The Do-Nothing Option

Mike McGough
December 2016

The phrase, “Doing nothing is not an option,” has a long history. However, there is an assumption and a resulting misunderstanding to be considered when thinking about do-nothing options. Consider the following scenario.

The Oakville Recreation Committee conducted a public survey. Two topics surfaced--holding the line on tax increases and providing public Wi-Fi access in the town park. Neither issue had overwhelming survey support, but the Committee wanted to give attention to both. Fiscal responsibility tempered with providing solid services and maintaining local infrastructure seemed to describe public sentiments in Oakville.

The Committee learned about a grant available to municipalities for public access Wi-Fi. There was a significant initial expenditure and ongoing operating costs. Also, if a municipality applied and won the grant, they were obligated to use the grant in a specified period of time. Then they would assume all additional costs for at least five years.

If the survey had shown a stronger level of interest in the service or a willingness to face higher taxes to fund it, the Committee’s decision would have been easier. But that was not the case. So in the absence of strong public support or rejection, the Committee began their deliberations, based largely on their sentiments and their desires. Not surprisingly, the members of the Committee, all from Oakville, were also split on Wi-Fi in the park.

After two months of informal public discussions, open invitations for residents to attend the Committee’s meetings to share their thinking, and some additional study, no decision was reached. At that point the chair of the Committee acted. She explained that because no prevailing public sentiment had surfaced, she was going to ask the Committee’s approval to table the issue, promising to revisit it if and when it became a matter of greater public interest. Just before the vote at the public meeting she said, “Future circumstances and developments may provide us with better insights on this matter. But today, we just don’t seem to have enough justification to proceed.” The vote was taken, the Wi-Fi issue was tabled, and they went on with other business.

The next day, a resident who was not happy with the decision of the Committee, voiced his angst in a letter to the editor. It was short, not so sweet, but right to the point.

Dear Editor,

The decision of the Recreation Committee to do-nothing about installing Wi-Fi in the park is appalling. We live in the digital age, and they have totally ignored that reality. Why have a committee if they are going to be content to doing nothing?

Signed: Angry in Oakville

The following day, the chairwoman responded on behalf of the Committee.

Dear Angry,

Thanks for your letter. Your assertion that we did nothing regarding Wi-Fi in the park is incorrect. The Committee understands why you may believe that to be true, and we’d like to explain why it’s not.

Your assertion is based on the fact that we didn’t do what you desired. You obviously wanted Wi-Fi in the park. We didn’t act to install it, so you believe we did nothing. Let me explain how we arrived at that decision.

When Wi-Fi in the park was first introduced via the public survey that we conducted, we carefully studied the matter. We thoughtfully deliberated on various aspects of public Wi-Fi. We considered cost estimates for initial financing and ongoing expenses. We invited public input at meetings. We looked at necessary tax increases and weighted them against observable public interest. We then did a thorough return-on-investment study and determined that at this time, the level of public interest did not justify the cost. It was not until we completed all of the above that a decision was made.

So you see Angry, we did do plenty. It’s our hope that this letter demonstrates that we did, even though we didn’t do what you wanted.

Signed: The Oakville Recreation Committee

There is a big difference between doing nothing and making a decision to take no additional action at the present time. The difference is that in the latter case a willful, thoroughly deliberated decision was made. That is most definitely an action. There are situations where making a decision to take no action actually requires more study and deliberation than thoughtlessly deciding to simply charge ahead. However, when a person or group does not get what they want, it is easy to make the erroneous assumption that the person or group arriving at that decision did nothing.

If you do nothing because you are apathetic, unwilling to consider all options, or just lazy, then you have figuratively and literally done nothing. If, on the other hand, you make a well-reasoned decision to do nothing, you have indeed done something!