Citizen Action Monitor

The rapid rise — and equally fast fall — of a Residents Advisory Panel. Part 4: In the words of Yogi Berra, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll wind up somewhere else.”

No 12 Posted by fw, April 25, 2010

Let’s see. Where was I?

Road to Somewhere Else

Oh yes. I’m about to explain how I violated Charles Dobson’s single most important part of creating a new community or public interest group. Worse still, I wasn’t even aware that I had violated it. Too bad I hadn’t read his book before I embarked on this voyage into RAP-land.

But first, in Part 3 of Rapid Rise, I recounted my discovery of the importance of timing and placement in effective communication. How I had tried, and failed, to press RAP members to raise the bar a notch or two above our newly-adopted mission statement, “To share information.”

Continuing this tale of personal revelation, it has only recently become clear to me that going into that first meeting I wanted something from Windsor’s RAP group that it might never have been able to deliver – the capability to act, to influence our councillor’s thinking, and, by implication, city council’s decision-making.

Untutored as I was in municipal politics, or politics at any level for that matter, my presumptuous naiveté about RAP was astounding on three levels. I presumed that:

  1. Our group would see itself as an action-oriented, decision-making body;
  2. Rational discussion would inevitably lead to consensus decisions on ward- or city-related issues of concern; and
  3. Our councillor would take our best advice to heart and be our advocate at city council – after all, we were an “advisory” panel.

Our very first discussion on a substantive issue revealed the flaws in my presumptions. The agenda called for our councillor to update us on the status of a proposed road-widening project in our ward. The person who submitted the item wanted work on this project to be accelerated and was critical of NIMBYist residents living on this road. In his opinion, traffic congestion on this arterial road was becoming an inconvenient nuisance.

To inform the discussion, our ward councillor mentioned that road work would be phased in over many years, possibly a decade or more. Our wide-ranging discussion fell far short of reaching a definitive consensus position even though there was a clear majority in favour of the project and of moving forward the target completion date. Incidentally, none of those on our panel who spoke in support of road-widening and accelerated project completion actually lived on the street in question.

I had mixed feelings about the inconclusive outcome. On the one hand I was disappointed that we had no firm “advice” as such to offer our councillor. But on the other hand, I was glad that we did not reach a pro-widening recommendation. In my opinion, road-widening is at best a temporary fix and, at worst, never a final solution to urban traffic congestion. It may have been once, but not in this emerging zero-carbon age.

Interestingly, our councillor was not at all disappointed with our inconclusive outcome, finding the discussion “informative”.

Lesson Learned

Lesson 6: Before you begin a citizen action initiative, be very clear in your own mind precisely where you want to go or you may end up somewhere else.

In hindsight, I did not know precisely where I wanted to go, so I ended up on a road to Somewhere Else with RAP.  RAP was not fit for purpose — my purpose. More to the point, back in February 2009, at RAP’s first meeting, although I felt something was wrong, I wasn’t quite sure what.

If only I had read the first few pages of Charles Dobson’s book, The Troublemaker’s Teaparty: A Manual for Effective Citizen Action, before embarking on the road to Somewhere Else, I would have discovered a two-page section titled, Forming a Core Group. His three sub-headings alone might have prompted me to rethink my offer to get RAP up and running:

  1. Decide what kind of group you want to be
  2. Decide what kind of people you want
  3. Find the right people.


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This entry was posted on April 25, 2010 by in political action, Windsor Ontario and tagged , .
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