Wednesday, December 7, 2022
December 7, 2022

Opinion: Policy statement public engagement falls short

By MAIRI WELMAN

On the afternoon of Friday, Feb. 25, the Islands Trust launched the Policy Statement Review – Phase 3 Public Engagement program on their website with a link to a public opinion survey and an invitation to preregister for an online Q&A session, to be held on March 1.

In our opinion it borders on gaslighting to ask the public to participate and then make it incredibly difficult for them to do so. Here’s why :

The invitation to pre-register for the Q&A session was published on a Friday afternoon, for an event to be held the following Tuesday. Extremely short notice. Only those who pay close attention to Trust business would likely have noticed. The format of the so-called Q&A session, which began with a mind-numbing 40-minute presentation on the existing draft revised policy statement, did not allow participants to see each other or actually ask any questions during the session. The only questions that were answered during the session were written by the presenters. Questions pre-submitted by the participants are now going to be answered at another time in a yet to-be-determined format. How incredibly frustrating for the folks who took the time to register, submit queries and then sit through the online session!

The public opinion survey itself is astonishingly poorly designed and does not follow best practices of being clear, concise and comprehensible. The issues with the survey include pages of bureaucratic language, introductory and cautionary notes, vague question language, value-laden statements, subjective and/or leading language, conflation of issues that do not belong together, repetition of the same questions and limited space for open-ended question responses.

Some examples include:

“Marine dependent land uses should be directed away from eelgrass meadows, kelp forests, forage fish spawning areas, tidal salt marshes, mud flats and coastal wetlands, acknowledging the important roles they play in capturing and storing carbon, protecting shorelines, and supporting marine food webs and species at risk.”

What is a “marine dependent land use?” Would most lay people even understand what that phrase means?

“Neither the density nor intensity of land use should be increased in groundwater regions where the quality or quantity of freshwater is likely to be inadequate or unsustainable.”

What is the difference between density and intensity? What does intensity mean, in this instance?

“Harvesting practices (i.e. forestry, agriculture and aquaculture) should be small-scale, sustainable, regenerative, supportive of climate action, respectful of Indigenous harvesting areas and protective of the environmental integrity of the Islands Trust Area.”

There are six values-based phrases combined in this statement. What if I agree with all but one, or only half of them? How do I answer? What does “respectful of the environmental integrity of the Islands Trust Area” actually mean?

Section 21 asks for our opinion on an array of advocacy work the Trust could take on, but it does not tell the participants whether any of this work is already part of the Trust work plan and budget or whether it would require entirely new resources. Of course, it would be nice to have all the things, but we don’t even know if we can afford them.

Sections 22 through 26 ask open-ended questions about macro issues and then provide a mere 300 characters in which to answer. Three hundred characters is only 20 characters longer than a tweet and we all know how useful they are in addressing the subtleties of any complex issue.

The whole point of a survey is to gauge community sentiment and provide actionable information. But it is disingenuous in the extreme to survey the public with only half the information required to respond, while placing severe limits on possible responses by framing them within the very policy proposals that caused the process to literally fall apart in the first go-round.

Trust Council’s intent and direction to staff for the Phase 3 public engagement program, which was specifically added to the policy statement review process at an additional cost of approximately $140,000 to taxpayers, was to address the failings of the first engagement process; to be more inclusive, hear from more voices, broaden the input beyond the usual participants and ensure that groups who would otherwise not be heard from, such as youth, would be included.

The design and language of the survey, the short notice and non-inclusive format of the so-called Q&A session, and the scheduling of the other “upcoming Phase 3 engagement activities” over the two weeks of spring break, when families and local businesses are very busy, in fact accomplishes exactly the opposite. If this is the shape of things to come, Trust Council would be better off scrapping the Phase 3 engagement and saving taxpayers’ money, rather than executing a so blatantly obviously biased exercise.

The public is already on high alert. These Machiavellian manoeuvrings by the bureaucracy will only serve to trash what little public trust is left.

This opinion piece was submitted to the Islands Trust, and the Driftwood, on behalf of the Salt Spring Solutions community group.

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