Public consultations over-rated

James Bews-Hair, one of Len Brown’s spin weasels is a master at setting up public consultation groups in an effort to show us all that Len Brown is an inclusive mayor listening to us all. The thinking is that you get all these consultative groups operating then you can come out and say that you’ve consulted with the public and the overwhelming response is…[insert preferred option].

In the C2C Journal however they slay this particular sacred cow with 8 reasons why public consultation is over rated.

Across Canada, public consultations are in style at City Hall. Such consultations are meant to build a greater sense of community and provide city planners with valuable insight into citizens’ thinking. They are seen to enhance the democratic process; some people love to share their opinions and want more of a say over what goes on in their city.

It is hard to be against public consultations. But just as fast-food burgers rarely measure up to the pictures in commercials, cities exaggerate the value of public consultations.

Same rationale as here. Now for the reasons. 

First, the vast majority of people cannot or do not participate in such engagements. Calgary boasts that its imagineCALGARY project, launched in 2005, involved more than 18,000 participants and represented “the largest community visioning and consultation process of its kind anywhere in the world.” In a city of one million people, this means not even 2 per cent of Calgarians participated, and yet the project drives the development plans and regulations that affect the other 98 per cent.

This leads us to the second problem: Consultation-based decision-making favours special interest groups or activists. Whether it is bike-lane advocates or the taxi lobby, nothing beats the disorganized majority like an organized minority. Political economist Mancur Olson uses the analogy of a disciplined, coordinated army versus an undisciplined, leaderless mob to make this point.

The second point is where James Bews-Hair likes to direct things. Because he can do this.

Even if the majority of the population would actually oppose a policy suggested in a consultation, the public is often unaware of the policy or too disorganized to mobilize against it. Citizens typically self-select for consultations; participation is not compulsory. A passive recruitment method usually produces a snowball sample; interested individuals recruit from their social networks, and these individuals recruit from their social networks, and so on, until the group is composed. Cities rarely receive feedback from representative samples.

He does this successfully so many times…and Len Brown gets what he wants. It is quite dishonest.

Third, few people have expertise in city planning, but consultations are not meritocracies. Rational people do not put more into a task than they will benefit from doing so. When all opinions are regarded as equal, there is no extra incentive to be educated before providing advice. Anthony Downs calls it “rational ignorance.” Alternatively, people may believe they are informed, but they are actually acting according to group affiliation, personal ideology, the media or a host of other information shortcuts.

Former B.C. Liberal leader Gordon Gibson once remarked, “I would never ride in an airplane designed by a citizens’ assembly. They are not qualified to do that kind of thing.”

If people were held personally accountable for the decisions they make on behalf of the city, they would be unlikely to participate, and this is a sign that they may be in over their heads.

Uh huh…witness claims that trains to the airport will solve a multitude of issues, or that intensification will make houses cheaper. Now for the fourth:

Knowledge aside, language is a restriction. That some values and preferences cannot be articulated is the fourth difficulty.

Consider the statement “I love you.” Anyone who replies, “How much do you love me?” is usually teasing, because one cannot provide a sufficient answer. In a marketplace, people may choose products and places for reasons they cannot articulate, while consultations can only deliver the describable.

Even if people can describe what they want or how much they want it, they are not paying a direct cost for the decisions they make during consultations, and this is the fifth problem.

Consultations typically ask hypothetical questions such as “What would you like to have?” People will say they prefer a bigger, higher-quality TV, but they still buy smaller, lower-quality TVs, due to price. A person who buys a cheaper TV will have money left over to spend on something else. Consultations lack the ability to convey people’s desires relative to other desires or needs.

It is easy to understand why citizens would simultaneously advocate for cheaper transit and buses that are more frequent, as they did in one Calgary consultation, but there is an obvious conflict. For a given ridership, hiring more bus drivers and purchasing more buses requires more revenue per ride. Consultations struggle to simulate trade-offs.

Are you starting to recognise now what is being done to you by James Bews-Hair and Len Brown.

The sixth problem: Consultations seek to narrow the range of options in the marketplace by establishing the preferred city services and urban forms, but what constitutes an improvement in the quality of life is subjective. Some people prefer a single-family home in the suburbs, others, an inner-city apartment.

Using public consultations to achieve consensus is futile, because there is no consensus. There is no optimal urban form, and when consultations are concerned with private property, participants are merely imposing their tastes on others.
A seventh problem is that all consultations necessarily take place within constraints and carry underlying assumptions. Not everyone will see development through the same lens as the consultation organizers. For example, consultations may be based entirely on the principles of Smart Growth, but people argue that the Smart Growth doctrine artificially pushes up the price of housing. Cities should not assume everyone is an advocate of Smart Growth policies.

Where have we heard “Smart Growth” mentioned before?

Cities may present citizens with different options for the implementation of a new program, but in doing so, the consultation is biased against the option of not starting the program at all. People who want to see government intervention seek participation in public consultations, and those who desire government to stay out of their neighborhood or activities, ironically, must get involved in politics to avoid political intervention.

Sigh…we are seeing this all too closely in NZ.

Finally, consultations and visioning exercises are limited to working with currently known possibilities and do not provide an incentive for innovation. People re-evaluate their preferences when new options become available. Consumers were not demanding iPhones prior to their invention, but now practically every phone on the market carries the same then-revolutionary features.

The Saskatoon Speaks vision document declares, “The most successful cities…envision their future city and what will make it great. They plan ahead and then act on their plans.”

Once again, it is hard to be against planning for the future. But imagine if 100 years ago consumers planned and regulated the development of the telecommunications industry. Let us hope that 100 years from now, cities planned by consultations are not the equivalent of the rotary phone.

Public consultations are not worth the hype. They are great public relations tools for municipal governments, but inadequate tools for city planning.


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  • In Vino Veritas

    Yep, look at the flurodisation debate in Hamilton. Minority nutjobs with time to spare, beat years of science because science didn’t turn up.

  • Mr_Blobby

    Public consultation is a waste of time, hence the vast majority don’t participate.

    The real crime is that our elected Council officials have been captured and controlled by the Council officers. They simply rubber stamp anything put in front of them.

    Local Boards are even more sidelined.

  • blokeintakapuna

    “In a city of one million people, this means not even 2 per cent of Calgarians participated, and yet the project drives the development plans and regulations that affect the other 98 per cent.”

    Same with unions. They represent something like only 17% of the workforce – yet, you’d think they are the judiciary with any matter regarding employment laws, social justice and education.
    MMP – don’t even get me started…

  • And so what would you have it consultations place seeming we operate in a representative democracy.

    I noticed the deafening silence Cam over the Central Government going for consultation over policy issues…

  • Science did turn up, IVV. But common sense came up against arguably the most stunningly incompetent set of councillors in the whole of New Zealand. The Flat Earthers are alive and well in ‘The Tron’. It will make an interesting history lesson post the October local body elections.

  • Bad__Cat

    Having sat through a number of Council Long Term Plan submission sessions, (required by law), I saw the same things as listed above.

    While there are some submitters with genuinely good ideas, most are the usual rent-a-crowd loonies rabbiting on about banning GE, or bicycle tracks for two bikes a day, or some other bright-eyed idea that would benefit them, but that someone else should pay for.