Friday, June 1, 2012

Greater Sudbury at a Crossroads, Part 2: The Importance of the Decision-Making Process

Looking backwards and moving forwards to identify significant trends at local, regional and global levels, we can make some assumptions about the future in which we are likely to find ourselves. Locally, Greater Sudbury is poised for moderate growth, particularly due to continuing investments in the mining sector. With an aging population, there will be a demand for more modest, affordable housing in our community. Based on global trends related to the rising costs of energy consumption, and increasing economic inequality between the rich and the rest of us, we can expect a decline in real purchasing power which will effect just about every decision that we make related to spending.

Therefore, it’s fair to say that the future needs of our City are, to a significant degree, fairly well-known. Of course, outside forces (such as war, economic downturns, etc.) can cause disruptions to these trends which we can not always plan for. Those potential intrusions, however, are not enough to make the case that we should therefore not engage in planning for our expected future.

Sunk Costs – Getting Things Right the First Time

The choices we make today in Greater Sudbury are going to reverberate throughout our collective future like ripples from pebbles tossed into a pond. Many of the decisions which will be made in Greater Sudbury over the next few years will see considerable dollars invested in our community (from public and private sources). Investments will be made in infrastructure, housing, new employment opportunities, the health and well-being of residents and of our natural environment. Investments almost always act as “sunk costs”; once investment decisions are made, it is very difficult to change direction.

To further illustrate, take for example the significant investment which the Province of Ontario is making in four-laning highway 69 north from Parry Sound to Sudbury. This multi-million dollar investment started to be made at a time when the price of oil was relatively low, and there were expectations that future demand for highway use required increasing the highway’s capacity. Since four-laning began, however, it’s become apparent that demand will not materialize, and the costs sunk into increasing the highway’s capacity would have been better invested in more sustainable forms of transportation infrastructure, such as rail. However, the public continues to expect four-laning to proceed, and indeed there remains significant public support for four-laning, in part based on expectations. Redirecting dollars at this time with the project half-complete would be difficult politically, to say the least, even if the economic case to do so only gets stronger every day.

It’s therefore important that we get things right the first time, at least as best as we can. Decisions should be made based on the best information available at the time. Ideally, decisions should lead to the creation of the most benefit for those making the decision.

Making Decisions

However, we all know that decisions are rarely made in such a manner, whether they be personal decisions or those made by public bodies or private enterprise. Indeed, short-term gains often win out over long-term benefit, and decisions can be fuelled by a number of factors, including perception, emotion, misunderstanding and even the desire to compromise. None of this makes a particular decision “bad”, but certainly in terms of deriving the most net benefit, some decisions are more ideal than others.

Here’s a quick example. I was hungry today at lunch time as I often am. Anticipating my hunger, I could have packed for myself a healthy lunch, including a salad and juice, which would have addressed all of my nutritional needs, with the added bonus of being “good for me”. In fact, all of the necessary ingredients for a healthy lunch were already purchased by me, and together the costs might totalled around $5. But instead I went out for a meal at a fast food restaurant, and spent $10 on food which generally speaking, isn’t particularly good for me. Why did I do this? Well, maybe I was thinking that I wanted to save the $5 worth of good food for dinner tonight. But we both know that wasn’t the case! My decision was based on my desire to eat junk food, because I enjoy the taste. Was it a bad decision? No. I’m certainly not hungry any more. Was it the most ideal decision I could have made, the one which created the most benefit for me? Uhm…likely not.

We like to think that most decisions made by our elected officials aren’t made in a similar manner to my lunch choice decision, but the reality is that decision-making at all levels are influenced by numerous factors. We can plan to take healthy lunches to work every day of the week, but when it comes to putting the brown bag in the brief case, well, plans sometimes just don’t pan out. And that’s why I wrote earlier in Part 1 of this blog series that implementation is always the hardest part of planning.

Champions and Leaders

Political decision-making is influenced by a number of factors. Individuals who find themselves in decision-making roles will have to balance these factors prior to making any decision. Sometimes, decision-makers take on the role of Leaders, and try to get out in front on certain issues in order to potentially influence decision-making outcomes. Sometimes, leaders and champions arise who do not exercise decision-making authority, but whom nonetheless can influence outcomes.

Elected officials who are champions often run afoul of the electorate for getting too far out in front of particular issues, especially those which contemplate changes which may impact a specific group or number of people. For example, an elected official who champions cutting bus routes in order to save money may take a lot of flack from transit users. To minimize opposition, champions first try to work with those who are affected in an effort to shift opinions, while acknowledging that opinions can only ever be shifted so far.

Elected Officials: Leading or Following?

You may feel that our elected officials should not themselves be leaders or champions on certain issues, and instead should make decisions based on what they perceive to be the will of the people. If a majority of the people want something, elected officials should give it to them. If the people don’t want a certain proposal, elected officials should vote against it. You may have noticed that many of our elected officials (and here I’m not just referring to those in the City of Greater Sudbury, but indeed throughout the world, at all levels of government) do, in fact, act this way, at least on occasion. In a democracy, the fact is that to keep your job as an elected official, it’s not usually wise to upset a majority of voters by consistently acting against their wishes!

I once attended a seminar where a municipal elected official representing his Council candidly admitted to all of those present, “If we took the actions that we needed to take on (a specific issue), you would never vote for us again.” At the time, I found myself in complete agreement with the official. As the years have gone by, however, I’ve changed my opinion, and now only mostly agree. What this official seemed to forget is that sometimes you have to spend the time to build political will.

The Need to Lead

Building political will is an exercise in organizing, educating, influencing and ultimately shifting public opinions. It happens all the time on issues of public interest, sometimes without co-ordination or effort. However, sometimes a great deal of effort is required, and that’s why finding local champions is so important, as they can be the living/breathing/walking embodiment of a particular issue around which opinions are shifted, and political will is built. Of course, they will also be a lightening rod for dissent, which is why becoming a champion is a role which elected officials are often reluctant to undertake. There’s often too much at stake for those whose jobs depend on periodic elections.

Interestingly, though, those truly popular politicians are the ones who consistently take on the role of strong and effective leaders.

Residents of Greater Sudbury, including myself, often express their dissent and dismay with decisions made by our elected officials. But decision-making isn’t easy. I’ve always been under the impression that our elected officials are making decisions based on what they believe to be in the best interests of the public. I suspect most in my community feel the same way. It’s in defining the “best interests of the public” where disagreement tends to occur.

Being a leader is never the safest role anyone can take on, and that’s especially so for elected officials, who have so much at stake. However, by their very nature, our elected officials are all in leadership roles of a sort. We’ve put them in their jobs to make decisions on our behalf – how can they not be leaders?

Well, first of all, leaders lead. They should be taking us to where we need to go. Are our municipal elected leaders doing that?

Municipal Council and Decision-Making

President George W. Bush once famously referred to himself as the “Decider”, for which he was ridiculed. But the fact is that for elected Leaders like Bush, with whom the decision-making buck stopped, the term “Decider” was appropriate.

Of course, there’s no equivalent to a President George W. Bush on our municipal Council. Each of our councillors has one vote, and decisions are determined by a majority of votes cast. There is no one “Decider”. Instead, we see some Councillors take the lead on certain items, building support to achieve consensus (or at least to achieve a majority vote), and then on other issues they may step back and let a different Councillor lead. In this setting, influence plays an important role in decision outcomes.

How does this decision-making process assist or hinder achieving the outcomes for our City which we know we ought to be planning for? Otto von Bismarck once remarked that making laws is like making sausages: it’s better not to see them being made. When it comes to democracy, I’m completely in disagreement with the second part of Bismarck’s quote, but I will admit that it’s hard not to deny the first part.

The decision-making process in place in Greater Sudbury, as in every municipality in Ontario, can be quite tedious at times. However, it is also mostly a transparent and accountable process. That transparency and accountability are sometimes called into question means that the process itself is generally a healthy one. At least we can usually see how the sausages are being made, and cry foul if we think something is wrong with the process.

Along with being dull, the process itself is not particularly swift. Although when a decision is ultimately made, there can be significant impacts which are felt almost right away. Most often, though, even when decisions are made, real impacts are felt by the public only slowly, over time. Incrementally, even.

It’s because of the nature of the local decision-making process that the public is often disengaged from what is going on within the community. Often, it’s only when the bulldozers show up next door that questions about decisions made long ago get asked. “What’s going on?” and “How will this effect me?” are important questions which always deserve answers.

Answers, though, aren’t always as forthcoming as they might be, and that’s when real problems can arise. Take, for example, the residents of Mountain Street below Sunrise Ridge, who have been trying to figure out just what went wrong with the decision-making process which led to the flooding of their homes. The resolution to this issue, if there is one, is one which taxpayers may be on the hook to pay for, due to the decision-making process which led to the situation.

Making the Best Decisions for our Future Needs

With power and authority comes responsibility. We have a pretty good understanding of what our City’s future needs are. Right now, the City is in the process of revising our Official Plan, which is a policy document that guides land uses and development. The Official Plan provides direction and guidance and creates expectations regarding the City in which we will inhabit. It’s a promise to the public that change will occur in a certain way, and that when change does happen, it will generally happen in a planned and responsible manner.

Moving ahead into the future which we can expect, it will be increasingly important for champions and leaders to step forward to create the political will to facilitate the changes that we need to make to our community. There is a general understanding that the status quo can no longer be the model for the way forward, given the significant local, regional and global trends which will impact the City over the next few decades. Leaders must be willing to put our long-term economic interests ahead of short-term concerns. To do this, the public must believe that it is receiving the greater benefit, and lend those leaders the political will necessary to make tough decisions.

(opinions expressed are my own, and should not be interpreted as being consistent with those of the Green Party of Canada)

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