How Will Public Engagement and Participation Processes Change?

Featuring Jane Farrow, Principal, Dept. of Words & Deeds; Nicole Swerhun, Principal, Swerhun Inc; Zahra Ebrahim, Executive Advisor, Doblin; and Amanda Gibbs, Public Engagement Lead, City of Vancouver

5 Key

A roundup of the most compelling ideas, themes and quotes from this candid conversation

1. Time to do away with “the numbers game”

Government accountability and evaluation metrics tend to latch onto the quantity of engagement and less about the quality of the interaction and outcomes. It is time to “go deeper with fewer people,” as one panelist noted. Move away from consultation, toward co-development. It will be necessary to rethink who the vendors are to undertake public consultation: the real experts are those with longstanding, trusted relationships in community, i.e. non-profit and service providers. The ideal engagement specialists come from the grassroots of a community.

2. Bridging the digital divide

The engagement profession has attempted to make up for the inequities in access to online outreach by going out into community and meeting in person at libraries and community centres. Now, in the immediate and short-term – possibly the long-term – that stop-gap measure is not an option. So, the digital divide needs to be solved, once and for all.

3. Take a page from Jury duty!

Hyper-local engagement is critical if co-development is to be realized. One panelist proposed the idea of establishing a “community consultation service” – much like the jury duty process, where residents are randomly called upon and expected to serve and represent their community.

4. There is no digital silver bullet

We have to reassess what engagement is in the first place. What is a meeting, really? Maybe it’s time to go back to the old “analogue” outreach tools, such as bulletin boards, mail-outs and the telephone. The COVID-pause is providing an opportunity to rethink everything we do when we engage with the community – specifically reaching equity-seeking groups. “It is time to listen in a different way,” one panelist said.

5. A door closes, and another one

Engaging youth has been a persistent challenge. With the new reliance on the digital, there is an opportunity to bring youth, who have previously been elusive, into the conversation.

There are other community members who face barriers to traditional engagement forums, such as single parents, shift workers, the street community and people with mental and physical challenges. Online engagement holds some promise to broadening the outreach.

Additional Reading
& Resources

Paradise Built in Hell, Rebecca Solnit, Viking Adult

No More Throw Away-People, Edgar S. Kahn, Essential Books

The Resilience Dividend: Being Strong in a World Where Things Go Wrong, Judith Rodin, Public Affairs.

How to run a civic lottery, MASS LBP