Better Consultation

As Submissions Convener for Spokes Canterbury for 12 years, now retired, I have some thoughts to share on how consultation might work better. The links are to Strong Towns which offers a rich source of articles on urban planning and transport.

Not all of us are policy wonks or have lots of time so I offer some snippets along with observations relating to Christchurch. We can do better as a community. Please forward on to your friends in government.

Effective consultation starts when professional staff who “get” cycling collaborate with people who cycle in the environment the infrastructure is too often squeezed into.

Too often what passes for consultation in Christchurch offers pre-determined projects, but lacking in details and resistant to change. No doubt staff is restricted by the political reality they must function in and the need to please the “selected stakeholders” which typically includes only status quo voices.

Money and political concerns are real and determine whose concerns lead to changes. Selected stakeholders and their interests must be stated clearly as part of the consultation process.

To enable everyone in our community to see the value of infrastructure and to offer valuable contributions full project details and context are needed. Costs, impacts, alternatives, mitigations, limitations, future considerations, past lessons learned.

Presenting set projects resistant to all but possibly minimal change simply breeds frustration and disengagement. Even if not intentional, it is the result.

Nearly all projects including The Major Cycle Routes, MCR’s have been determined by Council and presented as givens. One assumes that many considerations were included in the choices made. But, why those routes, why is north east Christchurch neglected, why is on street parking prioritized over safe roads for all modes?

Cashel and Victoria Streets offer examples of where Council turned to landlords and business owners for direction empowering them as “selected stakeholders”. In both instances cyclists were excluded from the process and the infrastructure delivered shows this.

Having engaged with their selected stakeholders, the plans are drawn and the larger public is offered some show and tell with Power Points, some maps or even models. Things like safety audits done on the project are not included. Even basics like lane widths and location and number of cycle parks are too often missing.

But why do staff seem reticent to include the public? Could it be that this is what we do?

From the first link:

“We ask people who have none of the education, experience or knowledge needed to make proper decisions to come in and draw routes, and we ask the City staff to sit there and be polite at the ridiculousness that pours out. Can you imagine how the staff feel about giving up their evening with their family, after a day’s work, to go be polite to people who are unaware of virtually all the limiting factors? ”

In addition to suggestions from the article Council could reinstate the Cycle Advisory Panel as has been suggested for over a decade. Christchurch includes some very skilled, open minded and hardworking people who can assist in community building.

Spokes offers people with road cycling experience, along with the background and skills to develop collaborative productive relationships with staff and other community members. The net result could be better future consultations and infrastructure.

Why does Council not “get” how and why empowered consultation can be worth it? Is the old boy network unwilling to trust community input? Do staff prefer dictating to collaboration?

Instead we get versions of:
“there is not much of a worse way to generate ideas than to put a bunch of strangers with competing interests who are untrained in brainstorming techniques into a room for three hours.”

Professional staff are vital, their expertise, experience and skills need to be respected. I hope they can offer more than is suggested here.

“The engineer’s role, which has grown to have so much influence in so many cities, should really be quite technical and fairly powerless. They should have the job of implementing decisions made by others, and within that, their expertise for materials and construction should be completely respected. They are the experts at that.”

Issues raised in the second link:

Consultation in Christchurch too often asks limiting questions and leaves few real opportunities for change. Web based submissions which ask for approval and comment on a few facets of a project make for easy data collection, but are not real consultation. Directing people’s thinking is not the same as informing them. What we get is constrained status quo business as usual responses.

Not everyone is a creative thinker, or necessarily even open to change.
“Customers don’t know what they want, at least when it comes to something innovative. Something different.”
What questions elicit what people know about and can contribute meaningfully to, broad nebulous high level or one’s about real life experiences? Making it real can be threatening.

The article cites the example of a group of young people asked for input.
“How did you get here today? (A: Walk or bike.) Is this how you get around in the winter when it’s twenty below zero? (A: Yes.) Do you feel safe walking? (A: No.) Do you feel safe biking? (A: No.)
These were valuable questions, not only because they provided great data, but they also made the people listening to the answers uncomfortable. Do you ride transit? (A: No.) Why not? (A: It takes longer to ride the dial-a-ride than to walk/bike.)”

Christchurch needs to ask more “valuable questions” and to be prepared to act on them. The same needs to be applied to measures of progress. Currently Council measures success with metrics so general as to be unhelpful, goals such as achieve 85% of respondents are satisfied with footpaths may well measure how much people will put up with, not what they expect, want or need.

One could almost think someone doesn’t want to know.

4 thoughts on “Better Consultation”

  1. 18/12/20 Kaikoura relies on selected stakeholders and gets it wrong.
    “Businesses that were directly affected by the proposed works were consulted … and elected members were asked to approve the final programme of works before construction could commence.” But it is OK as “Topham said people would get used to the changes.”–just-dont-call-it-a-pedestrian-crossing

  2. Thanks Dirk for taking the time to write this insightful article, and for all your years as acting as Spokes’ Submissions Convenor. I will try to use your insights as best as I can.

  3. Agree entirely. An alleyway was recently blocked by a council to prevent 1-2 motorbikes hooning through it. Users of mobility scooters, wheelchairs, cargo bikes, twin pushchairs and me with an e-bike and heavy pannier bags were not able to use the safe, low-traffic route anymore. A planner from the council has rung and the barrier will be adjusted so the above users will be able to negotiate the route. What a waste of our rates! Consultation with the community would have prevented this snafu.

    1. Basic engineering or design competence would have prevented that too. Designers could read the walking or cycling design guides and know that their design wasn’t fit for purpose. It’s almost like people who are really good at designing motorways aren’t necessarily good at designing local streets.

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