Liveblogging Sidewalk Labs’ Master Innovation and Development Plan, Bonus entry 3: What responsible public consultations look like, and why the Quayside consultations are not that

Previous Master Innovation and Development Plan liveblog entries available here

As a former federal parliamentary committee staffer, who has helped organize my fair share of consultations and who has written many reports on said consultations, it’s been professionally painful witnessing the amateurish chaos storm engulfing the consultations over Sidewalk Labs’ plans for Toronto’s Eastern Waterfront.

To understand exactly how unhelpful the Waterfront consultation process is, imagine for a moment that Sidewalk Labs were a government agency proposing this development, and that a parliamentary committee (Waterfront Toronto) were charged with reviewing it.

In this scenario, the agency would submit its report to the committee, and the worker bees (i.e., me and my colleagues) would begin analyzing it for the committee. The committee clerk, under direction from the committee members, would start scheduling hearings. The hearings would probably begin with agency officials being questioned (in public) about the proposal, followed by public consultations, their intensiveness and extensiveness being determined by the nature of the proposal.

Then, we worker bees would prepare a report and recommendations based on what the committee had heard, and the parliamentarians would discuss and amend the committee report as needed. This report would be used as the basis for adjusting, if needed, the agency’s proposal.

This process could also easily incorporate a review of the revised proposal. For Parliament, it’s up to the government to accept or reject the committee’s recommendations, so this would likely rarely happen, but it’s a logical addition to the Waterfront Toronto-Sidewalk Labs review.

Anyway, that’s what you’d likely see when the system is working: proposal; public consultations; report on the proposal with suggested amendments; final proposal; brief review; final decision.

What not to do

What you would not see is:

  • the committee (i.e., Waterfront Toronto) issuing a de facto preliminary report days after the agency proposal had been submitted, and before the consultations had started.
  • the agency (i.e., Sidewalk Labs) flatly contradicting the committee’s opinion as expressed in said unorthodox preliminary report.
  • the agency conducting its own, post-submission de facto hearings, especially under a name (in this case, Sidewalk Toronto) that will appear to some as if the hearings are being held by the committee.
  • public consultations held before anybody had had a realistic opportunity to analyze the report.
  • a final committee report based on a draft proposal and rushed, inadequate public consultations.
  • a substantive round of consultations, post-committee-report and post-final-draft, in which the public would have to assess both the committee report’s adequacy and the agency’s final proposal.

Of course, nothing about this Quayside/Eastern Waterfront development project is normal. As originally conceived, Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs were/are the co-developers of this project. In this scenario, it would make sense for the two to take their proposal to the public and then modify it based on public and government consultations.

This fundamental dysfunction, in which one partner to the project is seeking the veneer of impartiality and the other can’t stop running public-relations plays, is driving this broken process.

And so we have an ill-advised preliminary report and rushed formal consultations, and Sidewalk Labs holding its own de facto consultations and publicly challenging its partner/overseer.

It’s a mess, but it’s the kind of mess you’d expect when you muddy the distinction between regulator and regulated with absolutely no regard for basic principles of good governance and accountability. To my eyes it’s yet another indication that this entire project is fundamentally unworkable.

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