Philip Mcleod

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Citizen engagement – a beginning

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.”


+2 # Citizen EngagementDavid Dimitrie 2011-05-13 02:42
I did not live in London in 1996. I don't know what Vision 1996 is. I moved here in 1999. I became very involved as a community association and tenant association leader. One of the first things I had to learn was how to get info from City Hall. Only one of my Councillors was of limited help and the bureaucrats only handed over exactly what you asked for. They didn't help you in your search for info. Community, election meetings etc. seemed and still seem staged and the outcomes seem pre-arranged. In general I find that one must do a great deal of research, attend many meetings and find good sources to get info out of City Hall. I have to wonder why such a huge exercise like this is needed when it is Council and the staff's job #1 to serve and help residents of London
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# RE: Citizen engagement – a beginningJack Yellin 2011-05-13 15:01
You think the city is bad, you should try the public school board! Byzantine!

Also, it is not necessarily that you listen to the public. It is what you do with it that is important. Often, politicians think they know better just because they got elected.
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# Good to meet you!Craig Hunter 2011-05-16 06:09
Had a good time chatting this weekend Phil.

Really looking forward to really getting into this project more, there was some really good suggestions we came up with in our 2nd breakout group.
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# Good to meet you!Craig Hunter 2011-05-16 06:09
Had a good time chatting this weekend Phil.

Really looking forward to really getting into this project more, there was some really good suggestions we came up with in our 2nd breakout group.
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