There’s a big difference between listening and empowering

Armchair Mayor
By Mel Rothenburger
February 9, 2019 - 6:59am
Image Credit: City of Kamloops

ENGAGEMENT, CONSULTATION AND TRANSPARENCY are big words in governments at all levels right now.

Issues like pipeline expansion, electoral reform and First Nations rights come to mind but let’s stick close to home. The McArthur Island issue has made Kamloops City council sensitive to the meaning of communication with citizens.

There’s another important word to add to the list — empowerment. It means giving someone the authority to do something.

At this week’s City council meeting, during a report from communications manager Wendy Heshka about recent “engagement” activities, Coun. Bill Sarai urged — in view of the McArthur Island experience — that people be told their input “is just part of the bigger picture.” He called public engagement “a double-edged sword.”

Mayor Ken Christian has said, “There’s a big difference between not listening and not agreeing.”

So expect some sort of warning on the City’s website which, translated, will mean “We’ll listen to you but that doesn’t mean we’ll do what you say.”

Sarai and Christian are correct, of course, that City council can’t always go along with the majority in informal processes. (If, for example, the majority wants to do something that council feels isn’t in the best interests of the City.) The question then becomes, so why ask?

There are three key pieces to any government’s communications strategy:

1. Tell people what’s been done.

2. Ask people what should be done.

3. Let people decide what should be done.

The first is the transparency piece, and is as basic as releasing copies of minutes to the public, posting stuff on social media or issuing press releases, such as, “We’re increasing your parking rates effective Jan. 1.”

Favourite methods for doing the second are surveys and open houses and, sometimes, a town hall.

The third is direct democracy, usually in the form of a referendum, and usually when a lot of money has to be borrowed for a project. Even then, some referenda results, such as “do you want water meters,” aren’t binding.

Any good communication strategy identifies which of the three methods should be used for which kinds of issues and decisions.

Twenty years ago, the City of Kamloops had no communications strategy at all. The practice was strictly reactive — wait for a squeaky wheel and give it some grease.

The City has come a long way since then. It has a very good communications document and uses it consistently. This week alone, the City has issued several press releases, hosted an open house on secondary suites and held a public budget meeting.

As for point one, telling people what’s been done is pretty straight forward, though there are always new, emerging ways of doing it. The third option, letting the people decide something through a referendum — such as whether to borrow money for a Tournament Capital Centre or a performing arts centre — is rarely used.

It’s the middle one — asking people what should be done — that causes the most trouble for City councils. Inviting people to contribute ideas and give feedback sounds easy enough. You post a “Let’s Talk” page on your website, go out to various community venues and have people post pins or little stickers on ideas, or even hold round tables.

It’s when local government ignores that input that the trouble begins. It’s then that accusations of “you already had your mind made up!” are heard. People feel a promise of empowerment has been broken.

In the corporate world, “empowering” employees is a concept sometimes used as part of internal engagement. A manager gives an employee or group of employees responsibility for carrying out a certain task that involves independent decision-making and possibly even spending.

For example, a subordinate or team might be invited to decide what kind of furniture to buy for the front lobby. The boss might not like the orange Art Deco the group chooses, but will have to decide whether to stay out of it or overrule and order up French provincial.

A City video for its Let’s Talk page says, “We want to empower you.” Hold on. That might be where the message has gone off the rails.

Clearly, the public thought it was being empowered on McArthur Island when it was only being consulted. The latter is about an opportunity to influence one or more council members’ thinking, not having the final say.

Playing into the picture is a new committee structure adopted by council this week. It boils down several dozen committees and commissions to just five, although those five can appoint their own work groups to give input.

It remains to be seen how long-standing boards like the Heritage Commission, Graffiti Task Force and Advisory Committee for Persons with Disabilities will fit in to the new structure.

One of the five new committees is called the Community Relations Committee. This committee partially embraces a proposal (at least in part) from former councilor Donovan Cavers, who wanted a “public engagement advisory committee” to act as a sounding board for issues and engage with citizens as a sort of ombuds group.

(His notice of motion on that idea, by the way, was brushed off without comment — “died on the order paper,” as the mayor put it — by council on Tuesday, the same day the new community relations committee was approved.)

If you wade through the pages of bureaucratic language in the terms of reference for the new committee you’ll find its mandate has a lot to do with policy and planning reviews and “other tasks as assigned by the Mayor or Council.”

And, it seems a bit odd that members of a community relations committee other than the chair or staff liaison aren’t allowed to talk to the media.

Still, the fine print does mention public engagement. The committee has good people on it — Coun. Kathy Sinclair is chair, with Mayor Ken Christian and Coun. Sadie Hunter as members.

It has the potential to do good stuff if they remember one important thing about public engagement — don’t promise what you can’t deliver. And, if you’re going to ask for opinions, you’ve got to try very hard to go along with them at least some of the time.

Otherwise, don’t call it empowerment.


Mel Rothenburger is a former mayor of Kamloops and newspaper editor. He publishes the opinion website, and is a director on the Thompson-Nicola Regional District board. He can be reached at

Editor's Note: This opinion piece reflects the views of its author, and does not necessarily represent the views of CFJC Today or the Jim Pattison Broadcast Group.