May 28, 2016
Dear Mr Porter,
I very much appreciate the quick and fulsome response to my email and blog post. I didn’t intend to time my post for a Friday afternoon, thus occupying you in an after-hours response, it is simply when opportunity and inspiration coincided.
The process clearly looks different from our respective positions, but perhaps that is a useful starting point.
First, I do have grave concerns with the asymmetry of information provided about the three options. While I understand some knowledge is still lacking, the vacuum in terms of the dam removal option has been surprising. For instance, the option 3 landscape visualization that was created for the public engagement is a blank canvas: not even existing trees and other infrastructure are included. As I have done this kind of viz work, I know it would not be difficult to create something more realistic, taking into account some of the minimal information around remediation provided in Chapter 9 of the CER, but ideally more robust explorations of other cases. Images (even ‘made up’ ones) have great power, especially to novice viewers. It feels that the message being conveyed by option 3 is a big question mark. Uncertainty creates fear. Such fear is only exacerbated by additional gaps in information related to that option, including real estate value and ownership issues.
Second, while I acknowledge the depth of scientific effort underway, I do think that NB Power has been overly protective of other highly relevant information. I am not typically a patient person, but I think I have been very patient waiting for more detail, such as fulsome reporting on processes that I know are underway or even completed (e.g. First Nations consultation, real estate impact analysis). Transparency would involve opening everyone up to the learning journey that NB Power has been on, so that when the chance to submit comments closes, people have a better sense of what is at stake, not only for themselves. While I agree that NB Power cannot speak for First Nations, this separate process not only seems to muzzle them, but set them apart from the rest of the community. This may make it difficult to come to a place of mutual understanding and a collectively acceptable decision.
Third, my fear is that without such transparency, NB Power fails to convert the process of consultation from a discussion about “me” (boats, views, waterfront) to a discussion about “we”, or from an extractive to a collaborative process. Moreover, by the conventional volunteer approach being used in both surveys and meetings, there is a systematic bias in what is heard. I’m sure you’ve noticed the demographic bias, but also in terms of substance raised. The only responses you get (and sometimes you get many, i.e. vote early, vote often) are from those advocating for what is locally acceptable (there is an enormous amount of peer pressure in such small communities). We saw in the NB election and in the meetings to date what the locally acceptable option is. We saw the same on our houseboat tours [some text deleted].
A cynical person might sum up the last three comments and assume that NB Power is trying to aim the process toward a rebuilding decision. This is likely where “they’ve already made up their minds” is coming from. I personally don’t think that is what is happening, at least not intentionally. I think that NB Power doesn’t believe in, or trust, social science or social scientists. This is not terribly surprising from an organization, I will hazard to guess, that is dominated by engineers. As a recovering positivist, I can appreciate the solace of numbers and measurements. People are messy, and subjectivities are impossible to avoid when dealing with them, but subjectivity is not the same thing as bias: social scientists have codes of practice at least equivalent to those in the biophysical realm. There has been no significant investment by NB Power into social science, at least none that has been released. Linking to other people’s research cannot be equated with ‘engagement’.
A cynical person might also read the above and think that I want the dam removed, and that I thus have a hidden agenda to advance. I do not. I don’t have a preferred option, because I do not feel that I have all the information necessary yet to make that call. And since I’ve been studying it for three years, that’s embarrassing for someone. Maybe me. Maybe not. I just want to see a fair process. I hope the above provides a valuable picture from an interested party outside the tent.
So, what would I do differently, particularly from here on in? (Of course, an investment in social science running parallel with, or even integrated with, CRI’s work would have been powerful, but perhaps that window has closed.) This is one of those “while I have your ear” moments, so forgive me for thinking big.
- While the ownership issue may not be able to be resolved in advance of a decision, I think NB Power could report on how this has been handled in other places, and make a commitment now on the process by which such a decision would be made, should option 3 be chosen. It would remove some of the fear: “multi-party planning exercise” could be anything. Consider committing to a design charrette on redesigning the intervale, and outline the rough membership and how members will be selected. This can’t be harder than developing the detailed technical plans for options 1 and 2; governance is just another kind of design. This would be creative and exciting and courageous, and you may never need to deliver on it.
- Release all technical reports and expert analysis commissioned to date BEFORE closing the opportunity to comment. It will be a lot, and most people won’t look at it, but NB Power will look better for having shared it, rather than carefully filtered it. What is the worst that can happen? I would include the First Nations consultation here, although I would not expect that to be completed, but it is time for citizens to learn what has been happening in that process, to what end.
- Release all written information (qualitative and quantitative) received during the Mactaquaction survey and comment period, as well as the promised synthesis, BEFORE closing the opportunity to comment. People should have a chance to learn and consider how others feel, based on feedback in less high-pressure situations. I understand that the capacity to share raw data may be limited by the basis on which the data was collected (i.e. it is conventional in social science to make it clear when collecting information exactly how it will be used, and by whom; you can’t change the rules mid-way through).
- Undertake a provincial educational process to ensure that the issues are understood outside of the local area. I’m not sure where the media has been on this. The last Globe and Mail article on the issue was in April 2013. [Few journalists seem to] do anything but simply print NB Power press releases. The issue is provincial, and thus so should the engagement.
- Initiate a proportional population survey to explore the issue, including WE questions, as well as ME questions. Ask questions like you really want to know the answer. Social science has a lot to contribute to such a process. Some web survey tools present aggregated results to participants immediately after they submit their answers. This is another great way to establish transparency. We tacked a few Mactaquac questions onto a survey in fall 2014, but clearly more is needed.
- Subject all the evidence and arguments to a randomly selected citizen jury or other similarly democratic deliberation to inform (make?) the final decision. We let citizens balance evidence in complex decisions involving lives (i.e. trial by jury), and the idea is slowly making its way into other public-good decision-making settings. I’m not an expert, but Australia leads the pack on this. Such an undertaking would be very impressive indeed, and would attract much interest as well as good will.
That is my vision of open and transparent process. (Don’t get me started on research ideas.) Thanks for asking for it.