Friday, November 29, 2013

The autumn palette

Warm and calm. Cloud fills the Sound this morning and a little rain is falling. It seems this stretch of warm and dry autumn weather is breaking and we may have some cold and snow soon.

This is a morning for appreciating the winter palette - greys and yellows, pale light and the ever present ever changing clouds.

Monday, November 25, 2013

A letter to my MLA about the BC ferries consultation

Jordan Sturdy
MLA West Vancouver - Sea to Sky

Mr. Sturdy:

I have some grave concerns about the BC Ferries Consultation process.

First there are many serious errors in the process.  The consulting firm  that was hired to undertake the work, Kirk and Company, basically violated every line of the International Association of Public Participation’s Code of Ethics with respect to what actually constitutes public engagement.  The figures we are being given to discuss only include vehicle traffic and not foot passenger traffic.  And there has been no socio-economic analysis of the impact of service reductions on coastal communities.  It is unimaginable that the government would undertake a similar study about, for example, restricting access to a bridge, or twinning a highway without undertaking a socio-economic study to understand the impacts on citizens, communities and local economies.  It appears that the service reductions planning has been made simply on the basis of numbers alone, and not even a complete set of data at that.

The firm that conducted the work has not substantially incorporated any of their findings from last fall’s consultation into the discussion document that we are now “discussing.”  It is clear to me, as a professional that works in this field, that we are being subjected to a strategic communications job.  We are being sold a done deal dressed up as “consultation.”  This is not consultation or “engagement” and calling it such undermines confidence that your government consults citizens ethically.   We have not been told how our feedback will be used or what the decision making process is.  This simply does not pass the test of meaningful citizen engagement and the perception of conflict of interest is a serious stain on the democratic credibility of this process.

But there is more that troubles me.  The consultation process is so bad that I started looking at the firm which conducted it and I was shocked by what I found.  The principal of the firm and the lead facilitator in the process are substantial donors to the BC Liberal Party. The CEO, Judy Kirk was retained by the premier to deliver 1 on 1 strategic communications coaching to Cabinet ministers after the election.  She also made a $500 donation to the party within a month of the consultations starting in October of 2012. An important facilitator in the process, Nancy Spooner, has donated or overseen more than $20,000 of donations to the party in past ten years.  I have documented these facts in a recent blog post on my Bowen Island weblog which is now making the rounds.  You can read it here and follow the links for yourself.  Nowhere have I seen a declaration of this blatant conflict of interest.  

We are being subjected to a strategic communications initiative by a firm with more than close ties to the party in power and pecuniary ties to the decision making body that set the reduction targets for BC Ferries.  This is a serious issue,  There are serious impacts to coastal communities flowing from this process, and there is a growing perception that the process is rotten.  

I am sure many islanders would be keen to hear your response to this and your own thoughts on what constitutes meaningful consultation on transportation infrastructure and socio-economic community development..  Furthermore, there is a part of this you can play directly.  

We are being told that in the discussion guide that "The Province has set an objective of $18.9 million in total net savings to be achieved through service reductions by 2016.”  What I would like to know is where that number came from, why it was chosen and why the province directed that cost savings to be found in service reductions rather than, say, meeting the shortfall through other ideas or through increased subsidies.  In other words your government has deliberately set an agenda of service reductions over the vehement opposition of coastal communities without any rationale for doing so.  I trust that, as a member of the BC Liberal caucus, you can find this out for me.   I appreciate that the decision was taken before you were elected to office, but it is critical,  It is this figure that we are being asked to address, and yet I haven’t seen anyone explain to me how this figure was arrived at and why the Province has ordered it to be funded by service reductions.  

I would be deeply appreciative if you could provide this information.  I’ll publish this letter to you and your response on my blog as well.  

Thank you,

Chris Corrigan

Bowen Island BC

cc. Sheila Malcomson, Chair, Islands Trust
     Bowen island Municipality Mayor and Council

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Unethical consultation and conflicts of interest

As a guy that does public engagement work for a living, I was really interested in the process BC Ferries used to produce their proposals for service reductions, fare hikes and gaming possibilities.

I looked through the report and the supporting material from their fall 2012 "pre-consultation" consultation - which was actually a consultation - that produced the report we are all tearing to shreds these days.  The work was all conducted by Judy Kirk and Company, a public engagement and communications company that works on a lot of large scale provincial projects.  They work in the field of communications and public engagement, which, in democratic practice, are not the same thing.  Their work seems to be heavily on the "communications" side.

So let's have a look at what they heard and see if they learned anything.  I'm looking at the verbatim notes from the public meetings (Open Houses and Small Groups) and comparing them against their discussion guide for this round of consultations.  Follow the links and read them for yourself.

If you look at the summary report you will find that people talked a lot about some of these themes:

  • The ferry system as highway system: the word highway is mentioned 447 times in the open house meeting notes, and gaming not at all.  Yet we have no discussion of ferries becoming part of the highway system, but a whole proposal regarding gaming.
  • People believe that ferries should be returned to the care of the province, but there is no proposal in these consultations to do that.
  • Everyone agrees that fares are too high.  With the exception of a discussion of rewards programs, the current proposal suggests raising them further, rather than finding ways to reduce them.
  • People talked about high fares impacting the socio-economic life of communities, yet there is no discussion of this in the proposal and it seems like the Kirk and Co. never did a socio-economic analysis at all. 
  • There was concern expressed about the methodology used to determine the utilization data, and this was raised again last week at the meeting on Bowen.  The data does not include foot passengers which are significant users on our ferry, as many people keep a car on the continent or ride the bus to town.  There is no adjustment in the numbers in the discussion guide.
  • Furthermore, the current round of "engagements is substantially about this: "The Province has set an objective of $18.9 million in total net savings to be achieved through service reductions by 2016.”  Several ideas for INCREASING savings appeared at the Bowen meeting last week, but without service reductions.  We don't why the province has said this objective needs to be acheived with that strategy.
In short, this is a pretty appalling process.  The major issues that people raised are never addressed.  The consultation process has ignored almost everything the public wanted to talk about.  The discussion guide that was released talks about meeting to funding targets that the provincial government has decided for BC Ferries.  This verges on unethical behaviour for a public consultation.  In fact I'll call it out as unethical.  If you go to the International Association for Public Participation (essentially the professional association in our world) you will find their code of ethics.  I think you will find that Kirk and Company and the Province violated several of these ethics, including, advocating for the outcome and not the process, making the process about better decisions, openness and trust.  This is not an engagement process by any stretch of the imagination.  It is a strategic communications process, undertaken by BC Ferries to communicate a rationale for how it has unilaterally chosen to meet funding restrictions that have been arbitrarily applied by the provincial government.  

And to add insult to injury, the principal facilitators in this project are big donors to the BC Liberal party.  Judy Kirk herself, used to work for Gordon Campbell and has given strategic communications training to BC Liberal cabinet ministers as recently as THIS YEAR!  She has also donated more than $14,000 to the party over the years, including $500 one month before this project started.  Nancy Spooner, who has facilitated many of the meetings is also a big donor, having given or overseen $20,000 in donations over the years.

So you tell me.  What do you think is going on?

Edited to add the last bullet point and implicate the province in this round.  I have no idea yet which firm is conducting this fall's meetings.  

Edited to add: It was Kirk and Company.  And she has given even more money to the BC Liberals, both as an individual and as a company.

Friday, November 22, 2013

BC Ferries "engages" and I get a little angry

I've taken the time to read through the discussion guide, I filled out the form and the surveys last year too.  BC Ferries has entered into an "engagement" process about some decisions they are making to reduce the levels of our ferry service.  And there are some flaws in their process.

For Bowen they are proposing to reduce our service by eliminating the first two sailings on Saturday and Sunday mornings and the last sailing on Saturday night.  This will save the ferry corp $270,000 a year.  A few years ago the updated the otherwise just fine interior of our ferry for around $2.7 million.  We didn't need this cosmetic upgrade.  But we got it and now I guess we are paying for it, because it truns out thet BC Ferries didn't have the money to do it.  Or at least it seems that way.

There is so much to say about all this.  Let's start with the engagement process itself.

I'm not sure what the process has been.  BC Ferries has been surveying ferry users for a number of months now.  They released a very handy chart which showed ferry utilization last year.  But last night the showed up at the BICS gym and held an open house or something (I am away and couldn't attend) based on this set of proposals for reductions of service and increase of fares.  What ever their process actually is, it LOOKS like classic "tell and sell" work and it absolutely tanks trust between people and organizations.  So they are now badly trusted and everyone is cynical about the process.  If you want to engage ferry communities well, build relationships with them.  On the island's where crews live, which seems everywhere but here, islanders know their local ferry workers, and working on the ferry is a good job for local people, paying good union wages in otherwise isolated communities.  BC Ferries could have local employees living here, hanging out at the Snug, shooting the breeze with folks, sponsoring beach clean ups and ball tournaments.  But no.  They seem to just think of Bowen Island as a terminal they have to serve.

BC Ferries is a weird kind of company.  It is neither a private company or a Crown corporation.  It has a single shareholder - the province of BC - and it delivers on a single contract for ferry services.  In essence it is a semi-private transportation company that is bound to deliver a transportation service which is essential for island communities.  Imagine is all of the BC Highways were given to a single company to manage through a single contract.  Imagine if they incurred cost overruns from making pretty signage and painting the road with glittery messages despite residents desiring or needing it, and fixed the debt by deciding to close the highways at night, when they are "under utilized."  That's what we are facing.  And imagine if they just did that out of the blue and justified it simply using numbers without any kind of analysis for how it impacts highway dependant communities.

This is BC Ferries' methodology for these service reductions.  They have made decisions simply on the number of cars that travel on each sailing, not foot passengers.  They looked at which routes were running at less than 20% utilization and they have simply proposed cutting the lowest ones.  This is ridiculous.  There has been no socio-economic study of these cuts, no profile of the folks that use the early morning ferries - many of whom are shift workers who will now be forced to stay in Vancouver overnight to go to their jobs, if they end up staying on Bowen at all.  Under this new scenario, the earliest I will be able to leave my island on the weekend is 730.  Imagine if the people of Horseshoe Bay were not able to leave their village until 800 every weekend morning?  Often when we leave on trips we catch early morning make soccer and hockey practices in town you need these travel on other ferries to Vancouver Island for example, you'd leave on the early boat.  Starting at 530am is early enough, but starting service at 730 is ridiculous.

Others will argue "why should BC Ferries run a deficit to give you a ferry sailing that hardly anyone uses?"  And I would argue right back, why should I pay for roads in northeastern BC that I never use?  Ferries are a public service, but since 2003 they have been treated like a private service.  So instead of decisions made about how to best serve coastal communities, we have decisions made to best serve the bottom line, as if the entity providin gthe service was actually a company that could do what it wants.

Some wil argue "well you chose to live on an island, so suck it up."  To which I reply, where did you choose to live?  And why should I pay for your connections to the Lower Mainland or your nearest city.  You live in the suburbs or a small town for whatever reason you live there, but no one is arguing that you should have your local connections cut to save costs.  Why should we?  Why are ferries considered a luxury or a tourist operation in a province that has thousands of islands and thousands of kilometers of coastline dotted with communities full of working people?

Seems our local irascible libertarian islander army (usually opposed to taxation, subsidies and public services in general, until it affects them personally) has taken out its wrath on BC Ferries both through their connections to the political party in power and through the media.  I am glad they are doing this, because having been on the opposite side of another issue from them, I can attest that they are a pain in the ass to deal with when they have an issue in their teeth.  They will pester you endlessly regardless of whether they are making any sense or not. They will organize a petition (because petitions THEY organize are always worth doing, rather than petitions against, say docks)  I am glad our MLA Jordan Sturdy and the BC Ferries "engagement" team will taste their fire for a while. Perhaps the mayor will advise our MLA on a resourceful response to dissent.

(I won't be signing this petition by the way because the guys organizing were responsible for getting this crop of junior Republicans elected in the first place, as campaigners and funders of the BC Liberal party.  This is what happens when your pretty libertarian agenda gets implemented.  Hatred of "big government" = small government = idiotic service reductions.  We've already slashed social programs completely.  I wonder if this crew ever imagined that the chickens would come home to roost for them too?  Entitlement is a bitch, eh?)

At any rate, living on an island means you have to have a relationship with a ferry company.  BC Ferries is big pain in the arse to deal with, despite the fact that ferry usually works on time and the workers are prepared to dive into Howe Sound to save your life if you fall overboard.  Since the BC Liberals reorganized them they have operated with the worst kind of corporatist managerialism with no idea how to operate a public service, and the provincial government, who fully share the blame for this state of affairs, have been no better.  Grr.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

At rest

Fresh snow at 1000 meters. The other day walking at the Cape I saw a small pod of dolphins in the calm water heading out to the Strait and into the teeth of a small storm. Feels like the island is at rest. Water is flowing but we have had few wind storms. We move through the cold air to places of light and warmth - the pub, a restaurant, friends' homes - where a fire in the hearth and something warm for the belly reminds us of islands of friendship in a world that is sometimes as cold and grey as the winter sea.