How Decisions are Really Made

In the city where I live, there have long been calls for the creation of fenced, leash-free dog areas. I’ve been involved in facilitating a few of the meetings about them — over years, not months. The community engagement that went into planning these dog parks was extensive, and support for the initiative was robust.

The first one was installed last year, with at least one more about to be constructed. And now the local Council has voted to remove the one and cancel the rest, pending further study.

Why? Because some of the neighbours who live close to the new dog park are very unhappy.

So what happened?

It’s complicated and has created untold headaches for local Councillors and City staff. But if I were to boil it down to one factor, I’d say that although lots of people want a fenced, off-leash dog park, they don’t want it out in front of their house. And although “the community” was consulted about the broad criteria by which a dog park location should be selected, the immediate neighbours were not asked ahead of construction if they were ok with their neighbourhood having been selected. Some vocal ones were definitely not ok with it.

But would anyone be?

It’s a classic example of NIMBY (“Not in my backyard”) perhaps, but the story also highlights the importance of explicitly identifying the decision-making criteria that reflect what will actually be taken into account by decision makers.

Sometimes the criteria leaders need to apply work at cross purposes with one another. It’s virtually impossible to create a dog park that is “centrally located,” “walkable” and “non-disruptive to people living nearby.” So, when those considerations are identified, a conversation should be had in advance about how the inevitable contradictions will be managed. And then, when opponents get vocal, at least the decision-making process is defensible even if they don’t like the outcome.

Community engagement needs to happen early and often, involving people who will be impacted by the decision being made. But “asking the community” is not enough to ensure a widely accepted decision, because “the community” is rarely of a single opinion. That’s why the actual decision-making process that links the inputs with the outcome needs to be transparent and explicit.

In this case, the optics have not been great. They infer that the stated criteria will be applied unless the neighbours complain loudly enough.

Yet it’s likely more accurate to say that “neighbourhood acceptance” ought to have been identified as one of the criteria in the first place. It’s a legitimate one and very difficult to achieve. But it’s also apparently the determining factor, so let’s say so.

When a pivotal criterion is missed, the integrity of the decision, and by extension the decision-makers, takes a hit. For me this story isn’t actually about dog parks, but about ensuring that public participation is more constructive than divisive. An ounce of prevention…

4 Replies to “How Decisions are Really Made”

  1. The City of Guelph developed a community engagement framework several years ago which has been emulated by other municipalities. The framework speaks to the principles that have been so eloquently described in this blog post. It also provides guidance on designing a successful public participation plan which is appropriate for the nature of the decision being made. It would be a good starting point to reinvigorate the engagement of community.

    1. It’s my hope and understanding that the CE framework was used as a guide in this case. It’s partly why this example is so instructive – even when good process is mostly followed, things can go sideways if key components are missed. Accurate anticipation is such a critical skill in public participation, as is valuing the input of those with experience in planning it. But even with those elements in place, mistakes happen. 20/20 hindsight…

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