Last night we attended a session called “Making Space For Citizens To Act on The Issues That Matter Most” at the Wosk Centre. There were about 50 people in attendance, perhaps half of them from governments of various levels; none, unsurprisingly, from City of Vancouver. The purpose of the gathering was to discuss ways in which governments and citizens can work more closely together “to co-create solutions” to the difficult problems of city-making.
The main speaker was Valerie Lammie, director of exploratory research at the Kettering Foundation, who has been city manager in Dayton and Cincinnati. She immediately noted a structural flaw in the current profession of city management; that city managers’ contracts rarely if ever encourage or incentivize work with citizens, and that citizens are these days generally considered to be consumers or clients rather than partners. This view tends to accentuate a mistrust between politicians/civil servants and the community.
I was unsure of what she was suggesting to solve this lack of cooperation. She showed a cartoon from England in which “squares” [government?] and “blobs” [citizens?] failed to cooperate until, perhaps, the “blobs” became more like small “squares”. It didn’t seem to suggest any obvious (or good) solutions to me.
The speaker asked us speak about “cooperation strategies” that had recently worked for us. A small number of “successes” were raised including — as the comedy portion of the night — someone suggesting that the Grandview-Woodland Citizens’ Assembly was the greatest thing since sliced bread. Not an opinion I share. See also.
The speaker also talked about elected/appointed citizen or neighbourhood councils and similar bodies that have been used in various cities to close the engagement gap. She was thoroughly opposed to them, claiming they “didn’t work”, mainly because, she said, over time they became mini-governments with their own engagement issues.
I disagree. There are neighbourhood councils in Portland, Edmonton, and other places that seem to work, and I would still like to try it here in Vancouver. Issues of rigidity and institutionalism can be overcome by the methods of selection at the neighbourhood level, annual turnover of membership, etc. It is worth trying.
At the end of the meeting, we were asked to discuss impediments to community engagement. This gave me the opportunity to re-state my position that governments are becoming too big and too far removed from the individual citizen. I noted that we used to have wards but now have a city-wide at-large system. On top of this we have Metro Vancouver, Translink, and other regional bodies none of which are elected. At each stage, power moves inexorably up to the top of the hierarchy, and ever further from the citizen. My position was, and is, that useful community engagement is almost impossible until power is returned to the neighbourhoods and the citizen.
All in all, I was glad to have gone to the meeting though I have few illusions that it will bring forth any solutions.