In 2015, we had identified three relevant challenges: the diversification and growth of participation; the appropriation of digital tools and methods and their integration into our processes; and the need for making retroaction mechanisms an intrinsic part of the consultation process. As we begin this new decade, the Office can proudly say, “Mission accomplished,” about two of those three objectives.
Throughout the 12 mandates that we began, carried out or completed in 2019, more than 22,000 participations have been recorded to get informed on a given subject or to express an opinion. This was the second consecutive year where we attained such participation numbers, a phenomenon that we interpret as an indicator of a profound change in the participatory culture.
A good balance in our methods
From the very beginnings of the development of new technologies associated with citizen engagement, to their increasingly widespread use, it has been important for the Office to use digital means to conduct a reflection on conditions for a citizen dialogue that is authentic, productive and useful to public decision-making. The recent years’ experiments have allowed us to revitalize numerous participatory devices while avoiding the creation of new forms of fracture and exclusion.
Our research on participation without exclusion, which led us to develop new ways of putting collective intelligence to work, is also successful in creating tools (role-playing, prototyping, situation simulation exercises, etc.) that render citizen engagement less intimidating through collective fun and/or creative deliberation exercises that are always enlightening in terms of understanding the issues and leading to relevant decision-making. Those elements help to create participatory environments that encourage the involvement of segments of the population that traditionally participate less.
Based on those experiences, we believe that we have achieved an interesting balance between in-person and online participation. In-person participation involves workshops, meetings, open houses, and information and hearing-of-opinions sessions. It remains the major guarantor of the integrity of the process, as nothing can replace the quality of information gathered during such interactions. However, the use of virtual, i.e. online, methods (questionnaires, platforms, 3D visualizations, etc.) has removed most of the material and temporal obstacles to participation.
We have found that, far from competing with each other, the two modes are mutually supportive in promoting greater and better participation. Together, they facilitate access for a larger public, which does not always have time or want to go out to public meetings, while preserving the anticipated and constructive debate that ensures enlightened contributions.
Follow-up mechanisms overdue
Although we have been talking about it for over a decade, the issue of follow-up has become increasingly pressing over the past two years. Among the ten mandates completed in 2018 and 2019, there has been an official answer to the recommendations of the Office for only one. It is rather paradoxical that at a time when the issue is no longer the representativeness of participation, the competence of participants, or the taking into account of opinions expressed, the processes leading to the final decision-making are the ones becoming increasingly opaque.
Without an effort at transparency to justify decisions, participation cannot become a true force for change in public action. Without retroaction, public consultation is a nice democratic exercise, but it has no real impact on the issues at hand.
The main disincentive to participation has always been the people’s impression that it served no purpose, as the decisions had already been made and the principal stakeholders would not change their minds. In reviewing the questions received by the Office, we realize that the population is no longer content with simply participating and waiting to read our reports. To re-establish their trust in our democratic proceedings, the people want to know what has become of the positions they have taken and the ensuing recommendations. It is no longer enough to claim that we want to build the city of tomorrow with the population; decision-makers have to concretely demonstrate that wish by justifying the choices they make and explaining how the citizens’ suggestions have or have not been implemented.
A necessary reflection
The desired new structure of participatory and representative democracy has also increased the number of locations and instances where participatory exercises take place. In addition to consultation activities, our mandate includes two other elements: the monitoring of best practices; and a consulting role. Accordingly, in Montréal over the past couple of years, the Office has provided training in best consultation practices to more than 200 public servants and some 30 elected officials. We are proud to report that the impacts of the teaching materials developed for that purpose have extended well beyond the borders of our metropolis.
In that respect, it is also important to applaud the municipal administration for entrusting us with a first official mandate to assist the Centre d’histoire de Montréal in the development and holding of a consultation process it had undertaken. That mandate from the executive confirms the possibility of the Office sharing its expertise with city authorities, dedicating resources to that end, and acting as a guarantor of the accessibility of processes conducted by other Ville de Montréal bodies.
We need to formalize those new operations. As we mentioned last year, the current context invites us more broadly to fine-tune Montréal consultation mechanisms, to harmonize their application, and to better define their ultimate goals.
Already in 2004, the first president of the Office, Jean-François Viau, called for an increase in the number of cases where recourse to the Office is mandatory. He indicated that independent public consultation should be reintroduced for all amendments to the Montréal Master Plan, and that the Office should be able to intervene throughout agglomeration territory. The consultation on the Namur-Hippodrome sector paired with the controversy raised by the various versions of the Royalmount project is a good example of the advantages citizens would gain from such an increase by making it possible to consider metropolitan issues as a whole and to take into account the interactions between projects.
As suggested by my two predecessors, we should discuss the possibility of the OCPM playing a statutory role in the management of projects affecting more than one borough or city of the agglomeration, and in the management of emblematic and strategic areas. That could also mean that other bodies, such as the agglomeration council, borough councils, and city councils of linked cities may give us mandates pertaining to matters under their respective jurisdictions.
Another item to consider is the increase, over the past year, in the number of rights of initiative and the introduction of the right to collect signatures on line. In 2019, in addition to the ongoing consultation on systemic racism and discrimination, three consultation subjects under the right of initiative were deemed eligible by the city clerk’s office. The disparity in the treatment of those files, depending on the body conducting the consultation, was raised by many citizens, organizations and companies. I believe that the Montréal community would benefit from a new consensus being reached concerning that mechanism, the type of consultations that can be requested, the number of signatures required, and the municipal bodies entitled to carry them out.
A reflection is currently underway on drawing up a new Montréal public consultation policy that may also focus on those issues. After 18 years of operation of the Office, a Montréal Charter of Rights and Responsibilities that has not been revised since 2011, and a tangible expansion of consultation practices, we believe that we can no longer, collectively, forego a discussion on those subjects.
Towards the mutualization of knowledge
It is important for me to mention the operating budget increase allocated to us, in 2019, for 2020. It compensates, in part, for the investment deficits resulting from 15 years of operation without the indexation of budgets. It will allow us to consolidate our processes, increase our visibility and continue to innovate.
So many avenues remain to be explored in order to take full advantage of the wealth of practical knowledge acquired by the Office since its inception. In terms of contents, highlighting points of convergence in its analyses, the Office contributes, on a continuous basis, to the decoding and recognition of common social values. It reports on the city’s evolution and design. Complete neighbourhoods, shared streets, vertical city: so many concepts have been echoed in our consultations and reports. In view of all its years spent moderating public debates, isn’t it time for the Office to also serve as a melting pot to popularize and bring about new reflections, pertaining less to a given theme or territory and more to generic topics? We could focus on debates involving how to permanently inhabit a downtown core, what elements should be included in a housing policy, or how to promote conditions for the co-existence of mixed uses, among other things. Such endeavours would undoubtedly help to shape the priorities of tomorrow, while mutualizing the resources available at the Office and in other networks to promote citizens’ involvement in attaining their right to the city.