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Metro column: If you don’t know how to do it, hire someone who does

By DJ Kelly January 21, 2011

This week, the City of Calgary made an announcement that I think deserves more recognition than it got.

It was announced the city has selected a public-engagement firm to talk with us — the citizens — about what we want to see in the upcoming 2012-2014 budget.

It may seem like a no-brainer that the city would actually take time to ask us what services we would like and how much we would be willing to pay for them, but strangely enough it’s not something that’s done often, if ever.

I think the administration and council deserve a huge round of applause for thinking far enough ahead to ensure that this time, they involve the public right from the beginning.

However, my round of applause may look like a standing ovation to some and an ironic slow clap to others.

In hiring a firm — and according to the request for proposals, paying them $250,000 — to “engage the public,” the city is effectively admitting that it doesn’t don’t know how to do this itself.

Which, of course, begs the question: If 14,000 municipal employees don’t have the skills to engage the public, then what they heck are they doing? If there was one thing they were good at, shouldn’t this be that one thing?

To even the untrained eye, however, this has become reality. “Public engagement” has been twisted into “informing the public about a decision that’s already been made,” which obviously is exactly the opposite of what public-engagement processes are meant to be.

This leads us to another question: Whose job is public engagement anyway? I would argue asking us what we want and then making sure it happens is entirely the point of elected officials. After all, if they didn’t do this, then what purpose do they serve?

But if public engagement is the job of our elected officials, I have to ask: When was the last time your councillor asked your opinion on something coming up at city hall?

If it’s the job of the alderman to know what the public wants, we’re in bad shape. Aside from Ald. Gian-Carlo Carra, who is very familiar with the planning charette process, I can’t think of any other alderman with previous experience in this field.

That could be forgiven by each of them hiring a constituency assistant with these skills. But if any of those assistants have these skills, you wouldn’t know it. Aside from Bob Hawkesworth in 2008 and 2009, no alderman has held a big public priority-setting event.

Ald. Shane Keating gives us some hope, however. Next week, he’s holding an event to gather information about the future of motorsports in Calgary. Granted, the event is not open to the public, but so long as it’s not a town hall-style meeting — a confrontational event format that can’t disappear from use quickly enough — this is at least a baby step forward.

There are infinitely better ways to find out what the public wants. Hopefully the professionals will show them how it’s done, and the city will be able to follow their lead.

Original: http://www.metronews.ca/calgary/local/article/749834