Tara visited the area and talked to residents who had been trying to solve the problem for 22 years. One person said it was as if the problem had never happened. Even so, not everyone was happy. One resident who had declined to participate in the dialogue continued to campaign for his vision of what should be done. But he was an exception.

Canadians are used to government taking charge, but citizens are more than capable of figuring out how to solve a lot of local problems. So it makes good sense for government and citizens to work together, as Jeffrey Berry, Ken Thomson and Kent Portney argue in The Rebirth of Urban Democracy, a thorough examination of five U.S. cities with strong citizen participation programs. Sometimes professionals may have to step forward as conveners or facilitators, but they should step back whenever they can and avoid the temptation to take charge. If we want to build community and democracy, technocratic control should be a last resort, not the first.

If government can give up a little of its authority and begin seeing citizens as partners rather than children or clients, it will create a huge untapped resource. And that's important, because in an age when public problems are complex, expensive, and difficult to resolve, Big Daddy needs help.

Tara Ney is a Councillor for Oak Bay, near Victoria on Vancouver Island. Charles Dobson is the author of The Citizen's Handbook, all of which is online.

Read our other stories from Reinventing democracy, reclaiming the commons: A progressive dialogue on the future of Canada.

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