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Dialogue Partners

A lesson in how NOT to engage the public.

Or this could be a lesson in how to do public engagement in a way that increases distrust, emotion and cynicism. Here is the project at the City of Ottawa:

Let me tell you a little story. It’s Steph speaking – I want to acknowledge that I live in Ottawa, and I love this community (although not the winters so much). I also want to acknowledge that Dialogue Partners doesn’t do public engagement work for the City of Ottawa, or at least haven’t done so in years – because of things exactly like this little story.

How about if you decide to build a light rail line 10 years ago and then have to start all over again at great cost, time and effort because you did such a bad job of consulting? Then you try again, but you put 4 routes out there and get sent back to try again. Then – third time lucky right? Not so much.

Now you’re finally ready to consult the public again, so you launch a process and tell people “Your Input is Valuable”, starting with the presentation of 6 different routes. But then, you clarify and say actually….we don’t like those other routes, we really only like this one. So we should ignore the other routes and comment on the “preferred one”. But I wonder why you bothered to tell us you have 6 routes if you really only care about 1? Isn’t that like telling us instead of asking us. Our input probably isn’t that valuable then. Oops.

Then one of your biggest stakeholders – the National Capital Commission – whose land you want to use for some of your routes says they didn’t know about this and certainly aren’t on board the train you are promoting. Oops.

Then you set up a “consultation” in Ottawa Council Chambers where hundreds of people can line up and have their 5 minute say one at a time into a microphone about the routes (or maybe only the preferred route). I bet you got a lot of really meaningful input from that on what really matters to people, about why those things matter, about their hopes, concerns, ideas, suggestions and even the hard choices they think you could make. No? Can’t do that in 5 minute snippets of yelling into the microphone? I guess its like tweeting in person – countless opinions that don’t help you work together with the community or move forward together. Oops.

Then you create thousands (I’m exaggerating here) of display boards with really easy to understand plain language and accessible and friendly communication on them to share your message with phrases like: “This study will re-assess the findings of the TMP Update in order to determine the appropriate rapid transit solution within the WLRTC study area and identify the best corridor or corridors for rapid transit (LRT) between Bayview and Baseline stations” AND “Transit modeling was undertaken using the City’s regional transportation model (TRANS) to predict the implications of various rapid transit scenarios on future transit demand for the year 2031”. Because I’m a well educated, intelligent woman and that totally makes sense to me. Not. Oops.

Then you say things like “Your Input is Valuable” and then the only way to provide input if you don’t go to a meeting is to send an email. Because there is no comment form posted on the website or any online engagement process. And please make me stop so I don’t tell you what I think of the questions that are being asked on the comment form at the open houses about the preferred route. Oops.

And then, why don’t you run a consultation with the public on how to consult about the same time you run this project to present and inform the public about your preferred option for light rail (and then call it consultation). Because that really makes it authentic and meaningful. Oops.

Here is the thing. I want light rail. I want it yesterday. I’m even Ok with some of the routes. I even live in Westboro / McKellar where I will be impacted by the route. But I would really, really appreciate being treated with respect, caring and a commitment to listen. I’d like to know there is a potential to work together with the City on important issues. I’d like to play a role in my City because I love it and it matters to me, and because I know the City is listening, instead of sitting on the sidelines feeling cynical and unsurprised that here we go again.

I’d like to know that engagement matters to the City – not because I do this for a living and win international awards doing it – but because it would make this community, and all of us who live here better.

I wish for a different conversation with the City. I wish I wasn’t still thinking this, 10 years after the City won an award for the Public Participation Policy I wrote and developed, that they put on a shelf and never implemented. Oops.

And, it turns out others agree with me.