Meet a Member, June 2017: Lonny Gabinet (Class of ’92)

2017 marks 25 years since the first Conference was held in Portland, Oregon. At the time, it was called IAP3 – the International Association of Public Participation Professionals – but in a few years, it had become a worldwide organization supporting both P2 practitioners and those interested in good P2.

lonny gabinetNAME: Lonny Gabinet

POSITION: Golfer, traveler, Queen of our mountain lake retreat

What has been your involvement with P2?

My career and the fledgling International Association for Public Participation Practitioners (IAP3) began together in 1992 at the first conference in Portland OR.

Actually, I was thrown into the arms of the new association by default: if you’re the communications person working for the City of Calgary then you probably know how to do a plan to involve the 800,000 + citizenry (the engineers didn’t know how to do it nor did they care) in developing a new city-wide transportation master plan. One member of City Council was hell bent on asking people what they wanted, to which I replied, “Why would you want to ask people what they think? They don’t know what you guys know …” It seemed pretty far-fetched that we would go out and ask people who had no education in transportation planning, and doing the unthinkable of setting up expectations that we would actually listen to them!

What turned you on to P2 in the first place?

I was coerced. It wasn’t the ‘what’ at all, it was the ‘who’. The boss said, “go take some courses” as he didn’t really know what P2 was, either. He just knew we had to do it. And our recently retained P2 consultant experts from a high flying international engineering company in Phoenix AZ (well-known IAP2 vets Marty Rozelle and Barbara Lewis) took me aside one day and suggested I go with them to the first IAP3 conference in Portland – and the rest, as they say — is history.

What ‘big wins” have you had?

Both the “big wins” and “tough lessons” categories are loaded. If you’re competitive and looking for the “big wins” all the time, this isn’t the field for you. It’s one of the most ambiguous and destabilizing, confidence-dashing careers out there, full of both humbling and glorious experiences.

Twenty-five years later I walk through vital, bustling re-developed and developing new neighbourhoods and varied districts in Calgary and look back on the epic discussions involving all the best professionals in the business.

As the only P2 person at the table for years, my fortunes vacillated between being tolerated as “the communications person”, to suspicious “whatever value, except taking our time, is this advisory group going to bring to the project?”, and eventually, “Well, it seems we can educate them to the extent that they can provide us with real insights on the options we present to them … after all they are the ones that live there and know it better than anybody else”.

How has P2 in Canada changed since you first started?

180 degrees. Barely on the radar screen and born of the activists of the 60s through 80s, my observation of citizen involvement in the early 90s is that IAP3 came into being because governments at all levels and organizations of every stripe were starting to realize that they needed some kind of social license from the folks affected by their decisions to move their agendas and it didn’t have to involve radicals throwing themselves in front of bulldozers.

Increasingly, educated citizens wanting involvement in their communities to maintain a) their steadily growing quality of life, or b) their aspirational quality of life against the backdrop of the economic post WWII expansion, expressed their willingness and desire to offer up their time to get up on the issues and come to the table to enrich the very decisions that were affecting them. What they also realized was, just like in any sport, there needs to be a referee, and that’s where the P2 professional came in.

Coming into the 21st century, governments and organizations were struggling to involve their people as there was little consistency as to how they did it. IAP3 had become more inclusive in its focus and devolved to IAP2, showcasing the practice itself instead of a narrow band of folks that were practitioners. P2, pervasively and respectfully done was becoming a movement and a belief of heads of organizations and governments especially. But “how to do it” with organizational consistency was becoming a very big question.

Having been through over a decade (1992-2002) of total P2 ‘on my feet’ immersion and guided by so many wise and experienced P2 folks, I felt ready for that question. In 2002 Calgary City Council wanted a consistent, effective and efficient policy for all City departments to follow so that Council could evaluate proposals that were formally run through the City’s adopted public participation process.

Bingo – for the leader of the City’s process to develop an overall civic engagement program (me), I ran back into the arms of IAP2 and the likes of the Rozelle/Lewis team. By this time, they and other IAP2 visionaries, academics and practitioners across the world were developing accredited courses and full training sessions were first offered in 2002. What fortunate timing for me and my team as we could tailor the new City of Calgary Engage! program around many of their training principles. Over the following decade I assisted other jurisdictions in creating their own engagement programs. Ten years after I began in the P2 field it was transitioning from rag-tag to principled, effective, organized – and demanded.

(Note: the City of Calgary won Core Values Awards for its engagement plans and practices in 2014 and 2015.)

Have you had a golden learning moment – when something went sideways but you learned from it?

You don’t have enough space here!

If you had anything to say to someone just getting into the business…

Leave your control freak at the door. You are consulting with people that usually have a stake in the outcome or decision. It may affect their lifestyle, family, health, safety, environment and many more aspects of their lives that often draw emotional and not necessarily rational reactions. Be flexible. You can’t control the consultation but there are tools and techniques that you can acquire from IAP2 training that will help you help the stakeholders to bring the very best of themselves to the table so that decisions are improved by their very involvement.

Project proponents must support the profession’s assertion that “decisions are improved if those who are affected by them are involved.” They must be prepared to modify, to some degree, their proposals to take into consideration the stakeholders’ perspectives. Why do we assert that decisions are improved? Because nobody knows their community (or fill in the blank) better than the members of the community themselves. If I get the sense that the proponent’s intentions about incorporating stakeholder views are inauthentic, I will back away. Participate in mentorship programs; there is no substitute for experience.

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