NAME Donna Kell
POSITION – Manager of Communications – City of Burlington ON
How long have you been in P2, and where have you worked? – I’m a communications practitioner – that’s been my occupation for 15 years … before that I was a print journalist with the Guelph Mercury and some other community papers in southern Ontario. I’m accredited in PR and I’m about to go after my Certification with IAP2.
What turned you on to P2 in the first place?
It came through my work in PR. I was at a Public Relations conference in Calgary and during a community relations session, one of the presenters showed the IAP2 Spectrum. That was the first time I realized that there were all sorts of ways to engage with people and that there was a specific formula and path. I was working in Brampton at the time, and when I got back, I shared the Spectrum with everybody I knew. In 2007, I made the move to Burlington and encouraged everyone here to get involved with IAP2.
There was also an external group in Burlington that was promoting engagement, and in 2010 they came forward to ask for more engagement in the community. With them, we worked out the Community Engagement Charter. We at the City had already begun training people in P2 – staff and residents – and members of council and senior management took P2 for Leaders. So in 2012, we finalized the Community Engagement Charter.
What kind of staff do you use for P2 in Burlington?
Most of the Communications team that I lead has been trained in P2, and that includes the designers. Traditionally, the creative staff are not asked to consider it, but we encourage them to think about how to engage people when they’re designing something. When we launched our new website, it was the two web designers leading the team who came up with the best ideas for how to engage people via the website. All in all, we’ve developed a culture of engagement here. I recommend including P2 as part of communications and also that staff share success stories internally, so people are inspired to stay engaged.
Have you had any “Golden Learning Moments” – or big wins?
There’s one that was both. Part of my job has been to rescue projects in trouble. There have been a few projects that were on a bad path and we’ve managed to bring them back using engagement.
One in particular was a decision to build a fence between a pathway and Bronte Creek provincial park (east end of Burlington). There’s a residential area nearby and people love to walk along the path and look into this beautiful park, see the deer and so forth.
It was a safety issue. The path was right beside a steep embankment, and there was a danger of people falling – in fact, some people had: they weren’t hurt badly, but the Fire Department – which has to rescue the people who fall – raised concerns.
But some people were concerned that the fence would block the view of the park, and then an influential person in the community shot a video showing what he felt was being lost and asking how the City could do this without consulting.
This fellow called himself “Mr Burlington”, because he wanted to experience as many Burlington events as possible in one year. The video got a lot of hits and we realized we had to hold a greater level of discussion than we thought.
So we met as a team with the ward Councillor, the staff involved in the fence project and the department involved. The question was, People don’t feel engaged: where can we share power here?
I like asking that question, because then we can determine where we land on the Spectrum. We can say specifically what parts of a proposal are “fixed” and what parts are flexible.
People need to know that, if they’re going to trust the engagement process: we can’t say we’ll involve them in a decision and then not. People want you to be genuine they want you to say “Here’s what we can do – and here’s what we can let you be a part of.”
So we needed a fence for safety reasons – but how do we get that across to the people? I suggested that we take residents for a walk-and-talk along the trail in the spring, when the weather was mild enough. We announced it through the media, then met neighbours and park users in the park and walked them along the trail to show why staff felt it was dangerous.
About 60 to 70 people came out and they were absolutely thrilled. They liked meeting the Councillor and the Mayor and meeting staff and asking questions. We handed out hot chocolate, met together and walked together along the trail.
We also came up with four different types of fences, and set them up along the trail so people could see and select what kind of fence they preferred. We also put the designs on the website so people could vote online. We made sure it was only Burlington residents who could vote.
And in the end, it was the community that picked the fence. The impact of having a plan and engaging people as much as we could and maintain safety was amazing: the next story in the media was about how we were engaging people.
How hard was it to sell Council and staff on engaging people?
Council was already supportive of the engagement charter. Many members of the Council that was elected in 2010 were already engaging in their wards, and they were hungry for staff to do more.
So after Council approved the engagement charter, we brought it to staff and developed the Charter Action Plan. We used internal P2 to engage the staff on engagement, using surveys, dot-mocracy and so forth to find out what staff would support and what they would not support.
We put together a toolkit for staff, which we’re still fine-tuning, and provided P2 training for new staff in roles where they would need to understand engagement.
Recently, we took the engagement charter and had the ChAT – Charter Action Team – pare it down to its essence, defining the role of the City and the role of the residents, and put it on a plaque. We set up seven plaques – one in each ward and one at City Hall – and eventually, we’ll have forty plaques around the city.
The idea was to have Council members show their commitment to engagement by unveiling those plaques. To give you an idea of how the media view public engagement, the plaque unveiling – which generally doesn’t get much media coverage – was a story in both the Hamilton Spectator and the Burlington Post.
We’re always asking who do we need to involve … who do we need to inform … who do we need to engage?
What do you see for the future of engagement?
I see two trends. For a time, I taught writing for public relations at McMaster University, and if you look at PR today, I’d say it’s not the same practice that it was when I first started. Today, it’s all about engagement. Social media has enabled better two-way conversations: you can listen and respond to an issue and are able to reach perhaps hundreds of thousands of people with a single Tweet – and that’s exciting.
The other trend is that an area that’s going to get a lot of traction from engagement is planning and development. The ones who are successful are the ones who engage with communities.
If you had anything to say to someone just getting into the P2 business …
Those who have previous experience doing something else bring so much more to the table when they go into the P2 field. If you go to college or university, take one of those subjects and then go straight into it, you’ll have a long learning curve. Those who have done something else, have knowledge of something practical, something operational, world knowledge, will have the advantage. They’ll know something about people and how they think.