Young: Can Citizen Action Labs improve engagement where previous efforts have failed?

opinionred 100x100By Jim Young

May 10th, 2019



Recently the Gazette reported that the City of Burlington will seek improvements in the working of Citizen Advisory Committees and Citizen Engagement in general via three Citizen Action Labs.

External consultants will conduct the labs to “Help us shape the way we move forward with citizen committees and citizen engagement at the City of Burlington!” They will pass citizen input and lab results on to city staff.

I want to feel positive about these labs. I have filled out the on-line survey and have signed up to participate. But when our city’s Corporate Communication Group, the department charged with corporate, government and citizen communications, hires an outside group to conduct communication exercises I worry. We have been down this road before.

The City’s Charter Action Team (CHAT), responsible for The City Engagement Charter was formed by Council in 2014 in response to The Shape Burlington Report of 2011.

No doubt CHAT believe they are engaging and communicating well. Yet, most of the anger around citizen engagement and many Non-City Advocacy Groups have sprung up over that same period due to frustration with Citizen Advisories. Some of these Non-City groups have helped shape Burlington more than the city sponsored ones. So the question becomes: Can Citizen Action Labs improve engagement where previous efforts have failed?

The Gazette article provided a link to a delegation I made at council on behalf of ECoB on citizen engagement in April 2018. Re-reading that delegation, not much has changed. However, with a new council, elected on pro-engagement platforms, and apparently committed to that, I am hopeful that things will be different this time.

However, CHAT’s record leaves me looking at Citizen Action Labs through a cautious lens.

Gary Scobie, far right, was a member of the Waterfront Access and Protection Advisory Committee which was sunset by the city last December. Scobie went on to sit on the Ad Hoc Waterfront Committee.

Gary Scobie, far right, was a member of the Waterfront Access and Protection Advisory Committee which was sunset by the city. Chair Nicholas Leblovic is far right with Michael Sullivan to his left.

So why do some citizen advisory committees work while others don’t? How is it that some non-sponsored advocacy groups are more effective than city sponsored ones? I offer my thoughts based on experience with both types of groups, starting with a general explanation of Citizen Committee workings then examples of what seems to work, what doesn’t and a few caveats for Council, Staff and Citizens seeking greater engagement.

There are currently sixteen Citizen Advisories. Essentially they exist to “Advise Council”. That advice is fed to council via Committee Staff. So city council gets advice from two streams. From its professional departmental staff and from well-meaning, but non-professional Citizen Advisory Committees. If these two advice streams were equivalent, with equal access to council, all might be good. However they are not.

Advisory Committees are made up of citizens and interested stakeholders, appointed by council, who have a vote. Then there are non-voting staff from the department related to the advisory committee’s work. Staff from the city clerk’s department guide the advisory committee through council processes and procedures and record meeting minutes which, as any committee person knows, is a very influential position.

In essence, city departmental staff get two kicks at the can. They recommend actions directly to council then get to weigh in on advisory committee decisions. Citizen members can be, and are often swayed by the weight of staff expertise. This can leave citizen members feeling that unless they are cheer leading for staff recommendations, their views are not valued or appreciated.

Advice from Committees is funneled through staff as guidance or recommendations to council. Unfortunately such guidance often slants towards staff positions. This can be frustrating for citizen members. In instances where departmental staff recommendations are at odds with citizen committees, historically citizen advice is overlooked.

The next piece will be on examples of what seems to work, what doesn’t for committees and a few caveats for Council, Staff and Citizens seeking greater engagement.

Jim YoungJim Young is an Aldershot resident who delegates frequently at city council.  He once sat on the Seniors Advisory Committee.

Related news articles.

News story on the creation of the Citizen Action labs.

Young column on why Advisory committees can never work.

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2 comments to Young: Can Citizen Action Labs improve engagement where previous efforts have failed?

  • Gary Scobie

    I too share your reservations, Jim. I served first on an “official” citizen advisory committee as mentioned in the caption to the group picture. We identified Windows to the Lake that were being treated like private properties by adjacent waterfront property owners. Nothing was done by the City.

    It took our “unofficial” Burlington Waterfront group to then fight the City in its efforts to sell public waterfront to private interests bordering the land. We lost, but the City gave citizens two Windows to the Lake at St. Paul and Market Streets as a minor consolation prize. We still wait for the third at Green Street, promised but not yet delivered.

    The “official” committee did manage to get the Pump House at Beachway Park restored. Its single accomplishment before it was shut down.

    Burlington Waterfront again fought the City and the Region on the eventual planned destruction of the Beach neighbourhood. We lost again but did what we could to show how unnecessary the eventual destruction would be.

    So whether you’re with the City or against it, I’m not sure which type of citizen committee has much chance in influencing Council and staff. We are hopefully in a new era of engagement, but that still remains to be seen. I can tell you that in the past unofficial committees have much more freedom to say what they want to say and have a lot more fun doing it!

    To each his or her own.

  • Fred

    Jim, I totally agree with you. Advisory Committees will not work when the Committee members are well intentioned citizens without professional qualifications and staff that only update the Committee on matters where decisions already have been made.
    Effective Advisory Committees should have a mix of voting qualified Citizens and more than one Member of Council with senior staff strictly answering questions when asked.
    This model has been used in other jurisdictions very effectively.