BLOG #439: Almost 15 years after city council adopted “a caring, responsive community” as part of London’s vision, a public task force will try to articulate rules of real citizen engagement.
Friday, May 13, 2011 – London
It’s been years in the making, when you think about it, back at least as far as the much-revered but little appreciated Vision ’96 process when city council’s current vision statement was first articulated.
But this weekend, at long last, London will officially and finally begin an intense community discussion designed to develop a new standard by which the civic government and its citizens can communicate, cooperate and truly engage. Call it the Rules of Engagement, civic style.
The deliberations – officially called the Community Engagement Task Force – will take some time, as long as seven months. The scope, though, will be broad.
“Community engagement is a process of working collaboratively with people to create a better community,” the terms of reference proclaim. “This includes processes such as public participation meetings, dialogue with a local councillor, written and verbal communication with residents, town hall meetings, surveys, focus groups or making a presentation to council.
“The Community Engagement Task Force shall focus on engagement as it relates to public information and participation, dialogue, communication, consultation and input. These processes must be inclusive of activities undertaken by the mayor and councillors as well as the civic administration.”
More than 150 people have signed up to take part in the task force and they will meet for the first time Saturday morning in the Carousel Room of the Western Fair. Mayor Joe Fontana will speak to begin discussions, indicating there is official support for the initiative from the very top.
Jeff Fielding, the city’s chief administrator, is also committed. Indeed, part of the recent delay in getting the task force going was work underway to ensure the commitment runs deep into City Hall. These included a series of intense workshops for senior managers and an employee survey which showed a strong majority felt community engagement is part of their job.
What has not yet been squared, however, is whether what city council, managers and staff see as appropriate citizen engagement actually means the same thing to the citizens. Odds are, in fact, that it does not. How accommodating each side is in finding acceptable and workable compromises will ultimately decide whether this exercise is real or not.
On the plus side, the enthusiasm on both sides seems real.
Still there is a lesson from history. Vision ’96, probably the most ambitious citizen engagement exercise London has ever undertaken, is largely considered by many participants to have been a disappointment and by many outsiders a failure.
It was neither. In hindsight, though, it was probably before its time. What Vision ’96 did that has had tremendous lasting value for London was to open our eyes to better civic government outcomes.
Changes in development policies, in urban design policies, in transportation policies, in governance policies – all of which started to occur in the last decade – trace their roots to Vision ’96. So does this Citizen Engagement Task Force.
The vision statement crafted 15 years resonates still:
“We are a caring, responsive community committed to the health and well-being of all Londoners. The actions we take will be socially, environmentally and fiscally responsible so that our quality of life is enhanced and sustained for future generations. Our people, heritage, diverse economy, strategic location, land and resources are our strengths.”