Consultation tool falls short
Saturday, Jul 26, 2014 06:00 am
Public consultation is like justice: not only must it be done, but it must also be seen to be done. Governments often fall flat by delivering on the second part of that equation while ignoring the first part, which is the case with the City of St. Albert’s most recent attempt at engaging its citizens.
A new online budget tool (at www.ourcitybudget.com) allows residents to fiddle with the budgets of various city departments to see how these changes would affect their tax bills – an idea borrowed from the City of Grande Prairie. The city intends to keep the tool live for about a month then compile the information and take it into account come budget time.
On the surface this seems like an interesting, albeit limited exercise in citizen engagement: people get to play councillor and see the effect of their budget choices. Meanwhile, trends are documented and inform the actual budget.
Look closer, however, and you notice a serious flaw in the whole setup: city administration is closed to resident budget tweaking. The citizenry can adjust the budgets of other departments like public works or transit but can’t touch administration.
What’s up with that?
The city’s explanation is that administration falls within the same area as interest payments on debt (which can’t be lowered), and has therefore been left off the virtual budget table, so to speak.
This explanation falls flat. Administration costs should be open to scrutiny just like other city spending.
These types of online tools are always a bit cheesy to begin with, but to infuse the system with this type of limitation renders it a complete waste of time for all concerned and is somewhat of an insult to the city’s residents.
Why do that? There’s no risk here. These citizen adjustments aren’t binding in any way. City council retains the final say and will continue to determine the budget after exhaustive deliberations.
But maybe there is a risk to the city that it’s trying to mitigate. Administration is the very area that many of the community’s fiscal hawks are dying to sink their talons into, and usually the first area targeted when communities engage in real budget trimming. Perhaps the city doesn’t want to give its critics that ammunition.
For a municipal operation, opening up decisions to community feedback is always a double-edged sword, as residents often don’t say what you want to hear.
This budget tool has the appearance of being a citizen engagement attempt but is really just a public relations exercise that’s all for show.
Maybe it’s time to move away from this model of constantly seeking input, to just leave the decisions to the councillors who are elected to make them. If we’re not willing to do that, if the city insists on opening up its decision-making processes to the masses, it must do so in a meaningful way.
In the case of this online tool, that means providing access to all the levers at the control panel and letting residents have at it.