Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Thoughts on advisory committees

Since 2013, I have sat on the region's Active Transportation Advisory Committee, including two years as its chair. A close friend of mine has worked as chair on Kitchener's Cycling and Trails advisory committee, and as he departs I have learned that two other energetic, committed people will be joining that one. They have ideas and they want to bring change.

And I wonder if they will make the difference they want to make, or if the committee will simply absorb and neutralize them like some kind of immune system disabling a foreign invader. Likely, it will be somewhere in between. Exactly where depends on their commitment and energy, but not only on that.


Citizens' advisory committees are curious beasts. The key word is "advisory". They are a place where knowledgeable and engaged citizens can work with staff on all sorts of things under the committee's remit, but they have no actual power. Their role is to provide advice and feedback to council and staff.

Despite this, I believe an advisory committee can influence the policies that a municipal government sets, but it needs to have more than just passionate and engaged members. A healthy committee needs strong staff support.

In my time as chair, I had the pleasure of working with a particular staffer, James, who has since gone on to bigger and better things on the west coast. A lot of what we accomplished during that time was the direct result of all the work he did behind the scenes to ensure our committee had an agenda each meeting, that traffic engineers and consultants were meeting with us on road design, walkability and cycling issues, and that our recommendations and feedback were at least getting heard.

Through James I gained insight of the structure and culture of staff working within the regional government. I saw how an organization could, if it wanted, completely stifle or starve an activist committee. If you don't have staff support, and if your direct staff contacts don't have the support of their management to break down internal barriers, not much is going to happen.

This is not to say this has been a major problem with the region. Generally speaking, we have strong staff support, and responsiveness has been there. Having engaged and passionate council members (hi Jane, Geoff!) on our committee certainly has helped, too. But like tapping on a wall, you learn to hear the difference in tone when you're actually getting through the other side, and when your message is absorbed and deadened.

Time, Time, Time

I've also seen how the general makeup and culture of a committee can have a big effect on what it achieves. Over my time as chair, with James' support, I tried to lead a more proactive priority setting exercise and to establish subcommittees to give us the bandwidth we needed to delve more deeply with staff into complex topics. We made some headway, but eventually that effort stalled.

I've pointed out a number of times over the years opportunities for committee members to engage outside of our regular monthly meeting by striking a subcommittee on an issue. Only once has a subcommittee really taken off and produced results, and that was because its membership was really committed to it. That should come as no surprise.

Ultimately, I learned that you can lead a horse to water, but if the horse doesn't have the time to come meet with staff during working hours a couple of times a month, then that's life I guess.

As a consequence, ATAC remains mostly reactive in providing feedback on what comes to it, only occasionally bringing its own agenda items to the table. So what it achieves depends almost entirely on the staff setting the agenda, working to line things up for us. And the committee's advisory feedback is limited to what people can provide within the narrow window of a 90 minute meeting.

Stockholm Syndrome

Another, more insidious aspect of an advisory committee: the ways it can reduce you to an ineffective apologist if you're not careful.

Certainly, you should learn and appreciate the constraints that staff work under. You might befriend some of them, and become sympathetic. You're on the inside now. Now, when you openly criticize policy or action, there are real people behind it and you worry about it feeling like an attack.

This is a good thing in measured doses: there are real human beings working hard in government, even if we prefer to complain about government as a giant faceless machine churning out big buckets of stupid. But if you want to move the needle, you are probably making somebody's job more difficult for a while. Don't let that possibility stop you. Sometimes, that somebody actually wants you to make waves.

People generally join advisory committees because they want to make a difference. To do so means retaining your agency and not simply going with the flow. You shouldn't burn bridges, but you need to push and keep pushing. Find a place where you can become a "respected pain in the ass"-- appreciated for your candour and directness but also fairness.

But ultimately you're pushing against inertia. If you aren't doggedly persistent, that effort will be wasted.

Fresh Blood

Because of all of this, turnover is extremely important for a committee. ATAC and other committees have a term limit that enforces turnover, and getting new members is exciting. Unfortunately, getting good new members is quite difficult! It seems like it's hard to interest people in this kind of involvement.

New committee members have an advantage: they come in not knowing what's impossible. Which means they may not self-limit as much. I think a vital committee is going to find itself always slightly uncomfortable because it's confronting issues and pushing for results (even as it has no actual power), and new members can really help.

At the same time, new committee members can fall into traps. Joining any group, we seek to understand it and find our place in it before trying to change it. Wait too long, and the group's culture will change you before you can have an effect on it.

Make the most of it

A committee has its terms of reference which define its mandate and role. Learn them. There may be more in there than the committee is doing right now.

But what a committee can actually do, and how, is really up to its members. Don't just accept the status quo. Show leadership and people may follow you. Shift the needle.

Even if it feels futile, change can still happen over time. I've sometimes felt my committee to be too passive for my tastes, but looking back over the last few years I don't regret my involvement. We have moved the needle. But we can always do more.

I've written this with certain new members of different committees in mind: don't be tentative, make your presence felt, but also have patience and don't let frustration get to you: play the long game.

But to be honest, I'm also writing it to remind myself going into 2017 to keep my mind open to what's possible, and not accept the status quo myself. Like I said: we can always do more.