Earlier today, the VPSN submitted a letter to City Council – offering our support for a motion that would aim to improve citizens’ access to speak to City Council.
The motion requested that City staff
investigate best practices, consult with the Mayor’s Engaged City Task Force, the City’s advisory committees and others, and report back to Council within two months with suggestions on how to improve citizens’ access to speak to City Council, including the possibility of allowing citizens to sign up for daytime or evening time periods, and the use of technology to alert speakers as to which number on the speakers’ list is being heard.
Here’s an excerpt from our letter:
“We feel that the City is making important strides in improving citizen engagement. In recent years there have been important advances in online engagement, civic processes and stakeholder consultations. Initiatives such as Talk Vancouver, Greenest City, Transportation 2040 and the Block 51 consultation process represent some of examples of the good work being done. The recruitment of an Engaged City Taskforce and staff devoted to civic engagement work are further milestones in this regard.
However, as we noted in our Route Map for Public Space Policy (2012-2014),
the various new tools and techniques that are being employed to gather ideas are hampered on two fronts: Council and Park Board meeting processes that require people to take time off work, or schedules key discussions at inaccessible times; and restricted scheduling in the release of key staff reports, whereby reports are released for public review with little more than one week time (and sometimes a lot less) for public review. These two areas represent key concerns that must be addressed.*
The motion being considered on October 8 responds to our first point of concern. Notwithstanding the important work that has taken place to date, we are supporting the motion because we feel that it addresses an area of shortfall: that is, the specific difficulties that many citizens face in speaking directly to Council during their deliberations. Improving opportunities for engagement at all stages of a given process is critical – but this is particularly the case when Council members are debating a given item – approving or amending policy, allocating resources and so forth. Speaking from our own organization experience, it is particularly challenging for people who have limited ability to take time off work (limited vacation, scheduling difficulties, childcare needs, etc.) to present to Council in a face-to-face format. It is more challenging still, given the often unpredictable nature of Council meetings – where discussions sometimes stretch over several meetings.
At the same time, it is precisely is type of face-to-face engagement that takes place in Council chambers that is so crucial to democratic dialogue. Letters and emails will only ever go part of the way to bridging the space between the citizenry and elected officials.
While we don’t have a solution to these issues, we would encourage some study of options to see what, if any, ways the current situation might be improved.
In conclusion, we would also like to acknowledge that the Engaged City Taskforce will be releasing a full report of their recommendations later in Fall 2013. We are looking forward to reviewing the recommendations contained in this document and note that it’s possible that some or all of the items referenced in the motion may be considered therein. However, given the importance of citizen engagement, we also wanted to take the opportunity today to signal our support for enabling greater and more meaningful participation in democratic process.”
* Our second point, referenced in the quote from our Route Map for Public Space Policy, is also worth noting – although it appears to be outside of the scope of the present motion. We’d suggest doubling the one-week advance release time for all staff reports being considered so that citizens have a better chance to find out about, read and respond to the items on which Council is deliberating).
Reference: The Vancouver Public Space Network’s Route Map for Public Space Policy was published in advance of the 2011 municipal election.