QUESTION: What measures will I champion to strengthen ongoing public consultation and citizen engagement?
This is a great question I received from someone involved with a local non-profit organization. In response, here are my top 7 measures that I would champion to ensure public consultation and public engagement are at the centre of how we understand issues and make decisions:
1. Updating Template for Staff Reports/Recommendations to Council
It may seem mundane, but I think this is a very important first step to making consultations with community stakeholders and citizens par for the course in how we evaluate issues and make decisions.
I would make sure the that staff report template includes a space dedicated for outlining any and all consultations with the public, including demographics and numbers reached, and the names of all stakeholder groups and experts that contribute to understanding and recommendations.
This will make it clear that Council expects that recommendations are based on and/or validated by engagement with our community. It will also help Council to understand whose interests are being represented, and to ensure decisions do not proceed without adequate representation.
2. Engaging with Stakeholder Organizations and Experts
There is so much talent and expertise within our community that we can and should be harnessing to make better decisions and advance community priorities!
I would start with a full mapping of all the stakeholder groups, including local businesses, local charities, non-profits organizations, and other citizens associations, and local service providers, whose work and expertise overlaps with the work and services of the Municipality. This would provide us with a good starting point for soliciting input, including about local contexts and the needs and interests of impacted community members, relevant to different areas of work.
For example, when we are developing Municipal plans for increasing affordable housing units in our community, we should be actively collaborating with the Northumberland Affordable Housing Committee, Habitat for Humanity, and groups like Green Wood Coalition, who have experience and expertise on the issue as well as an understanding of the needs of community members who are underhoused or experiencing homelessness, and the Ruth Clarke Centre, who can contribute to understanding the needs of seniors seeking affordable options for aging in place in our community, etc. We should also consult with other stakeholders, such as the ACO, to ensure that our approach is not met with resistance down the road by ensuring that the dealbreakers for these stakeholders and their ideas are considered at the outset.
This could be done through direct consultation with each group, but also would ideally (in my view) include a round table discussion where preliminary plans / ideas can be workshopped together. Diverse stakeholders convening at the same table often yields new and creative solutions that build on the ideas that each group could come up with on their own.
Recognizing that there is some skepticism about the whether it’s worthwhile to contribute to Municipal processes, resulting from a feeling among many stakeholders that their input is not taken seriously, we will need to make investments in relationship building from the outset. I would personally contribute to this by meeting with and showing up to events and gatherings to build trust. Collaborative relationships built on trust can also be fostered through reporting back findings and ensuring stakeholders contributing to design/decisions see themselves reflected in the staff reports and recommendations.
3. Representative Sampling of Community
When input is being solicited directly from individual community members, I will champion the application of best practices for community research that I use all the time in my consulting practice. This includes representative sampling (ensuring that survey results are statistically valid) and proper disaggregation of data / responses according to key demographic details (e.g. gender, age, household income, urban/rural, etc.). This is vital to ensure we are understanding the perspectives and needs of different members of the community and to ensure we are not making assumptions nor basing decisions based on the voices of any specific group. Ideally, we would achieve a representative sample aligned with the census figures for our population – e.g. if 50% of the population is aged 55+, than 50%, and no more than 50% give or take, of respondents should be aged 55+.
Another note on surveys – I will always champion leaving space for the all important “other” options. This make sure that we are not limiting people’s responses to what we already know and recognizes that people are bound to have ideas that staff creating the surveys have not yet considered!
4. Meeting People Where They Are
If we really want to make sure we are representing the interests of the community (which I certainly do!), then we cannot rely on digital surveys posted only on the myporthope.ca site. We must do a better job of soliciting input from the public by going to the places where community members are already gathered.
Online this should include active posting in Facebook groups where community members are engaging already on civic issues and harnessing the reach of the network of stakeholders mapped in our community and asking them to circulate surveys through their email lists and social media channels, etc.
I think we should also explore other options for soliciting survey responses – one idea is having “My Port Hope” kiosks at Library branches, Jack Burger, Town Park Recreation Centre, and Ruth Clarke, etc., where community members can answer survey questions while they are there for other programming.
I would also champion use of focus groups discussions (both formal and informal) which take place at locations where people are already gathering. This can ensure we hear the voices of those that are simply never going to complete an online survey. These can also be used to deepen understanding and validate trends identified through survey results. Examples of an opportunities informal discussion could be at a community event for seniors, or attending one of the Green Wood community dinners at St. John’s. I see this as being a shared responsibility of staff and Council members (personally as a member of Council I will always be soliciting input through conversation with residents and seeking out opportunities to be in the same spaces as diverse community members!)
Importantly, informal conversations also provide space for other ways of knowing and contributing information.
5. Create Opportunities for Feedback and Learning
Even when we’re confident that plans and decisions are responding to community demand, we should still monitor results. This means looping back and consulting with impacted stakeholders and individuals to learn about their experience of municipal works and services. This can help us to learn about the efficacy of our approach so we can learn, and do better.
This can be as simple as a quick satisfaction survey for property owners after navigating the process for obtaining a permit through the planning department.
It can also be more in-depth, such as conducting discussions with neighbours impacted by the road closure of Walton St in Phase 1 of the underground works, so we can learn from them and mitigate the negative impacts for those that will be impacted in subsequent phases (which I hope very much will happen soon!)
6. Making Advisory Committees More Open to Participation
Where official advisory groups exist, we should be encouraging diverse community members to take a seat at the table. These committees should include not only ‘experts’ from a credentials perspective, but also citizen experts with lived experience and who are directly impacted by issues.
This means ensuring that the process of applying to serve is appropriate and accessible to all citizens – let’s do away with the practice of requiring folks to prove they are worthy of contributing! Let us also consider the timing and location of committee meetings to ensure that diverse members of the public are able to attend (are they at locations accessible by alternative or public transportation? at a time of day when youth, working adults, and retirees alike can show up? etc.)
This will help to make sure our advisory groups reflect the diversity of experiences and needs of our community, along with the expertise and access to support and compliment the experience, skills and knowledge of staff.
7. Updating the Public Engagement Policy Framework
In order for this all to happen, we need to update the Public Engagement Policy.
First and foremost, we need to ensure that our definition of “engagement” goes beyond “feedback” which is how it is currently framed. Feedback is the last stage of community engagement which really begins with consultation about needs and interests before work is undertaken and decisions made!
I would also like to see the measures outlined above regarding representative sampling and soliciting diverse perspectives and voices enshrined in this policy to ensure we make it a priority.