All of the handwringing over the lack of civic engagement in the important issues of the day blames the public for preferring to stay home and watch TV, play video games and chat on Facebook. Not enough blame goes to government and business for making a mockery out of the process by asking for what people think and then ignoring the response.
Governments at all levels and large businesses planning major operations now seek "community engagement," a nice bureaucratic phrase built upon the rickety notion that if ordinary people knew what was REALLY going on, they'd ignore those annoying tree-hugging anti-development curmudgeons and get on board with the latest grandiose pitch to make us all better off.
The city's latest efforts to get local taxpayers to take part in the city budget process came in the form of an online presentation by staff last night, followed by questions posted by the public through their computers or over the phone, which were then answered by city staff.
TransCanada Pipelines is hosting an open house from 4:30 to 8 p.m. today at the Prince George Civic Centre for a community information session on the proposed Coastal GasLink project.
Whether it's preparing the city's annual budget or suggesting a liquefied natural gas pipeline from Dawson Creek to a proposed LNG gas plant by Shell in Kitimat (which itself will have to go through a community engagement exercise), these are complicated initiatives that deserve thorough explanations to the public. TransCanada plans to have representatives on site today to answer any questions and explain its proposed route.
For the companies and the government bodies reaching out to the public, these efforts are damned-if-they-do, damned-if-they-don't affairs. If they don't do it, the public complains they weren't consulted and if they do it, the public complains they weren't consulted enough.
But it doesn't help that most community engagement exercises are little more than sales pitches.
With so many complicating factors involved, these information sessions normally become shallow and cynical propaganda rallies. Some impressive pie charts and bar graphs, and some well-scripted talking points to frame the discussion with little or no mention of any downsides is about all anyone who bothers to turn out will get.
TransCanada has already decided that it should build a pipeline so there's no room for a discussion about whether the pipeline should be built at all. That's saved for the environmental assessment process, after the company has invested heavily in developing and promoting its proposal. TransCanada will be flexible on some of the details of the construction and operation of the pipeline but not on the pipeline itself. Their interest at this point is in answering "how should the pipeline be built?" working from the premise that, of course, it should be built.
TransCanada is willing to talk within that framework, which is still better than Prince George city council . In February, city council received 270 responses to an online survey about municipal budget priorities and then promptly dismissed the results of their own survey, presumably because they didn't like the responses.
Both councillors and senior staff rejected the sample size of the survey while Mayor Shari Green pointed out that "there's nothing to say one person didn't fill this out 270 times."
For those residents who bothered to fill out the survey, their contribution to the civic discussion was thrown to the curb with no evidence the survey was flawed and ample evidence of its merit (the responses showed consistent internal trends with each other and those trends mirrored the findings of 700 responses received during a phone survey in 2011).
Real community engagement would allow residents to learn more about a proposal and make an informed decision to oppose the project (or budget) in question or make significant changes. With no incentive to alter their approach based on the public feedback, industrial developers and governments make community engagement look like democracy in action when it's actually nothing but a charade.
-- Neil Godbout, managing editor