It was announced this week that City Council will be discussing the possibility of eliminating twenty one citizen advisory committees including:
Aboriginal Affairs Committee
Advisory Committee on Long-Term Care Homes and Services
Art Committee for Public Places
City of Toronto French Committee
Drug Strategy Implementation Committee
3Rs Working Group
Task Force to Bring Back the Don
Toronto Cycling Advisory Committee
Toronto Pedestrian Committee
Children’s Services Advisory Committee
Council Reference Group on Animal Services
Development Industry Working Group
Don Valley Brick Works Public Advisory Committee
Tenant Defence Sub-Committee
Youth Strategy Panel
The recommendation appeared this week in a staff report (pdf), and goes to the Executive Committee next week.
So, this is a bad thing, right? I would say that depends on what we do with the opportunity.
I believe strongly that democracy is more than just voting at the ballot box. During the four years in between our local elections, we should aim to maximise public participation in the decision-making process. We benefit in many ways from having an engaged population. The process leads to more inclusive policies, more informed citizens and also serves to engage and give a voice to emerging community leaders.
So, how could this proposal possibly be a good thing? Well, for starters, everyone is suddenly talking about civic engagement! I’m guessing that most people in Toronto have never even heard of these advisory groups, but now they’re learning all about them in the Star, on the Spacing Wire, and in alerts being sent by community groups and Councillors. Sometimes an attack on something is a blessing in disguise, raising awareness and building public support that didn’t previously exist.
More importantly, the staff report could trigger a process of discussion that needs to happen in Toronto. What IS the best way to engage the public? Were these advisory groups the best model? As a former member of both the Pedestrian Committee and Cycling Committee I can say that the effectiveness of these groups fluctuates from year to year. Sometimes we achieved a lot and contributed to policy-making and sometimes we were completely dysfunctional and a drain on staff time.
There are clear advantages of the “Advisory Committee” model, including the fact that the committees are given staff support, have evening meetings (which make them more accessible than daytime Committees of Council) and the members can send recommendations directly to City Council’s Standing Committees. But there are imperfections with the model too, for example the lack of awareness in the general public, the disproportionate representation of downtown members, and the fact that nominees have to be approved by Council – rather than an independent appointment process.
The staff report has a vague sentence about considering “alternate engagement methods including town hall style meetings, social media applications, public forums, e-engagement or program advisory committees to provide input or advice”. Those all sound like great ideas to me, and could potentially take us in a good direction.
Rather than just opposing this proposal, I would prefer to see amendments moved (either at Executive Committee or at Council) along the following lines:
1) Slow down. This is a drastic move, with very little information. Personally, I would like to see the item referred back to staff with a request for background history on each Committee. They are proposing the elimination of 21 groups, each with very different characteristics. Perhaps some of the groups are not needed any more, while others are. Maybe some have been incredibly effective, while others have not. We need a more sophisticated and detailed approach to this matter. Even staff admit that while ten of the groups seem to be ‘dormant or redundant’, the ten others are not. Simply eliminating all twenty one committees, with such little information, would be reckless.
2) The current wording about “alternative engagement methods” is too vague. It says staff “may consider” alternatives, and even then it’s only in the context of “implementation” of existing “plans and strategies”. I’d like to see an amendment that specifically states that the City is committed to seeking public input on issues and encouraging citizen involvement on key issues, with a timeline for implementing new methods, rather than a vague reference that could go nowhere.
3) The rationale behind the staff recommendation is very unclear, especially since the report states clearly that there are “no financial implications.” In other words, according to staff, this is not a cost-cutting measure. Well, then why are they recommending it? If we’re going to dismantle these groups, we’d better have a good reason – backed up by data.
4) I’d love to see a request to staff, asking them to explore their “alternatives” a little further and flush out those ideas. Let’s look at how other cities facilitate community engagement. What models and templates are already out there? There are tonnes of resources to look at.
5) I’d like to see a request for a community consultation process about the matter (ha!). Let’s hear from the members of these committees. Has the current engagement model worked for them? What would they change, to make it better? Let’s also hear from those who aren’t on the Committees (or have never heard of the committees) but want to engage. What model would they like to see? And let’s bring in experts from other cities (see #4), and hear about their experiences.
I think we’re doing this in the wrong order. The staff report recommends that 21 Committees should be eliminated and then the issue should be “referred to staff to determine future requirements.” Isn’t that backwards? What happens in the meantime? It sounds to me like there would be a huge void that could last for months – or years. The simplest short-term solution is to extend the term of the existing appointees (their term technically ended with the previous Council), while this discussion is happening.
If this is about making civic engagement better, then lets dive in. But if this is just about saving money, let’s hit the brakes. Councillor Doug Holyday was quoted in the Star, saying “There’ll be savings, believe me. The savings is going to be in staff time, and that can be enormous.” That could only be true if there was no intention of replacing these Committees with any other forms of public engagement and consultation.
Let’s make sure that doesn’t happen.
We shouldn’t be saving money by cutting engagement opportunities. We should be explicitly prepared to spend money on engagement. Democracy isn’t a cheap thing to facilitate. And you get what you pay for.
At the same time, let’s not assume that we are currently using the right model. We could potentially gain a lot from looking at other engagement methods.
I encourage people to send letters to (or appear in person at) next week’s Executive Committee.
Send a written deputation to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Or sign up to speak at the meeting by contacting Frances Pritchard of the City Clerk’s office: 416-392-6627 or email@example.com
Executive Committee Meeting
Wednesday April 20, 2011
Starting at 9:30am
City Hall, Second Floor, Committee Room 1