Decision-Based Evidence-Making And The Guidebook



If you've been following our work at Common Sense Calgary for a while, you'll know that one of our biggest pet-peeves about Calgary Council is the City's "consultation" processes.

Calgary's "Guidebook for Great Communities" is a perfect example of this consultation farce.

Even putting aside the challenges that the pandemic has introduced to the consultation process, the City simply isn't interested in what Calgarians actually think.

Lisa Kahn, who is Calgary's "Legislation & Land Use Bylaw Coordinator", was quoted in the media saying:

"We haven't [done public engagement] because we want to do this differently, because that type of engagement hasn't been working in the past to actually get us to the outcomes we want."

Anyone who's ever attended a City consultation understands this quote perfectly.

The City failed to get the outcome they wanted from the consultation, so now they need to do the consultation differently to get the correct result.


As far back as 2013, we published a report entitled "The Consulter's Conceit: How Phony Public Consultations Undermine Democracy And The Market".

The key point of that report was the inability and inefficiency of central-planning:

City planning is believed to be essential. The rationale is that if cities are not carefully planned and their development is constrained by only market forces, cities will become inefficient and chaotic.

Some worry that proper infrastructure will not be developed in time to support a growing population and that lower income communities will suffer if resources are not distributed fairly.

People are concerned that without planning and regulation, urban sprawl will do unacceptable environmental damage.

However, small, central groups cannot possibly plan well or make good decisions on behalf of a large group of citizens. This is because of the knowledge problem.

The knowledge problem, as Friedrich Hayek put it, “is a problem of the utilization of knowledge which is not given to anyone in its totality”.

In other words, no single mind or small group of minds has all the details or knowledge necessary to organize a society – at least not in a way that will be in everyone’s best interests.

If anything, the problem has become much worse since that 2013 report.

The City's public consultations are carefully stage-managed and controlled in order to ensure they obtain the result the City wanted to begin with.

We like to call it Decision-Based Evidence-Making, as compared to the normal Evidence-Based Decision-Making process you might expect from an effective public body.


Earlier this afternoon, the City held the latest of their online town hall meetings about the Guidebook, so we joined in and asked them a question.

We asked the City why they're pursuing a top-down centralized plan for the whole City.

Ironically, the City official who answered the question was the same Lisa Kahn quoted above.

She said that the Guidebook is not top-down and then proceeded to explain exactly how it is top-down - because every local plan must comply with the top-down City-wide Municipal Development Plan.



Here's a transcript:

CSC, Question:

Why the assumption that a plan must be top-down controlled by the government? The free market is a better planner than any politician. Assuming that politicians and government employees are the only ones who can successfully plan, biases all of your consultation and conclusions.

Lisa Kahn, Answer:

This is not about top-down planning, we've been working very strategically and very hard with a lot of our stakeholders... really trying to work with them to find the policies that resonate and also help us get us towards our outcome in a way that also achieves our Municipal Development Plan.

So our Municipal Development Plan is our City-wide vision for how the City will look and change over the next 60-years and all of our policies must be in line with that Municipal Development Plan, so it's not about going out and finding out exactly different things that folks want in communities, it's about finding out how to implement the Municipal Development Plan in a community.

Did you catch that?

The plan can't be about top-down planning, because they're "consulting" with their stakeholders (nevermind that 47 (!) community associations have come out against the Guidebook).

Note also, that communities are free to put whatever they want into their local plans... so long as it complies with the compulsory, City-wide, top-down Municipal Development Plan!

And, of course, the Guidebook isn't about what folks want in communities, it's about how to implement the Municipal Development Plan.


The Guidebook for Great Communities will be presented to Calgary City Council for approval during a public hearing on March 22nd at 9:30 am.

As a City Hall watchdog, we'll be covering that meeting live on our Twitter account as we do with many other big City issues, and we'll keep you up to date on any further developments.

As a reminder, Common Sense Calgary is an independent non-profit organization and everything we do is funded by donations from Calgarians like you.

We aim to bring Common Sense to City Hall and, if you've been watching what's happening in our municipal government lately, you'll know that we have a huge job ahead of us!

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