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Top Ten Community Consultation Pitfalls

By Victor Schwartzman 
October 07, 2013
In the modern age, politicians realize it was foolish for their predecessors to take ownership on projects.  The modern politicians’ solution?  Community
consultation processes where the community is invited to be involved in the planning from day one! 

Of course, what happens on day two is another question. 

In Vancouver, a process of community consultation similar to Ontario’s hopefully is leading to better results.  The Vancouver process began with Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH, the governmental organization responsible for health care in Vancouver) needing money.  Two long term residential care institutions—Dogwood Lodge (for seniors who have dementia and similar conditions), and George Pearson Centre (for people with severe physical disabilities)—sit on 25 acres
of prime real estate in the heart of Vancouver.  The land was a cash cow and VCH needed the cash.

The decision was made to develop the land and use some of the proceeds to fund replacements for the two institutions.  That was only a fraction of the plan, which called for creating a new village on the site featuring housing, shopping and other amenities.  For much of the surrounding community the questions revolved on what the development would look like and how it would affect traffic—routine.  For those people involved with access issues, the question of the two institutions and what would replace them was critical. 

VCH started a community consultation process about replacing George Pearson and Dogwood, hiring consultants to engage with community representatives.  Following private consultations, VCH then sponsored a series of ‘round tables’ where community members could see its proposals for developing the site.  There were several round tables (I attended one) where community advocates raised concerns about plans to simply build new institutions to replace the old.  What
about ‘global best practices’ these advocates asked?  Why bring back 1880?

VCH blinked, to its credit.  It returned with a new proposal.  For the George Pearson residents, it appears to now call for around 90 independent living apartments and a 30 bed institution.  That is it for details.  VCH never really acknowledged what it originally planned or why, nor are there details about the planned apartments or institution.  History becomes relevant in trusting VCH.  After all, VCH promised George Pearson residents that it would implement the ‘Eden’ concept to help move the place from an institution into a residence.  It took ten years for VCH to hire a person to attempt to begin to start Eden. Will it take another ten years for it to implement Eden? 

As a result, there remains reasonable suspicion about VCH’s motives and whether what Vancouver ends up with will represent global ‘best practices’ on access issues or a quick fix.  VCH seems to require constant community pressure to keep it moving towards ‘best practices.’   

The AODA community consultation process in Ontario has had far less positive results.  AODA was created through a lengthy, time consuming community consultation process which significantly raised expectations among advocates.  However, in the nearly ten years since AODA was proclaimed little seems to have happened except aggravation.  

Community consultation can work, but there are pitfalls advocates should be aware of.  As a public service, here are our:  

Top Ten Pitfalls In Community Consultation Processes  

10.       Politicians have a lot more time than advocates.  Consultation processes for advocates require preparation time and energy.  All the politicians have to do is listen, and they can eat sandwiches while doing that.  Large public organizations have the resources to wait out almost anyone.

9.         Who controls the process?  Remember who has more time.  A consultation process that is done in a few months, as VCH’s was, delivers results. 
The longer the process, the less likely a timely result.  True community consultation processes are developed with communities, and would be co-chaired and co-controlled by community representatives.  Should not the stakeholders control the process? 

8.         Forests are decimated.  To engage in a community consultation process requires a lot of paper.  The politicians prepare extensive guidelines and schedules.  Advocates prepare reports with footnotes.  Eventually all the papers will be sent to the dump as landfill.  In the process, entire swaths of perfectly good forest are sacrificed.  Consultation processes can be bad for the environment!  Some of this problem would be solved by having only digital documents, although then there would be the question of what we would use for landfill because community consultations have been very important in replacing garbage. 

7.         Advocates are decimated.  Consultation takes time and energy.  Already overworked advocates must spend time in consultation processes preparing lengthy reports and making presentations.  This has led to the documented premature death of community advocates, whose average age has now dropped to 19. 

6.         Community organizations are overloaded.  Staff time is redirected.  Board meetings are taken up with preparing for the consultation process, reviewing staff submissions, and so on.  All this extra work has led to the documented premature death of community organizations, whose average age has now dropped to 12.  Previously, community organizations could expect to survive to at least puberty.  This has led to a decline in baby community organizations.   

5.         The Sleeping Beauty Syndrome.  The consultation process is like the poisoned apple from the evil queen: take a bite and enter dreamland.  With AODA, the community felt it could take a nap once the consultation process began.  It stayed trustingly asleep when AODA was developed and proclaimed. 

If advocates had not bitten that apple, it is likely far more pressure would have been put on politicians and AODA would be reality.  With the VCH process, the apple was offered but the community refused to bite, instead offered back a holistic organic apple–the advocates remained awake and the process became a tool for them to use. 

4.         Community consultations put issues on the back burner.  When advocates are busy being involved with community consultations, something has to give.  That would include other important community issues that need work.  Worse, political decisions may be made in the community about delaying concerns to avoid a negative impact on the consultations.  After all, one can only ask for rights so much! With all the cooperating involved in a consultation, communities worry about rocking the boat.  The result is that often the Titanic ends up on the back burner, which requires a mighty big stove. 

3.         Politicians are off the hook. Consultation processes have the appearance of action.  With VCH, it apparently already decided on simply rebuilding existing institutions and ignoring the wishes of residents.  When VCH heard in public the residents’ concerns, realizing the residents would not back down, it responded by dumping the old plan and presenting a vague new one.  Since VCH never explained fully the old plan nor the new one, it remains ‘on the hook’ although it has earned itself extra line.  With AODA, politicians got away with appearing to take action by holding the consultation process.  When the time for real action came—implementing AODA—politicians took advantage of community.  Apparently, Ontario politicians, taking over 100 days to appoint a new Independent Reviewer, still do not feel the bite of any hook.   

2.         Consultations create trust in the untrustworthy.  Hey, those politicians are doing something!  Golly, they are listening to us and taking our
submissions!  Okay, they say they are working on it.  Gosh, it’s been over five years and I’m starting to wonder.   Yes, politicians respond to pressure, not ideals, so they are fundamentally untrustworthy.  The same is true for the top bureaucrats in large crown corporations.  Both groups have their own agendas, and it ain’t necessarily yours! 

1.         Beware no deadlines.  Everything boils down to a result.  Deadlines require a result.  The consultation process is not a result.  Is there a
deadline for when the talking will end, a decision will be made, and the action start?  Beware any process that has vague deadlines.  Beware vague commitments.  
Next: Maybe the column promised originally for this week, but why should I be different from the Government?