Submitted by megan on Thu, 04/02/2009 - 19:56
Well, this has certainly been an interesting week, blog-wise.
I've been blogging for almost 4 years now, and I have never gotten as much traffic or as many comments. Apparently people are more interested in local politics than my navel lint; crazy what.
It's been strangely exhausting, and given the fact that they summarily booted 1010 off the list, this will probably be my last post on the subject.
Being in the town hall was a strange experience. The crowd seemed to polarize very quickly, but I don't think it was as nearly as polarized as it felt. There were people who were adamantly against the office being there, there were people who were adamantly for it, there were people who were completely neutral and just wanted more information, and then those of us who were somewhere in between neutral and one of the poles.
Going in, I was between neutral and for it. And truthfully, I'm still kind of neutral. The way I'm neutral about another pho place going in, you know? Except that there are around 100 people who would find the parole office being here quite useful, and exactly 0 people who need a twenty-fifth place to slurp giant soup. But I think it really would have had little to no effect on most of the people who live within a few kilometres of it.
That's essentially what Mark Jowett's seen, the man who spoke eloquently but not long enough, about being one of those people who was afraid, so decided to get some answers, and then ended up volunteering at the office.
But it's hard to stay anywhere close to neutral when you're listening to people let fear get the best of them. I absolutely understand that people are afraid, and they have every right to be afraid. I wouldn't presume to tell people how to feel.
They do not have the right to act as if their fear - a fear based in ignorance - gives them the right to strip other people of their humanity. That is what I was hearing that night from a good number of people.
Though certainly not everyone. I found it quite easy to tell when someone was asking a question to get information and when someone was asking a question in an attempt to skewer the representatives of Correctional Service Canada (CSC) and Citizens' Advisory Council (CAC), the answer they got less important than the one already cemented into their worldview.
Unfortunately, the latter was much more prevalent than the former.
Thus I found myself in an odd position, a position in which I rarely find myself, where I was supporting the governmental status quo, and rooting for The Man. It was a little surreal for me.
I think this was a direct result of the consultation process, which I have to say, was nigh abysmal. CSC was woefully under-prepared, from before it started till after I left. They simply did not provide enough information to quell people's fears.
Here, I'm excluding the people who were going to be afraid no matter what CSC said: the people who were acting like bigots. I might not have used that word in a blanket statement aimed in the general direction of two-thirds of the room, but rest assured, there were a fair few people who were holding forth some shockingly bigoted views, and I don't give a good goddamn if it was because they were afraid. I will presume to tell them that is unacceptable.
A lot of people didn't have any idea of what a parole office does or who visits there - I certainly didn't. It was CSC's job to tell us what they do. They did. They did an alright job of it. But not a great job. Especially for a group that's been through this before.
Here, point blank, in case someone from CSC is reading, is what you can do better:
1) Pull up your damn socks and prepare better. How could you not have predicted that people were going to ask about recidivism rates? Telling us that your metrics are too sophisticated for us to understand doesn't help your cause. Prepare a damn chart and make copies. Either people will be baffled by bullshit or they'll be able to take the chart home and mull it over.
I could go on, but you had someone recording the evening. Listen to the recording. Pull out the genuine questions. Prepare good and thorough answers for them. You will be asked them again at the next consultation, I can assure you.
2) Have answers to these questions on slides. When someone asks you whatever question for the 5th time, go back to the slide for the 5th time.
3) On second thought, don't let people ask the same question 5 times in only slightly different ways. The 3rd time someone says to you, "Why do you even have to move?" say "That question has been answered. Next."
4) I've been in on the process of trying to rent office space, and I totally get the point that you can't locate a potential site and then expect the landlord to hold it for you while you do three months of consultation.
You know - were very clear - that you want to put it in Centretown, and for good reasons. So why wait until you have a specific site? Why not start engaging the community now? Have not a town hall, but an information meeting. Rent the library auditorium, have longer presentations with more info. Have a booth and treats in the hall outside the auditorium so that people can write down their questions, have a coffee and a cookie and mingle.*
Ensure they know you won't be taking questions after.
If you've prepared well, chances are you'll have covered all of the questions. For the questions you haven't, have someone working on an answer while you're talking, read all (or some, depending on the time) the extra questions and answers at the end.
You must have known that 1010 was even a vague possibility more than 2 weeks ago. I've seen a lot of hurry-up-and-wait going on in government. If it's that kind of bureaucratic bullshit that made you rush, you need to figure out a way around it.
Because the notices should not have been sent out during March break when you knew schools were going to be an issue. Those notices should have gone out in many more languages than French and English. How much of a community consultation is it if you haven't made a genuine effort to reach a big chunk of the community?
That doesn't get you off the hook for after you find a specific site. You still need to deal with Section 29 of your guidelines. You'll just be facing a much more knowledgeable population when you do.
5) Have more community representatives. Make them speak for longer. These are the people with whom the crowd can make a connection. Mark Jowett should have answered as many questions as possible.
6) Do not allow the crowd to sideline your facilitator. Last Monday, as soon as you decided to let the mob rule, it was obvious to me that what happened was going to happen.
Breaking into smaller groups would have forced people to talk to each other - the questions you had prepared for us to discuss were well thought out and were looking for genuine feedback and ideas around collaboration from the participants.** People would not have been so entrenched in the us-and-them mentality; people are less likely to shout at their neighbour than at The Man who doesn't understand them or live in their neighbourhood.
This would also have meant that fewer people were speaking in front of the entire crowd. The people in support wouldn't have felt as outnumbered and as cowed about speaking out. I believe you would have received a more balanced message.
As it was, opening the floor up like that just made space for ranting and grandstanding. It wound people up, on both sides, myself included.
Of course, these are just my suggestions. Maybe CSC has already thought of and dismissed them all. But they've gotta do something: you do what you've always done, you get what you've always gotten.
*A big chunk of this is based on a conversation with Greg - the general idea is his.
**The questions are no longer available on the CSC website, so here they are:
1. What are some characteristics of your neighbourhood that Correctional Service of Canada should consider in making a decision about the location of the Parole Office?
2. What are your specific expectations or concerns with regards to potentially locating the Ottawa Parole Office at 831 Industrial Avenue or 1010 Somerset Street?
3. What role do you feel that you as an individual, and/or the community should play in offender reintegration?
4. How can we work together to help alleviate concerns and ensure public safety?