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Why public hearings are terrible

It's a typical public hearing, and over a dozen speakers have arrived to speak for or against the proposed development. When called, each speaker heads up to the microphone and passionately relays their personal perspective on why the new development should, or should not, be permitted.

At the end of the hearing none of the speakers has changed their mind, and very few have learned anything new. Council makes their decision. Those who are aligned with the vote rejoice, while those opposed to the decision lament and decry the process as well as the decision.

A democratic exercise? Certainly doesn't feel like one. Public hearings are notorious for leaving council members exhausted, members of the public frustrated, and decisions that seldom seem connected to the proceedings themselves. This format and mechanism are partially products of our focus on democracy as accountability and equality of voice. At a public hearing, any resident can register to speak, and views are expressed directly to council members, unfiltered.

The reason this format feels so awful is out of neglect for other components of democracy that are often overlooked, ignored, or are poorly understood altogether. The democratic potential of our communities requires that we make space for things like consensus and deliberation. Consensus can be thought of as general agreement, or opinions that are in alignment. However, in practice, it does not always mean 100%, unequivocal, agreement. The process to reveal areas where there may be consensus across a diverse group of people requires some degree of deliberation - which is very different than what happens at a public hearing. Deliberation is more like conversation: I share my opinion, you share your opinion; I listen to your thoughts, reflect, and adjust my opinion based on what I've heard. You do likewise based on my renewed opinion, until we've both arrived at a new or different perspective that neither of us had at the outset. This is what is meant by the term building consensus.

This process is time consuming, and requires that participants actively listen to one another, have trust, and are wiling to learn. These are atypical features in our current forms of government and decision-making. However, there are examples where these approaches have been tried. Check out this process to involve BC residents in the creation of health policy. This handbook outlines several other instances across Canada when citizens are invited to deliberate together with one another, and engage in deep learning on a particular subject where they don't necessarily have specialized expertise.

The thing is, this approach is difficult to scale. It requires that people meet together, face to face, multiple times. Through these processes people build relationships, and come to know and understand one another. Even more critically, everyone in the process learns something.

And in today's world, a little bit of learning could go a long way.

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