Briefing the city: 60 UTSC students advise councillors on crucial city issues

By Alexandra Flynn, Assistant Professor, University of Toronto Scarborough

This is a picture of some of the University of Toronto City Studies students took the pen, drafting briefing books for 15 City of Toronto councillors on current issues.

UTSC students meet with 15 City of Toronto councillors and Mayor John Tory to present briefing books prepared as part of an upper-year course offered by the Department of Human Geography and City Studies at the University of Toronto Scarborough.

 

Every day, dozens of city staff write detailed reports for councillors. These reports help elected officials navigate the winding, difficult path of decision-making. But, this past winter, instead of staff, 60 University of Toronto City Studies students took the pen, drafting briefing books for 15 City of Toronto councillors on current issues like laneway suites, backyard chickens, creating ‘complete streets’ in Scarborough, and expanding daycare spots for kids. After they were done, the students briefed their councillors – and Mayor John Tory!

As one fourth year student said, “This was a fantastic way to end off my university career, because I was able to learn the reality of working in the field with others.”

City Structures and City Choices: Local Government, Management, and Policymaking is an upper-year course offered by the Department of Human Geography & City Studies at the University of Toronto Scarborough. This course examines the structure of local government, how local government is managed, and how policy decisions are made. The first part of the class canvasses theories of urban governance – how do we conceptualize power and governance related to municipalities? Next, students look at City Hall in action – what really happens when decisions need to be made (as one student recounted: “much more slowly than I expected”)? And, throughout the class, we treat the City of Toronto like a lab, taking a close look at the agenda items making their way through committees to City Council – crucial issues like homeless shelters, new transit, and what makes for a good mayor.

But sitting at desks and debating city policy is only one part of City Structures and City Choices. The creation of briefing books is a profoundly important element of the learning experience. Whether in municipal, provincial or federal politics, or in the non-profit or private sector, most policy staff will be asked to prepare briefing books. Decision-makers – elected officials, civil servants or other civic leaders – need to have clear, comprehensive information in order to make informed decisions. A briefing book is a collection of all the meaningful material that a decision-maker needs to understand a complex issue. This includes things like applicable laws and policies, how City Council has dealt with the issue in the past, financial implications, and different policy options.

In practice, briefing books are often drafted with other staff members. So, in our class, students worked with 2-4 other students. While working in groups can be terrifying for many students, City Structures and City Choices embraces it as a learning experience needed for future success. To help, our class had two senior City Studies students guide the process, with tips on how to work together. It wasn’t always easy. Students needed to appreciate how others work, reflect on their own styles and, ultimately, compromise. One student recounted that, “the skills in compromising, understanding the uneven division of work, and having faith in myself and my peers’ work, are skills that can be beneficial in all aspects of my life.” But, across the board, students rose to the challenge, learning about themselves and, in some cases, making new friendships.

Unique to this experience are that students didn’t just create a final product, they first prepare a draft. These drafts are presented and defended in a mock city staff meeting, with their fellow students reviewing and providing feedback. The end result was high-quality final products, complete with charts, diagrams, and pictures.

This year, we concluded City Structures and City Choices with a field trip to City Hall. Our first stop was a hilarious, riveting talk by outgoing Councillor Mary-Margaret McMahon (who crammed all 60 of us into her tiny, sunshine-filled office), presentations from city and political staff, and a chance to watch a City Council meeting in person.

As a professor, I sat in awe of the talented, empathetic, thoughtful students as they presented their briefing books to their councillor and the Mayor, so impressed that they opted to take risks and engage so completely with the course. I am also deeply grateful to Philip Kuligowski Chan, for his amazing work as the course TA, and the 15 councillors and their staff who made the project happen.

One student aptly summarized the experience as follows: “At first the feeling of working with the group was intimidating, but at the end of the project I had three new friends at UTSC, and handing in a project to a city councillor was an amazing experience and something I will never forget.”