Regional and local governments in the Capital Region have taken some hard knocks in the past few years, primarily on issues of spending, project management or transparency.
The increase in public angst and criticism seems to be a common part of the political landscape these days. As a private citizen now engaged differently with my community and local government, a different vantage point brings new observations and insights and rekindles other long held beliefs.
As a former three-term Municipal Councillor, and now as a community volunteer and keen observer of public affairs, there is no doubt that “local government is about what is possible and promises opportunities that will make a positive difference, simply because it’s the one government that is closest to the people it serves.” Whether it’s being “on the ground” working with grass roots volunteer groups and organizations, or interacting with individual community members on issues that matter, local government enjoys a more intimate relationship with constituents.
To make the most out of the relationship, developing and using effective public engagement tools can help politicians (and staff) successfully navigate choppy political waters, through consistently working to build on or to improve relationships and partnerships with the people they serve.
It is worth noting that as “creatures of the Province,” local governments were first created to decentralize delivery of essential community services, the proverbial “sewers, sidewalks and streetlights.” But as local communities grew and changed, and senior levels of government began to offload more and more responsibility for public programs and services to local governments, this ongoing cycle of growth, change and devolution created significant social and economic challenges at the local level.
Today’s local governments are more accessible, complex and engaged with the public than ever before. The internet, websites, webcasting, social media, community associations, public forums and town hall meetings, for example, all bring constituents closer to decision-makers and decision-makers closer to constituents. From a politician’s point of view, such close contact has its advantages and disadvantages but one thing is certain — as contact with local government increases, so too do the public’s expectations for more communication with and accountability from their elected representatives and municipal staff.
A definite benefit is that closer two-way communication fosters greater public awareness and more informed decision-making (we hope). It’s also not hard to see why local government has moved beyond the delivery of basic services, in an effort to meet ever increasing community demands to address bigger issues that have bigger impacts — e.g., public health, safety, housing, emergency planning, arts, culture, recreation, environmental protection and economic development — these examples are now either cost-shared or funded solely by local government. After all, as senior governments continue stepping away, the public looks to local and regional governments to continue stepping up.
We sometimes forget that this activity occurs within the context of rising costs for staff, bureaucracy, infrastructure and capital, at a time when senior governments tend to be keeping their purse strings pulled tight. At the local level, this tension can play out as a tug of war between operational needs and political wish lists, most often due to funding concerns; local politicians come to the budget table every year believing that all things are possible, while staff must remind them that unfortunately, the opposite is often true.
Efficiently managing a municipal budget in today’s climate of provincial and federal government downloading, combined with competing spending pressures from residents, community groups, regional government and other agencies, may be one of the most intense balancing acts facing local Councils. To suggest that some municipal politicians are not always that comfortable with budgets, often in the multi-millions of dollars, and that many Councils rely heavily on professional staff to guide them, is not meant as a criticism. The public also bears a responsibility to learn how annual budgets are developed and implemented; but I can tell you that, in my experience, the public is not packing the Council Chamber to attend annual budget estimates’ meetings. This creates a disconnect when taxpayers do not understand why or how their taxes are being used.
Despite these various challenges, public engagement still remains one of the most effective tools for building trust and goodwill, for information-sharing and for finding out what issues matter most to residents and taxpayers. It’s also important to remember that consulting with the public “should be an exercise in democracy, not in community therapy.” Take a common worst case scenario: public consultation is launched in the wake of decisions that were already made. Such a gaff only reinforces the public’s belief that asking them for input was no more than window dressing, an example of decision-making that “fails the sniff test” and can create cynicism that hangs in the air right up to the next election.
Choppy waters become stormy seas when local governments (at their peril) either overlook or ignore the need to engage with residents, especially on big ticket items. While questions of “how much public consultation and how often” must be determined by each local government and its community, to get the best out of the process means it should be well planned, authentic, focused and have realistic and affordable outcomes; in other words, if a local government is honest and pragmatic, then every emerging action item or priority is first costed and then assessed against the capacity of taxpayers and local government budgets to deliver.
The lesson here is that to avoid political quicksand and the turmoil of frustration and disappointment that can occur inside and outside Council Chambers, best practices in public engagement should be consistently applied, leading to what I believe is good government.
NOTE TO POLITICAL SELF
Effective leadership supports good decision-making that is responsive, respectful and responsible — if these guiding principles are at the core of the work, then communities and residents are well served. Good decision-making and governance should be the rule, not the exception. Positive results should follow if politicians as policy makers and staff as professionals, first work together to create a kind of learning environment that empowers and encourages others to adopt these same principles.
Remember, municipalities are innovators as much as they are regulators; maintaining a healthy balance between the two means staying engaged (local government with their communities and communities with their local government).
My next blog article will provide some tips for the public on how to effectively engage with their elected officials. Stay tuned…