Editorial: Make Public Surveys Meaningful

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Government bodies like to make a big deal about “public engagement” these days.

No new initiatives are taken without first surveying the public, which is as it should be. But going through the process of gathering input and then ignoring the results is disrespectful to the public and makes the effort truly meaningless.

This is painfully the case with the Islands Trust and its annual budget consultation process. Each year the Trust dutifully asks its constituents for feedback on its proposed budget for the coming year. A survey asks people if they are willing to pay higher taxes for more services, want them to stay the same (with some variation in what is paid for) or want to see lower taxes and reduced services.

As Saturna Island resident Mairead Boland pointed out in a delegation to Trust Council in December, the timing of the Trust’s survey makes no sense. Public input is requested mere weeks before a final budget is adopted. Reversing the train at that point just isn’t going to happen, which has been soundly proven by the lack of responsiveness to survey results in the past few years. Boland asked council to take the results of last February’s survey and apply it to this year’s budget, which has a proposed 5.19 per cent property tax increase. Only 20.34 per cent of 941 respondents wanted increased taxes and services; 50.24 per cent wanted taxes kept the same; 20.1 per cent wanted decreased taxes and services; and 9.32 per cent didn’t know.

Since council did not jump on that suggestion, Boland has given Islands Trust property owners and residents an opportunity to express their wishes earlier than usual by posting a survey that uses the same wording as the Trust’s. A link is available in our story on page 2 and on our website.

The irony of criticizing the Trust for budget handling is that the Trust bureaucracy and Islands Trust Council members spend a huge amount of time on budget preparation and negotiation in a highly transparent and public format. Cases are made for proposed new programs and expenses, and are usually thoroughly debated before being voted on.

If the Islands Trust, or any other government body, isn’t willing or able to act on its public surveys, then they should probably not bother with them or, ideally, should survey the public much earlier in the process and be committed to heeding the results in some measure.

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