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The Higher ED Blog: Back to basics on public engagement

Michelle Madden / June 20, 2016

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The Higher ED Blog: Back to basics on public engagement

We know that engaging the public in economic development activities and initiatives is important, but let’s be frank: it’s difficult and takes skill to do right. With that in mind, Jennifer Lake (the Director of Economic Development and Tourism for the Town of Conception Bay South, NL) saw the need to go back to basics and find the bedrock that public engagement needs to be built on. This blog features the highlights of her findings. The full compilation is available in her Year 3 paper for the University of Waterloo’s Economic Development Program, Public Engagement – Back to Basics.

While public engagement is an extensive topic that can’t be fully covered in a blog—or even a paper—this guide can serve as a checkup to make sure your community is on the right track. Links to quality resources are included throughout the paper to help you learn more.

What is public engagement?

The Institute for Local Governance (a leader in the field) defines public engagement loosely as a term that describes a range of methods through which members of the public are informed and influence public decisions. The organization doesn’t get more specific than that because it says the distinction between the methods –which include information/outreach, consultation, participation/deliberation, and sustained problem solving—is more important than a standard definition. Each method has a different objective and engages the public to varying degrees:

  • Information/Outreach: one-way communication that informs community members about a problem, issue or policy matter (i.e. an article or mailout).
  • Consultation: official ask residents for views and recommendations, usually with little or no discussion (i.e. a public hearing).
  • Participation/Deliberation: Community members receive information, have the opportunity to discuss, and jointly prioritize or agree on recommendations.
  • Sustained problem solving: usually takes place through committees or task forces with multiple stakeholders over an extended period of time.

The International Association for Public Participation (another leader) has developed a tool that further fleshes out the depth of public engagement: the Public Participation Spectrum. The tool makes no judgement about the level of engagement; it rather presents the spectrum as a menu of options organizations can choose from based on their initiatives’ objectives (from informing to empowering) and available resources.

Why engage?

Governments are elected by their constituents to represent their interests in public matters. Of course, it is practically impossible to achieve full consensus but public engagement is an important part of making sure that most are on board with decisions.

While few people disagree with the concept of engagement, some believe that engagement is more trouble than it is worth and may oppose investing financial and human resources in these kinds of efforts. The Institute for Local Governance has prepared a convincing list of reasons why engagement is worthwhile and important. It:

  • provides better identification and understanding of the public’s values, ideas, and recommendations;
  • reaches residents who do not normally follow local policy matters;
  • taps into the collective wisdom of residents, who know the community’s history and needs best, resulting in better and more sensitive decisions;
  • generates more community buy in and support, with less contentiousness;
  • encourages in more civil discussions and decision making when done early and well;
  • results in faster project implementation with less need for revisiting;
  • fosters more trust in each other and in local government; and
  • leads to even more civic engagement as residents feel more informed and qualified to participate.

Challenges

I’ve already hinted at some of the challenges of public engagement, but let’s explore them further. Jennifer identified several common challenges, gaps, and barriers that prevent effective engagement. In brief, engagement is often limited by a lack of resources. There may not be enough money or people to run an extensive campaign, or the people involved may not have the skill or understanding to carry it out. Sometimes, the problem is less about resources and more about the willingness of stakeholders; the process may be hindered because those involved do not understand the benefits of doing it right, or the consequences of doing it poorly. Even with the best of intentions, an effective Public Engagement Strategy is critical to execute the process consistently and to get the best outcomes.

Strategies

The best way to overcome the challenges above is to educate those involved and develop a strategy based on best practices. Throughout Jennifer’s research process, she collected strategies recommended by a variety of organizations and practiced by those doing engagement well. Here’s the cream of the crop (pulled verbatim from Jennifer’s paper):

  • Take the time to understand the reasons for and extent of concerns. To appropriately and proactively address concerns, involve the public in the planning process of projects, ask for and make use of input, and answer questions early and often. Remember that a vocal opposition does not necessarily mean a majority opposition (Great Lakes Wind Collaborative, 2011).
  • Conduct ongoing outreach and engagement to reach broader segments of a community who may not have yet formed an opinion. They may be disinterested or they may be quietly waiting to learn about how the project might impact them.
  • Special efforts must be made to reach out to members of the community who may be less engaged or less vocal in order to assess the true sentiments of a community.
  • Public engagement can mean different things to different people, both internally within the organization and externally among the public. In order to ensure a successful public engagement strategy, politicians and senior management need to establish a single vision for public engagement and must all buy in to the chosen principles and tactics. Furthermore, the public must be informed of the strategy and also buy into its direction. Trust needs to be built early (Barnes & Mann, 2009).
  • It takes the whole community to create and sustain a truly effective democratic governance culture. Many municipal officials report that important players (including those in their own organizations) are not stepping up to their proper roles (Barnes & Mann, 2009). It is essential that roles for all stakeholders are clearly defined and that a municipality regards public engagement as a core responsibility for processes to be truly effective.
  • While there may be an understanding of what public engagement is, there may be differing opinions on what makes public engagement effective. Politicians might say it is most important for people to have the right information and that this discussion is civil. This might contrast with criteria that others identify. Effective public engagement requires skill. Municipalities should either train select internal staff, or retain a consultant to facilitate all aspects of public engagement (Barnes & Mann, 2009).
  • Effective public engagement needs to be meaningful to its participants. They need to believe that the exercise is being undertaken in good faith and they should not feel that the community is “just going through the motions”. When focus groups were conducted with citizens from Fort Saskatchewan in June 2011 (The Praxis Group, 2012), they said that public engagement needed to:
    • Inspire enthusiasm and passion to get people involved ;
    • Demonstrate to citizens that their feedback and opinions matter;
    • Indicate how the information collected will be used;
    • Share information from the small group discussions with a wider audience;
    • Show participants that their input has been heard;
    • Indicate why and how decisions are reached;
    • Include a range of opinions and perspectives;
    • Change direction if the community points in that way;
    • Use multiple approaches; and
    • Make people feel it is important and meaningful for them to be involved.

Engagement starts with internal buy in

While reading this blog, did you find yourself doing more nodding or note-taking? If it was the latter, it may be time to review engagement practices and policies and make sure that residents are as involved in local decisions as possible.

As a first step, Jennifer recommends finding out if local officials and senior management actually want to make public engagement more effective. This could be accomplished with a poll of internal stakeholders to assess their understanding and interest. Review the National League of Cities’ survey of municipal officials for inspiration on what questions to ask. If your poll finds that officials are not interested in engagement, it may be that they need to be shown the benefits.  Once the internal stakeholders are on board, then you can proceed with the (re)development of a strategy, vision, and protocols that will ensure that the public is informed, engaged, and sharing their valuable insights.

 

About the authors

Michelle Madden is the editor of Higher ED. She is also the Outreach Manager for the Economic Development Program and a graduate of the LED master’s program.  She has authored many Higher ED articles sharing information relevant to economic development practitioners, and has written several on behalf of students. She has published several of her own blogs on economicdevelopment.org as well. Follow her on Twitter at @michelle_mad.

Jennifer Lake is a lifelong resident of Conception Bay South, Newfoundland and Labrador. Jennifer is the Director of Economic Development and Tourism for the Town of Conception Bay South and has a Certificate in Economic Development from the University of Waterloo, a Bachelor Degree in Physical Education with a Concentration in Teaching from Memorial University, and in August 2014 was the first economic development professional in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador to receive her Ec.D.(F) Designation from the Economic Developers Association of Canada.

About the series

Higher ED: Insights for the Next Economy is a platform for students, guest speakers, staff and faculty of the University of Waterloo’s professional and graduate economic development programs to share knowledge with the field at large. The series takes works destined for an academic audience and reworks them into a fresh, easy-to-digest blog article.

Established in 1988, the Local Economic Development program is the only master’s program in Canada devoted solely to local economic development. It offers a balance between theory and practice by combining coursework, a major research paper, an internship, and weekly seminars featuring guest speakers. Students are prepared for careers in local, community, or regional economic development.

The Economic Development Program is a nationally-accredited provider of professional training. It delivers certification programs and seminars that offer a deep understanding of the Canadian context in a convenient block format. Peer learning is combined with informative lectures and practical case studies to provide dynamic instruction that is beneficial for junior and senior-level practitioners.

 

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