How would one define great public engagement? This is a question that the 2011-2014 City council will likely be exploring in great depth. At the council strategic planning sessions earlier in the year, under the heading of governance, we set a goal to be recognized for great public engagement.
For me, it is not so important to win a shiny award statue or plaque. Much more gratifying would be to hear from our fellow citizens that they feel better heard and more engaged by city hall in all areas of community life. I believe this is a hallmark of a well-functioning democratic community.
We are building on some excellent practices. A lot of councils don’t allow citizens such easy access to ask questions at council meetings or such a clear pathway to get a letter “for action” on a council agenda. I also want to thank Mayor Milobar and City staff for proposing and implementing the enhanced public engagement on the 2012 city budget. I found the budget public meetings very helpful in my own thinking and decision-making.
In my view, one of the pitfalls in public engagement is becoming too focused on public engagement tools. A great Facebook page or Twitter feed does not necessarily make for great public engagement. Similarly, holding an open house tour of coroplast poster boards for a City plan or neighbourhood development might not necessarily always be appropriate.
Planning great public engagement, in my experience, consists of three steps. First, adhering to a set of principles or values that will guide the process. A really good example of a set of values is the International Association of Public Participation’s (IAP2) Core Values for the Practice of Public Participation. These can be found in a Google search.
Second, assessing the situation and the audience for the public engagement. Here, one might explore issues such as diversity of the audience and the “temperature” of an issue (controversial/ not so controversial).
Third, after assessing the situation and the audience and guided by good principles or values, selecting the right tools / methodologies for the process? Open house or open mike? Facilitated discussion or free-flowing conversation? There is a great book called The Change Handbook that lists over 60 different methodologies for engagement.
A great thing about public engagement is that it’s not exactly a new field anymore. There is a lot of credible information. IAP2 offers training programs. Simon Fraser University and Fielding Graduate University (my alma mater on these matters) offer academic certificates. I co-chair a national organization called the Canadian Community for Dialogue and Deliberation and, through this amazing opportunity, have met skilled, thoughtful, and caring public engagement practitioners from coast to coast to coast.
Great public engagement, in my view, is incredibly helpful to people who make decisions on behalf of the community. It builds trust that decision-makers are indeed acting in the whole community’s best interest. It builds more support behind decisions once made. It circumvents protest and prevents division.
Before I start talking about rainbows and unicorns, I should also state my belief that great public engagement takes a lot of hard work and commitment. It is not easy, for example, to be open to people who are very emotional, uncivil, or incredibly critical. It takes forethought, training, time, and often money to engage people in the right way.
It’s all worth it, if you ask me. I am not sure how I can really represent people in Kamloops unless I have a really good sense of what they are thinking and feeling.
As always, welcome your thoughts on my musings.
Arjun Singh is a Kamloops City councillor. He can be contacted at email@example.com.