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Sunday 20 April 2014

Engage Us!

The Hard Road
Democracy is messy and hard. That is if you're doing it right. Its setup to allow participation by all who wish to take part and provide an arena to debate ideas. Unfortunately many democracies do not welcome all, nor do they provide open arenas for debate. The general public recognize this in some forms and begin to loose interest in all but the most radical scenarios, and they get called apathetic or lazy. While there are certainly some who simply don't care there are many many more who do care but feel that their involvement is not wanted.

Here's a video of Dave Meslin presenting on the idea that most people are interested but the system is usually set up to keep them out using "intentional exclusion."

Engage Me!
The idea seams simple enough doesn't it? If you want people involved then you have to do things to get them involved. If there are no significant actions that are intended to genuinely engage people then it must be concluded that there is no intent to actually involve people. Recently there has been some public discourse regarding youth engagement in municipal politics, and you can find my thoughts on the matter here. When I look at the three levels of government in our country I see very few examples of genuine public engagement. 

When the Government of NL launched the Office of Public Engagement I admit that I had hope that this was a sign of something new. A sign that they actually wanted input and participation from the people of NL. I hit Twitter and congratulated them for the move and mentioned how much I was looking forward to seeing how they would work toward actually engaging people. Unfortunately the OPE appears to be a branding exercise and not much more. Take a few minutes and click on the link and poke around the site. Try to find the new avenues they are using to "engage" people. You will find few if any. As of now the OPE has become a collection of initiatives that didn't fit anywhere else. Like the Rural Secretariat, Privacy protection, and training for the volunteer sector. These initiatives may indeed be worthwhile but they do not constitute public engagement.

Consultation Consternation. 
One of the best examples of a process that could be a useful public engagement tool but is terribly misused is the annual farce of Pre-Budget Consultations. This is where the current Finance Minister travels around the Province to listen to presentations from groups and individuals on where our public money should be spent. Sounds like a decent idea right? Well it might be if the budget hadn't already been decided upon, thus making the entire process a sham. These "consultations" take place early in the new year while the budget is decided by the end of the previous year. The really sad part is that most everyone knows this yet we all still play along as if it actually meant something.     

Now What.
While part of my intention is to point out that we have very little real public engagement happening I do want to cover some of the ways it is being done and can be done properly. As I indicated above it comes down to intent. Most governments and partys say they want your involvement when want they really want is your quiet support. So is anyone doing anything right? Are there better ways to get people involved? Of course, but it requires the genuine desire to get people involved.  

It starts with sharing. Some of the more impressive municipal councils in NL share almost everything via newsletters, websites, email lists, Facebook and Twitter. And I'm not just talking about the "gee aren't we great" stuff or the fluffy stuff. Some towns lay it all out, from the budget to the minutes to the staffing to the operational programs. The idea is that you provide the information and those who want to use it will use it. Too many councils share very little beyond fluff and it doesn't show any intent to engage because they simply are not interested in actively involving residents.

Some councils regularly invite people to sit on committees and attend council meetings, while others do very little and want very little input. At the Provincial level I would guess very few MHAs would want you to show up and watch a sitting of the House of Assembly. Simply for the reason that many of them act like spoiled children who continuously shout and mock each other. Plus there are the incredibly ridiculous rules for sitting in the gallery for the general public. Like the fact that you are not allowed to take notes, or use your phone, or even remain standing. I was in the gallery for some of the Bill 29 debates and after getting tired of sitting I stood to watch for a while. I was told that if I did not sit down I would be asked to leave. I almost refused just to see if they would remove me for standing.

The bottom line is that if you really want to get more people, youth, women, new people involved you have to mean it, you can't just say it. You have to take every opportunity to bring them them in and get their input. We have a representative democracy where you vote to give your vote to someone else, and the least they can do is to have you involved in the decision making process. The people of NL are pretty damn smart, and we care what happens in our governments. Open the doors and let us take part, we can handle it. Engage us!   

Sunday 13 April 2014

How about some real municipal reform?

The Municipalities Act was rewritten in 1999 and is occasionally amended to improve the original legislation. One example of a positive amendment was in 2007 when section 219 was updated to modify the ability of municipalities to engage in joint ventures for the purposes of service delivery. That's the kind of updating the act requires, changes that help modernize the Act and the sector to keep pushing municipalities toward greater accountability while also providing better resources.

On April 7th the Provincial Government sent out this release that indicates two new amendments. Specifically the text reads as follows:
 The first amendment will allow councils the discretionary authority to permit their councillors to attend meetings remotely. This will enable flexibility for councillors who are balancing council participation with family commitments, or who work from non-traditional locations or on an irregular schedule.

 The second amendment will allow councils the discretionary authority to appoint one or more youth representatives to council. These individuals, while not voting members, will bring the voice of youth to the council chambers and will add a new and important perspective to deliberations.
The complete text of the Bill can be found here. The unfortunate side of these amendments is that one is completely not required and the other simply enables struggling municipalities to remain on life support instead of performing the life saving surgery they desperately need. 

Redundancy is redundant.
Engaging youth in any democratic process is always a good idea. The average age of councillors in NL is reflective of the the high average age of the population across the province. So what's the issue with that first amendment above? Actually there are two issues with it. The first is that it is appointed so the council can choose anyone they like. Not exactly democratic. But my main issue is with regard to the fact that it is entirely unnecessary.

Section 25 is designed to allow councils to appoint anyone they want to any committee they want in order to ensure the proper operation of the town. This includes youth. Any council at any time could appoint an entire committee of youth specifically to provide the youth perspective. And this committee can have a chair who attends all council meetings and provides the youth perspective on any and all issues before council.

Bottom line is that legislation should be sharp and precise and not cumbersome and unnecessary. Encourage councils to use the ability they already have instead of doubling up on voluntary options.

Absence makes the votes go longer.
The second section of the proposed amendment will likely make quite a few councils pretty happy. There have been ongoing issues with getting enough people to serve on councils across NL and some towns have found that the Alberta job market has pulled away some folks who would, and have, serve on council. So this opportunity to attend council meetings via some kind of remote technology sounds like just what the Dr ordered right? Not exactly.

Again there are two issues here. First up is the idea of someone who for all intents and purposes barely lives in a community but still gets to make vital decision on how it runs. As long as a persons permanent residence is located in a community they are eligible to serve on council, even if they spend 80 or 90% of their time in another province. This is a little disconcerting for "local government" and I don't think it sets the right precedent. For emergency situations remote attendance is perfect but how many councillors will be attending the majority of their meetings from another province?

The second, and much larger issue here is that this is a stop gap measure that simply covers up the larger issue. The municipal sector has been in dire need of significant reform in NL for decades and Governments of various colors have been pretty much ignoring it all along. If it were one or two councillors that required the ability to attend remotely on occasion that would be one thing, but the number people on councils who work out west combined with the difficulty in getting people to serve on councils is just a small indication of the fundamental, and structural changes needed in the sector. This amendment is like putting a band aid on a broken leg.    

This "Bill 6" will likely pass and there will certainly be some councillors and councils who support it. It is worth noting however that as I write this it appears that Municipalities Newfoundland and Labrador (MNL) does not support at least one portion of the bill. My guess is that Municipal Affairs came up with these amendments without actually checking with the sector representatives if they made any sense. The bottom line is that this bill doesn't help engage youth and it doesn't provide for the sustainability of municipalities in NL. In fact it does pretty much nothing of any use at all. 

As reported here at VOCM MNL is clearly not in favor of at least part of the amendment.