Does governance matter? More than you may think.

GOVERNANCE: THE ACT OR MANNER OF GOVERNING

I like clarity. My sense is that most people do. It’s important to ensure everyone has a common understanding of roles, responsibilities, and desired outcomes. Otherwise, there is a risk that things won’t get done when boundaries are unclear, or that management is both uncoordinated and inefficient. I think we need to improve clarity in Saanich in the following three veins:

  1. what it is we’re trying to achieve (i.e., what’s our vision, and accordingly – what are our priorities?),
  2. who is and should be responsible for what, and
  3. how much weight do we afford public opinions in our decision-making (VS best practices or evidence), and how do we ensure that public input is reasonably representative of our diverse communities and residents?

This won’t be easy, but we have to start somewhere. Over the course of serving on many non-profit boards and community advisory committees in the last decade, I’ve acquired a deep appreciation of the importance of good governance, which in my view begins with clarity of purpose and clarity of roles. I participated in several of the consultation opportunities associated with the ongoing governance review in Saanich and I hope our Council will give serious consideration to the recommendations that come forward. Below is my five-step proposal for achieving more clarity and better governance in Saanich, and I look forward to seeing how these compare with the findings of the Governance Review Committee.

GET OUR PRIORITIES IN ORDER.

I worry that in Saanich we’re trying to be all things to all people. Sometimes you have to go out on a limb and favour resourcing some areas more than others to meet community-supported priorities. To improve on this front, I would like to see Saanich undertake some effective public consultation in preparation for an update to our strategic plan, to ensure it produces concrete outcomes that are aligned with the priorities of residents, and to fine-tune our programs and services to the changing needs of our municipality. I also favour changing the timing and length of our strategic plans to correspond with Council terms so that finding consensus on community priorities is one of the first tasks a new Council is faced with, and so they can more easily be held accountable for progress or lack thereof.

LET’S POLICY-UP TO SUPPORT MORE STRATEGIC, TRANSPARENT, AND ACCOUNTABLE DECISION MAKING.

A commitment to making decisions based on policy is a commitment to being transparent about the criteria that influence decision-making, and a commitment to being consistent in the application of those criteria, regardless of may stand to win or lose. Policy drives transparency and fairness. I think there are several aspects of Saanich’s operations that could benefit from more policy-driven decision making, and certainly from improved communication of existing policies that have a bearing on the services we receive.

For example, we urgently need a bylaw enforcement policy in Saanich. Very limited and complaint-driven bylaw enforcement is inviting neighbourhood conflict, discrimination and erosion of Saanich’s credibility. A policy would:

  • give staff guidance in determining which bylaw infractions should be prioritized over others in terms of enforcement activities;
  • ensure similar cases are treated in similar ways; and,
  • provide residents with clarity about when, how, and why enforcement decisions are made (and as a result, communicate that there are and will always be resource constraints in enforcing all bylaws).

The BC Ombudsperson recently released an excellent best practices guide for municipal bylaw enforcement that can give us a head start.

Decision making in Saanich has become worryingly ad hoc (made in response to events rather than shaping them) and by extension unnecessarily political. We need clearer criteria to guide decision-making for both staff and Council, to ensure outcomes are coordinated, fair, and will ultimately serve our priorities and achieve our vision. Updating our Local Area Plans and ensuring they remain current is an essential component of this. It’s also important to be transparent in our communications about which community objectives and decision-making criteria should supersede others when they are in conflict, which happens more than you might think (e.g., maintaining ‘neighbourhood character’ and increasing density’).

CLARIFY THE ROLES & EXPECTATIONS OF COMMUNITY ASSOCIATIONS, AND BOOST THEIR CAPACITY.

Our community associations are a huge repository of local and historical knowledge, but we need to recognize that we’re asking a lot of them, and in turn, do more to support them. I would like to advocate for adopting terms of reference (ToR) that clarify their roles and responsibilities. This will help ensure the expectations of our community associations are more reasonable for volunteer-driven organizations, that their approaches to informing land-use planning are more consistent, and that they are universally inclusive and accountable as organizations operating in the interests of their neighbourhoods.

In my view, our community associations should play the role of facilitating dialogue between residents, developers, and the municipality, with the objective of improving the outcomes of projects for their neighbourhoods, rather than be asked to take a position on a project. This latter approach, which is encouraged by Saanich’s existing consultation procedures, quite literally puts community associations in the middle, and encourages antagonism between all of these parties. The City of Victoria has recently adopted a ToR that importantly helps clarify the roles and expectations of their community associations, and I think we should be following suit. A natural, and much-needed outcome is likely to be that conversations between communities and interested developers start sooner, which is clearly advantageous for everyone.

Community associations are critical in a municipality as large and varied as Saanich, but many are struggling with attracting members and also generating widespread participation in community-building activities. I would like to see Saanich invest more in supporting and building the capacity of community associations, with respect to both of their critical roles: informing land-use, and community building. To initiate a new chapter in the relationship with community associations, I would advocate for a joint strategic planning session to help their members, directors, and Saanich residents imagine what form and function our community associations could take in the future. Beyond this, I think there is much more Saanich can do, and with relatively modest investment, to support capacity building, such as:

  • creating plain-language resources to help members understand and participate in land-use planning and to support board succession planning,
  • supporting annual workshops that help community associations with their work planning (with respect to both roles) and orientation of new members, and
  • appointing a Council and/or staff liaison to each association to improve the two-way flow of information.

I think these modest investments will pay significant dividends in the form of more vibrant neighbourhoods and increased engagement in community affairs.

IMPROVE REPRESENTATIVENESS (I.E., LET’S BE INCLUSIVE).

There is a long-standing debate among geeky academics about what is more important: the representative (i.e., political, messy, and democratic) role of municipalities, or their more rational service-delivery (i.e., administrative) functions. I think both are critical, and one (representativeness) should inform the other (service delivery), provided all affected parties have equal opportunities to participate in the discussion. Reducing barriers to participating in the discussion is a key role for municipalities, and one that we need to improve upon considerably in Saanich. It won’t be easy, but important initiatives rarely are. Here are my thoughts on how we might approach this:

  • Establish a Youth, Children, and Families Advisory Committee to to focus on both a) engaging children, youth, and young families (clearly we need new strategies) and b) better serving their interests in the design and resourcing of municipal services. The City of Vancouver has such a committee, which could provide a helpful template.
  • Ensure the Economic Development, Land-use Planning, and Transportation Advisory Committee has representatives from the rental community, as well as members that can provide the perspective of low-income individuals.
  • Purposefully reach out to growing number of minorities within our municipality to ensure Saanich’s programs and services are meeting their needs, and to encourage their more formal representation in decision making (e.g., on advisory committees or within community associations) and in consultation opportunities.
  • Continue to work with members of the LGTBQIA community to ensure Saanich provides a welcoming and inclusive environment (Council’s decision this year to raise the rainbow flag annually was a promising start).

IMPROVE ACCESSIBILITY OF INFORMATION, ENGAGEMENT, AND BY EXTENSION - TRANSPARENCY.

It takes a lot of work to follow Saanich Council affairs, and I’ve noticed it’s intimidating for residents to navigate the system and figure out what it is they have to do, just to provide their input. We also have a significant and growing number of residents who don’t speak English as a native language (29% according to the last census!). I really can’t imagine how they feel. But I don’t think this challenge is insurmountable and there are lots of good practices elsewhere for us to follow. For example, the City of Victoria has greatly simplified the accessibility of its signs notifying residents of proposed re-zonings, and the City of Calgary has a neat website platform to facilitate public engagement across projects (while you’re there, take a look at the ‘This is My Neighbourhood’ Project – it may be a promising model to guide our Local Area Plan updates).

We are well on our way to improvements on this front with the recent introduction of webcasting at Council meetings. However, I think we need to illustrate a greater commitment to throwing open the municipal hall doors and ensuring residents and businesses alike feel well served and empowered to inform our future as a municipality. This will ultimately require a shift to a more collaborative and service-oriented culture, but there are baby steps we can take to leverage existing opportunities - like using our mail-outs of utility bills and property taxes to collect feedback and ideas from those we are serving. It’s time we got started.