How would you feel if you were asked to give your opinion on something, but you couldn’t understand the question? That’s exactly what’s happening right now with the launch of the Islands Trust Policy Statement Review Phase 3 Public Engagement. Last Friday afternoon the Trust published the information on their website including a link to a Public Opinion Survey and an invitation to pre-register for an online Q&A Session, to be held on March 1. In our opinion it borders on gaslighting to ask the public to participate and then make it incredibly difficult for them to do so. Here’s why...
The invitation to pre-register for the Q&A Session was published on a Friday afternoon, for an event to be held the following Tuesday. Extremely short notice. The format of the so-called Q&A Session, which began with a mind-numbing 40-minute presentation on the existing Draft Revised Policy Statement, did not allow participants to see each other or ask any questions during the session. The only questions answered during the session were cherry-picked by the presenters. Questions submitted by the participants in advance are now going to be answered at another time in a yet-to-be-determined format. In all seriousness, it was an exercise in disenfranchisement, and an insult to the citizens who had taken time from their busy lives to register, submit questions and then show up.
The Public Opinion Survey itself is astonishingly poorly designed and does not follow best practise of being clear, concise, and comprehensible. The issues with the survey include pages of bureaucratic language introductory and cautionary notes, vague question language, value-laden statements, subjective and/or leading language, conflation of issues that do not belong together, repetition of the same questions, and limited space for open-ended question response.
Some examples include:
“Marine dependent land uses should be directed away from eelgrass meadows, kelp forests, forage fish spawning areas, tidal salt marshes, mud flats, and coastal wetlands, acknowledging the important roles they play in capturing and storing carbon, protecting shorelines, and supporting marine food webs and species at risk.”
What is a ‘marine dependent land use’? Would most lay people would understand what that phrase means?
“Neither the density nor intensity of land use should be increased in groundwater regions where the quality or quantity of freshwater is likely to be inadequate or unsustainable.”
What is the difference between density and intensity? What does intensity mean, in this instance?
What does “respectful of the environmental integrity of the Islands Trust Area” actually mean?
“Harvesting practices (i.e. forestry, agriculture, and aquaculture) should be small-scale, sustainable, regenerative, supportive of climate action, respectful of Indigenous harvesting areas, and protective of the environmental integrity of the Islands Trust Area.”
There are six values-based phrases combined in this statement. What if I agree with all but one, or only half of them? How do I answer?
Section 21 asks for our opinion on an array of advocacy work the Trust could take on, but it does not tell the participants whether any of this work is already part of the Trust workplan and budget or whether it would require entirely new resources. Of course, it would be nice to have all the things, but we don’t even know if we can afford them.
Sections 22 through 26 ask open-ended questions about macro issues and then provide a mere 300 characters in which to answer. Three hundred characters is only 20 characters longer than a tweet and we all know how useful they are in addressing the subtleties of any complex issue.
What appears to have happened is that the survey has been twisted to serve the policy statement work already completed instead of gathering public opinion on the various issues, unencumbered by previous staff conclusions and draft policy offerings. This is a mistake.
The whole point of a survey is to gage community sentiment and provide actionable information. But it is disingenuous in the extreme to survey the public with only half the information and severe limits on possible responses by framing them within the very policy proposals that caused the process to fall apart in the first go round.
Trust Council’s intent and direction to staff for the Phase 3 Public Engagement program, which was specifically added to the Policy Statement Review process at an additional cost of approximately $140K to taxpayers, was to address the failings of the first engagement process; to be more inclusive, hear from more voices, broaden the input beyond the usual participants, and ensure that groups who would otherwise not be heard from, such as youth, would be included.
The design and language of the survey, the short notice and non-inclusive format of the so-called Q&A session, and the scheduling of other ‘upcoming Phase 3 engagement activities ‘over the two weeks of spring break when families and businesses are very busy, in fact accomplishes exactly the opposite.
If this is the shape of things to come, Trust Council would be better off scrapping the Phase 3 Engagement and saving the taxpayers’ money, rather than executing a so obviously biased exercise.
Note: The Islands Trust Council is the governing body of 26 elected Trustees that represents all of the communities within the Islands Trust region. The Salt Spring Local Trust Committee (LTC) is composed of our two locally elected Trustees plus one trustee from another island. The Policy Statement Review is an initiative of Trust Council to update the primary policy document for the entire region.