by Rebecca Vaughan, Sr. Communications & Engagement Specialist, City of Coquitlam, BC
In March of this year, the appearance of COVID-19 and the resulting response happened so quickly that many projects – including public consultations – were abruptly put on hold. Now, months later, as people are adjusting to a modified way of life, P2 practitioners are turning their attention to re-starting engagement and how this work can carry forward. By measuring the public’s readiness to engage, and gathering information on how they would like to engage, we can continue public consultations in an informed way that meet the needs of the public and our stakeholders in the current pandemic context.
Is the time right to restart engagement?
At the City of Coquitlam, several projects had been paused as the City turned its attention to managing the emergency and response. As we settled into a modified way of doing business as usual, staff began looking at plans to re-start engagement processes that had been in the works. However, without a foundation of understanding the public’s readiness to participate in consultations, we risked conducting ineffective engagements that could result in incomplete, uninformed feedback, in turn affecting project outcomes. As well, the current context sets the risk of appearing insensitive to the needs of stakeholders who may be facing the loss of their jobs or businesses, family members whose health is at risk, or other concerns that supersede the decision-making we are seeking input on.
A national survey conducted in late March 2020 by Hill & Knowlton asked Canadians if they felt the time was right to re-start public engagement. The survey showed that “a majority of Canadians (68%) believe that engagement with all levels of government is more important now than ever. And similarly, 58% indicate that it is still important for governments to consult citizens on issues not related to COVID-19.” (Hill & Knowlton Strategies, “To Consult or Not to Consult: Canadians Say They Still Want to Have Their Say”)
Recognizing that the ongoing physical distancing requirements would require a modified approach to engagement activities, staff at the City of Coquitlam wanted to localize the findings of the Hill & Knowlton survey, and inform our approach going forward.
We launched a survey between May 20 – 31, 2020, which was promoted to both the general public and to our Viewpoint survey panel. The Viewpoint survey panel consists of over 2,000 residents who have opted-in to receive and participate in City surveys, and we typically receive up to 500 responses within 48 hours of distributing a survey. The survey was also promoted with a media release and social media outreach.
Coquitlam residents had their say – what we heard
The survey saw 847 responses (743 from the Viewpoint panel participants, 104 from the open community). Of those respondents, 94% agreed or somewhat agreed with the statement, “The COVID-19 outbreak continues to be a priority, but engaging with the community in modified ways on other City issues is important and should continue.”
So Coquitlam residents are indicating they are ready to engage – what does that engagement look like?
● 76% of those who indicated a readiness to engage said they had also used online meeting tools such as Microsoft Teams or Zoom. 98% of those said they were comfortable or getting comfortable with the tools.
● When asked if they would participate online, 60% said they were interested and would participate or were somewhat likely to participate. 40% indicated they were not sure or not comfortable participating online.
● When asked how they would like to engage, 2% of respondents said by phone; 30% said by virtual events; 65% indicated by email, and 3% chose other options. Suggestions included online surveys; online content they could provide phone or email feedback to; or live online Q&A sessions.
When given the opportunity to provide further feedback, many respondents acknowledged the importance of, and their appreciation for, the opportunity to provide input. Some warned about virtual meeting burnout, as many have been using Zoom and other tools frequently during the pandemic already. Others reiterated the need to use multiple channels to communicate with residents. Some also indicated a desire to resume in-person events, with physical distancing measures in place to ensure safety.
Where we go from here – planning modified engagement
With this localized knowledge about the community’s readiness and commitment to engage with the City, staff have been able to plan informed, alternate ways of public engagement. These adhere to public health and safety measures but also strive to offer all stakeholders the opportunity to engage with the City.
Staff have been investigating new tools for engagement with the objective of identifying creative, outside the box ways to gather public feedback within our current constraints. Tactics are evaluated based on a variety of factors, including project context, cost, effectiveness, and whether they provide access to a wider group of residents and stakeholders.
The engagement readiness survey also provided Coquitlam staff with the knowledge needed to plan for respondents’ comfort and familiarity with virtual meeting tools. Knowing that 24% of respondents were not familiar with using these tools, we developed a facilitator’s guide for online meetings, intended to help remove barriers to participation and ensure everyone on a call knows how to use the features and tools of the meeting software, such as raising their hand, participating in the chat feature, answering polls, and more.
Building a framework
Creating a Community Engagement Framework is one of the City of Coquitlam’s business plan priorities for 2020, and although this work was delayed during the COVID-19 breakout, the engagement readiness survey offers data that will help inform the framework and our engagement plans and processes.
Gaining insight into how people would like to engage with the City, as well as comfort levels with online tools, will help inform engagement plans for the coming year. The City will be able to adapt engagement plans quickly in line with the current public health context, as well as for the long term future.
The pandemic and the impacts on in-person ways of conducting business are anticipated to continue for some time. By using the knowledge gained from Coquitlam’s Engagement Readiness survey, and by employing a variety of virtual and online communication tools as well as offline communication options, the City can continue to provide the community with ways to provide meaningful input and feedback on City plans, programs and projects.