Public engagement is Vancouver mayor’s Achilles heel

People want opportunity to express their own likes and dislikes; not merely comment on a politicians’ short list


Recently, the Alberta government provided a case study on the futility of poorly planned consultation. Three designs for a new licence plate were unveiled. The public was asked to vote for their favourite.

It may have seemed like a great way to involve Albertans in the decision-making. In reality, it presented the public with a false choice of pretty pictures, while removing the “Wild Rose Country” slogan from the plates.

A professional consultation would have allowed for open and honest feedback on whether the change was required and what options the public would be willing to support. Instead, Albertans were asked to pick from three options that most did not want.

The reality, when a representative sample was used as in a poll, was very different. Three in five Albertans surveyed by Insights West disagreed with the decision to remove the phrase “Wild Rose Country,” and half wanted to keep it on any new licence plates.

This month, Insights West took a look at the way city of Vancouver residents feel about the services provided by their municipal government. Residents polled were happy with the city’s efforts to promote tourism, provide sanitation services, protect the environment and foster artistic and cultural activities.

There were three issues, however, where the municipal government fared badly, and they are all connected to the core themes that led to Vision Vancouver’s victories in 2008 and 2011: citizen engagement, homelessness and transparency.

On homelessness and poverty, 42 per cent of the respondents who cast a ballot for Mayor Gregor Robertson three years ago were unhappy with how the city has done. The dissatisfaction from past Vision Vancouver supporters is similar on the issues of how the city is “engaging with regular people “(38 per cent unhappy) and “making City Hall work in a transparent and unbiased fashion” (36 per cent unhappy).

Simply put, more than a third of those who cast a ballot for the incumbent mayor appear to be having serious doubts about the city’s commitment to involve them, and to be open about how it conducts its activities.

These doubts are not present on other core competencies. Fewer than one in five Robertson voters from 2011 were dissatisfied with most other city services and responsibilities.

As we near the municipal election, the support for Vancouver’s municipal government on specific issues is strong. The satisfaction with Vancouver’s commitment to environmental protection, for instance, is higher here than it was in Calgary in the lead-up to Mayor Naheed Nenshi’s sweeping re-election victory last year.

Sanitation, which led directly to the downfall of mayor Sam Sullivan, is not a problem, despite the colloquial complaints from those who have started using green bins.

Bike lanes are conspicuously absent from the list of hot buttons. Those who rely on them, love them. Those who don’t, have learned to live with them.

Even a majority of those who voted for Non-Partisan Association mayoral candidate Suzanne Anton in 2011 said that Vancouver is dealing properly with crime and public safety.

Yet a majority of Vancouver residents polled (53 per cent) — and more than a third of people who voted for the mayor almost three years ago — said that their city is not listening.

Providing electronic forums does not guarantee authentic engagement on the issues that matter to the public.

If Vancouverites are prodded to provide feedback on certain matters, but feel they do not have a suitable platform to discuss others, the process can become as ruinous as Alberta’s bungled licence plate choice. Thousands of public views may be registered and tallied, but genuine community involvement in decision-making processes will remain unattainable.

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