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How public engagement can help find the right questions

August 04, 2015

When a group is faced with a tough problem, be it a neighbourhood, a company, or a city, often the most valuable thing is asking the right question. Ask the wrong question and you’ll get a solution that doesn’t fit the problem.  The growing population of Metro Vancouver is facing a host of problems, but few are as critical to our environment, our economy and our overall wellbeing as transportation and land-use planning. So when the Province decided, atypically, that Metro Vancouverites ought to decide the future of their transportation funding through a referendum (turned plebiscite), it made me wonder whether our elected officials—those who control taxes and funding—got the question right.  This blog entry explores the experience of a community dialogue and its potential as a different approach to public involvement in planning.

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Amid the mid-day bustle of lunching Vancouverites, SFU Public Square hosted a City Conversations on July 16th in the pedestrian haven near Hornby and Hastings.  This particular conversation was to focus on the results of the transit referendum, which had, on July 2nd, been revealed at long last to Metro Vancouverites. More funding for transit, roads and bridges?  The answer was ‘no’. 

I suspect this was a disappointing result to most of the people present at this City Conversation; there was a slightly somber, directionless feeling in the air. 

The event followed a familiar format: three guest speakers (Mario Canseco, a public opinion expert, Bob Ransford, the head of the “Yes” coalition, and Maria Robinson, a grassroots organizer from Metro Vancouver Alliance) followed by a public Q&A, all moderated by Shauna Sylvester of SFU's Centre for Dialogue.

It wasn’t fancy, but it captured something fundamental that was missing from the referendum process. That is, a chance for people to meet face to face with ideas, opinions and questions different than what they encounter in their everyday lives. When you gather in a public space to discuss with other citizens, you have little control over who shows up, and you can be sure that not everyone is going to think like you. 

And so it was, in crowd that felt like a sea of ‘yes’ voters, that one gentleman approached the mic to share the fact that he and everyone he knew had in fact voted ‘no’.  They voted ‘no’ for many reasons, but primarily because they saw no evidence of a plan for what TransLink would do with the money.

Anyone with access to the internet must have found this comment baffling. A basic google search leads you to www.mayorscouncil.ca where detailed plans exist for transit, roads and bridges as well as legal explanations of accountability and how the proposed tax would function. A little more research and you might stumble upon the extensive plans available on TransLink’s site, which are coordinated with the Regional Growth Strategy from Metro Vancouver, and Wikipedia gives a good overview of the political history of TransLink and the Province’s role in its creation and functioning.

How does one explain this brave ‘no’ voting citizen who was engaged enough to come to a public conversation but did not have even basic information?  He did not say, ‘I read the mayors’ plan and here are my concerns’. He simply did not know about it. 

Frustrating as it was to hear his ‘no’ rationale and consider how many other voters might have told the same story, I do recognize the value of having that voice and that experience shared at the event. If anything, it served to raise a number of other questions for consideration.  The first one being:

Is a plebiscite how we want to make major planning decisions?

It now seems like the most important decision in our region’s recent history and near future was decided by people that may or may not have spent any time learning about the costs and benefits of the plan. If education was fundamental for the public to make an informed, constructive decision, was a plebiscite the right vehicle? In retrospect, it seems like an expensive investment with very poor educational returns. Further, what exactly of public opinion are you measuring if the public doesn’t have basic information on which to form an opinion? For a more sound investment those responsible might look to the Metro Vancouver Alliance or Moving In A Livable Region, both of whom conducted very thoughtful community dialogues about transit issues in the region. 

Another issue for ‘no’ voters was the confusing messaging coming from the Province and TransLink around the referendum, so I guess you can’t blame citizens for disengaging.  Still, the question remains… 

What is the relationship between the Province and TransLink?

Hearing the Ministry of Transportation criticize TransLink seems strange once you realize the Province created TransLink in 1998. They also were responsible for the governance changes in 2007 and continue to oversee the strategic vision for the agency. How is it they are able to criticize the agency and the governance structure they created? Maybe they just know the power of suggestion.  Still…

Why if studies show TransLink is operating as well or better than other North American providers are we so concerned with its governance? 

The most serious problem with TransLink’s operations is that in certain areas there is not enough service to meet demand. That’s an easy fix (funding) compared with the problems other regions are dealing with around getting regional coordination and agreement. As Bob Ransford said at the event, imagine having to get off the bus at every municipality and pay for a new fare because the transit systems are not coordinated.  That’s a reality in a number of other major cities. 

I must admit that, by the end of the event, I felt a mix of interest and total frustration at what I had learned about the referendum and its implications.  With time, though, I realize that the act of being there and hearing others not only raised interesting new questions for me, it also allowed me to connect to other people with different views and experiences—something I probably don’t do nearly enough of. 

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Mark Beaty is Research & Evaluations Coordinator at SFU Public Square and a graduate of SFU's School of Public Policy.