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Are You Tone Deaf to Your Constituents?

March 23, 2014

Jim-Max Showshoeing Each of us likes to be heard.

Whether we’re part of a community effort to improve street safety or a member of a workplace team, when we offer an opinion on an issue or make a contribution to an initiative underway, we want to be heard, to feel valued and respected as human beings. That desire to be heard amplifies when we are explicitly invited to contribute. It could be part of a corporate employee survey, focus group, or town hall meeting; or perhaps a community meeting organized by city hall staff and your municipal councilor.

I’ve been around the block a number of times when it comes to corporate initiatives; fortunately I’m out of that space now after three decades. However, a more recent experience has been in community service, specifically urban development. And it’s been an eye-opening experience when it comes to a lack of transparency, ethics and leadership by elected officials and municipal civil servants.

The irony behind this is that municipal governance is supposed to be where citizens are most connected to government and politicians. Yet that is not always the case in Canada and the United States. Let’s look at some personal examples.

Over a year ago my municipal councilor asked me at a community forum to create an action group that would provide input to a large development adjacent to where I live in a suburb in Ottawa’s west-end. Spanning many hectares, the development is half privately owned and half city owned, the latter being heavily forested with numerous rocky outcrops (part of the Canadian Shield). While the private land is under development currently, the city land is still going through design consultations.

Of significance to this story is that I live in Ottawa, Canada’s capital. One would hope, and think, that a nation’s capital would strive to show leadership in urban development as a model to the rest of the country. Such is not the case in Ottawa, a rapidly growing city with a population of 900,000 and an urban area of 1.2 million.

The action group I formed was representative of the community in the vicinity of the development, and contains intelligent people with diverse experiences. The consultation process has proven to be constructive with the company (Urbandale Corporation) that has been selling parcels of their land. Where the frustration grew was meeting with municipal planning staff, which tended to provide lip service, empty promises and at times an attitude of condescension.

While this project is still in progress, and will be for the next several years, it has been revealing at how citizens have been invited to participate in a major development yet have not been completely heard. Numerous other urban projects around Ottawa have faced the same situation; indeed, many projects involve high-rise condo constructions, which have produced a high degree of bitterness among residents.

DSCN0048 The City of Ottawa’s principal leader–the mayor–has proven to be a dismal failure when it comes to ensuring that citizens are actually heard. It took a consultant’s report, released in early December 2013, that took the City to task for its lack of transparency and abject failure to properly consult and hear the concerns of citizens, and to act on this input.

Is Ottawa City Hall getting the message?

Perhaps not, because in early 2014 the Ontario Municipal Board, a provincial crown corporation perceived as being developer-friendly, reversed a decision by Ottawa City Council regarding a development. The OMB castigated City Council for not listening to citizens. Consequently, it’s going to take time to see if citizens’ contributions are indeed integrated into final development plans. Bad habits and obstinate bureaucracy is hard to break. The proof will be in the eating of the pudding.

This recent community work reminds me of my project management work in large organizations over many years. From organizing and leading project teams on downsizing and merger initiatives to corporate learning to leadership development to employee surveys, I had a variety of experiences, some negative, some very positive. Those experiences that produced effective outcomes had one common trait: employees were heard. Their views and suggestions were actively sought by senior management.

The most powerful change initiative I was involved in dates back to the mid-nineties, and was also the largest one I managed. The power behind this project was that it not only consisted of a representative employee committee, but the head of the union was invited to be a member. To that point the union had frequently tried to sandbag corporate initiatives. However, with this project they were part of the process from the start. It seems like common sense to invite all stakeholders to participate, yet how often is organized labor left on the sidelines, leaving it to wave red caution flags and to engage in a chorus of boos.

If you’re part of a process to solicit input from employees or citizens, ensure that people are heard and respected. If you’re on the other side, then it’s your responsibility to assert yourself to make yourself heard. Each context–work or community–is unique, so there’s no cookie cutter recipe on being heard. But taking a principle-centered approach to how you engage with others will help you stay on the correct path, especially during rocky times.

We must use time wisely and forever realize that the time is always ripe to do right.

– Nelson Mandela

Photo #1: Jim and Max snowshoeing on City of Ottawa land slated for development. Gorgeous, rocky terrain consisting of diverse trees.

Photo #2: Winter scene of the land to be developed by the City of Ottawa across from where Jim lives.

Workforce of the Future Footer CoverClick here to download my complimentary e-book Workforce of the Future: Building Change Adaptability, 2nd Edition.

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Jim TaggartTake a moment to meet Jim.

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