Rethinking Public Involvement #1

How can we get more Edmontonians involved in municipal issues? How can the City improve the way it informs and involves the public? This is the first in a series of posts on that topic.

I have been thinking extensively about Public Involvement lately (the City’s official term for public consultation, community engagement, stakeholder participation, etc). I try to keep on top of the various public involvement opportunities that are running at any given time, and have completed my share of surveys, feedback forms, and have attended many open houses and other events. It’s important to me to remain informed, but also to be able to provide input on issues that I care about. I feel a responsibility as a citizen to take some initiative and to get involved.

In the past I have been critical of the City’s public involvement efforts, and I still think there’s a lot of room for improvement. The Public Involvement Handbook (PDF) could do with an update – it was last modified in 2008. Improved consistency with vocabulary would make a huge difference – right now “open house”, “public consultation”, “information session”, and other terms are used interchangeably. A new or improved online consultation manager would also be positive – it lacks many of the features that would make public involvement easier to follow, such as iCal or email subscriptions/notifications. Those are all minor suggestions though, and I think the City needs to make more fundamental changes to really move the needle on this issue.

“What’s the purpose?”

I don’t think the answer to this should be “to inform citizens” nor do I think it should be “to gather input”. I think the purpose should really be tied to the project outcome. Are we building a bridge? Then the purpose of the public involvement is to build the best bridge possible. Informing citizens about the project and gathering input are two of the ways we’re going to achieve that.

I think this approach to defining the purpose scales up to the City level too. Why does the City conduct public involvement? To make Edmonton the best place to live, work, learn, and play.

“What’s the context?”

In my experience, this is missing from nearly every single public involvement opportunity the City conducts. Take a public involvement event focused on the Downtown LRT Connector, for instance. It will have all sorts of information about the Connector itself, and maybe even a little about the larger LRT Network Plan, but very little if anything about other projects related to or happening around the Connector. Nor will it include any history about projects that have happened in the past. There’s no context! I know that focusing the public involvement activity is important, but citizens need to be able to understand where the project fits into the grand scheme of things and why it matters.

“What have I missed?”

For most projects, public involvement activities take place over months or years. That means that citizens may be coming into them at different points and with varying levels of knowledge/experience. Despite this, I find that most public involvement activities make it difficult for citizens to get involved later in the process because there are a lot of assumptions made about what has already happened. Some work has been done recently to address this – I like the timeline graphic the Transportation folks use:

Project Lifecycle

This makes it easy to think about the status, where are we in the timeline, but it still doesn’t help a citizen who wants to get involved at the Design phase understand what has already happened and how they can best dive in. In addition to clearly identifying “where we are” there needs to be a way for citizens to quickly find out “what you missed”.

While there are many improvements that could be made to the way the City conducts its public involvement activities, I think addressing these three fundamental questions would make a big difference. I don’t think we should throw out what already exists either, because there’s a lot of solid foundational work there, but I do think we can and should work to make it better.