What happens when a City, its residents and their Council decide it’s time for change?
Public Engagement is complex work. It’s also important work; it’s the primary way that the City of Edmonton works with the public to understand, examine, and make decisions.
Following the 2013 Civic Election, as well as a 2014 City Auditor report on public involvement, City Council and Administration identified a need to review the City of Edmonton’s approach to public participation. Many Edmontonians, stakeholders, Councillors, and members of City Administration observed that the City faced a number of challenges and opportunities in public participation, including responding to evolving citizen expectations, supporting growth, ensuring consistent and quality processes, and capitalizing on opportunities for innovation.
Through a collaborative based process that involved City Council, Administration and Edmontonians, the Council Initiative on Public Engagement(the Initiative) has defined and set the stage for innovative and inclusive public participation practice for years to come.
The Initiative was designed using a phased approach for “engaging on engagement” with City Council, Administration and the public. It was given a broad mandate to examine public participation practices at the City, while also implementing immediate improvements to public participation practice where possible. The initiative recognized that making lasting change to public participation must be part of a larger organizational change at the City. However, a focus on internal change must be balanced by an effort to understand, engage, and enable the city’s broader civil society. Good public participation requires increasing both the capacity of the City and the community to engage.
Most of the public participation challenges centered around internal leadership, who were involved in the Initiative, pushing the City norm on public participation and sticking their neck out to challenge how decisions are made at the City. Traditionally, decisions were made hierarchically with little meaningful public participation involved in decision making. The Initiative was bumping up against that tradition which is often a challenge. Though the work was heavily supported by Council, there was resistance internally for the need of public participation or the Initiative as a whole. Having community contribute to big policy decisions was scary for an organisation that was often used to making those decisions for themselves.
Another challenge was a general lack of trust by residents in City public participation initiatives. Residents told Council candidates during the 2013 Civic Election that they did not trust that the City used any of the input they provided and that the City did what it wanted to do anyway. Residents felt that public participation at the City was just checking a box and not sincere or meaningful.
Due to the lack of trust residents had in public participation, the Initiative was given the direction by the Council co-leads to “begin at the beginning” and engage with Edmontonians, City staff and community leaders to develop a common understanding of public participation and start to build consensus on what the Initiative and public participation at the City needed to focus its efforts on. Doing “public participation on public participation” was a key part of gaining trust from residents on the process as well as the outcomes of the Initiative. To ensure the outcome of the Initiative worked for all (residents, City staff, stakeholders, Council ext.), all needed to be involved.
Impact of P2 on decisions
The public participation activities undertaken directly impacted the decisions on the direction the Initiative was going to take as well as the final outcomes. Collaboration between Administration, City Council and community was a focus and theme throughout the entire Initiative. That theme continues to impact the way the City practices public participation today.
Other outcomes and impacts on decision making include:
A Public Engagement Policywhich provides direction on engagement at the City and links public engagement to decision making
A new Public engagement spectrumthat removed Inform and included communication to underneath all the roles the public can play when participating
Public Engagement Framework
New Public Engagement Practice and Implementation Roadmap
Creation of a Public Engagement Section at the City with 16 Public Engagement Advisors, a 6- member Corporate Research Unit and a 4-member Methods and Practices Unit
Outcomes of the working groups
Training program for all City staff on public engagement
An approach for City staff on evaluation and recognition
Development of a new public engagement planning tool, a catalogue of techniques and practices as well as a new Communications Guidebook.
An internal community leadership database and mapping tool
A Guiding Coalition that will monitor the City’s progress in executing theImplementation Road Map for public engagement
A Communications Guidebook
Public Engagement Language Guidelines to standardise how the City talks about public participation
A Public Engagement section added to each Council Report