Advisory Committees on the chopping block • An opportunity in disguise?

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
and others….

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: exc@toronto.ca

Or sign up to speak at the meeting by contacting Frances Pritchard of the City Clerk’s office: 416-392-6627 or exc@toronto.ca

Executive Committee Meeting
Wednesday April 20, 2011
Starting at 9:30am
City Hall, Second Floor, Committee Room 1

10 responses to “Advisory Committees on the chopping block • An opportunity in disguise?

  1. Thanks! It’s really good to have a considered examination from someone who has been involved in these committees and has seen the good and bad in how they work.

  2. Mary-Margaret McMahon

    Can we clone YOU??

  3. Hi Mez,

    I think you’re on the right track here. Just because things used to be done one way doesn’t mean they always should be. I’ll use the example of the Youth Strategy Panel, since I served on it while it was functioning.

    The Youth Strategy Panel was created to direct the creation of the Toronto Youth Strategy. We finished the strategy in David Miller’s first term but in the second term the YSP basically ceased to exist as it reported through the Mayor’s Roundtable on Children, Youth and Education and all of the roundtable groups were shutdown in 2006.

    But while the YSP served its purpose, it doesn’t need to be shutdown; it desperately needs to be reconstituted with a relevant terms of reference. Since Mel Lastman’s years in office, council has had some sort of official advisory body to get the needs of young people and their advocates/partners in the non-profit and governmental sectors in Toronto included in city hall’s policy agenda. With a refreshed terms of reference, developed in consultation with young people and those who provide services to children and youth, a child and youth advisory body will provide great value to the city once again.

  4. I think this is a really thoughtful and smart response to the situation. This is an opportunity to actually engage more people in governance. I’m not optimistic, though, that the current Mayor or his allies actually want civic engagement, but perhaps this is the opportunity to build new practices and processes into the structure that will outlast this administration and result in greater community engagement in the future. Good thinking, Dave!

  5. Mez, re: #3 — If I had to bet, I’d guess that the ulterior motive behind eliminating such advisory groups is cutting off the source of ideas that drive political decision-making, which, in turns, leads either to additional costs or a source of irritation for valued Ford constituencies, like drivers. The brothers Ford have a keen radar for the location of their enemies, and they sense that such advisory bodies interfere with an agenda that sees the cost of everything and the value of nothing.

  6. Insert Real Name

    No fashionable social media type application, no town-hall style consultation, no “e-engagement”, can replace a bunch of motivated people getting together, in person, to build long-term trust, insight and collaboration about the matters that concerns them. The process takes time, there’s no end-point nor guaranteed success, but it makes for a durable sense of community on the small scale, beyond what formal government and bureaucratic institutions can achieve in their usual top-down fashion.

    And it is of course that nascent community autonomy that the current politicians and bureaucrats most detest, since they see its development only in terms of unwelcome debate or a loss of the decision-making power concentrated in their own hands.

    We can surely improve the functioning of citizen advisory committees, but there is no substitute for them.

  7. Dave: Is there a way of going to the exec. meeting on Wednesday morning and ‘endorsing’ your five points? I’m not up to re-inventing the wheel. You seem to have the support of at least one councillor who has communicated with me.

  8. In a normal universe, your 5 points are well taken. Every new administration needs to look at its advisory committees and then figure out how it intends to engage the public on various policies. With the Ford administration, I would submit, the agenda to eliminate so many adovsory committees fits into their primary goal of reducing government plain and simple. These committees are also viewed as impacted their ability to cut programs and services. They are also viewed as the places where resistance to their agenda may spring up (and thus it is better to kill them off before they even get going). It has not been my experience that Ford is the community-engagement and social inclusion type. So I doubt that in the end he will be thinking of new ways to engage Torontonians.

  9. At around 7 pm last night, after deputants on this item were kept waiting for 10 hours, this item was brought into committee for a vote. In a moment of utter chaos, a councillor raised a motion, “as a joke”, to accept the staff report and its recommendations without changes.
    In the confusion, I am not sure who raised what motion and who were for/against and if it was a recorded vote.

  10. Hi:
    I was there – there was an unfortunate joke motion by Councillor Ainslee which some Councillors thought was serious but it got straightened out. Councillor Robinson made a motion to have the matter referred back to staff (I think) and then be sent back to the Exec. Committee – where there would be possibility for more public input. A second motion (can’t remember who made it) was made to send the City Manager’s original proposal (to end the terms of most committees) to Council to be debated and voted on there. Councillor Robinson’s motion was defeated – including by the mayor’s vote and the motion to send the matter to Council won. Councillor Vaughan told me that there is no date set on when the matter will be dealt with. Sending it to Council also ends public delegations on the matter. However, City Manager Penachetti made remarks in which he admitted how impressed he was at the many very informed delegations from important advisory committees – many testifying about the free expertise that the city benefits from. So there is hope that Council will do the right thing and demand that most of the committees who had such wonderful representation yesterday will continue in some fashion.

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