Special Feature: Changing Public Engagement for a Changing City

attachment (2)by Tannis Topolnisky, Manager, Engagement Services, City of Edmonton

Using a collaborative approach, the City of Edmonton has recently concluded a 3-year-long Council-sponsored Initiative on Public Engagement, resulting in significant changes to Edmonton’s engagement policy and approach. Wanting to model engagement best practice, the process included thousands of community voices through workshops, a joint community/city Advisory Committee, and five joint working groups.

The result of this incredible work and commitment from citizens, staff and Council included 20 action items under the categories of:

  1. Organizational Development and Culture;
  2. Community Leadership and Capacity Building;
  3. Public Engagement Planning, Delivery and Reporting;
  4. Learning and Training;
  5. Evaluation; and
  6. Communications for Public Engagement.

Now it’s the City’s job to take the knowledge gathered and implement these action items. This isn’t a shallow, operational shift, but rather a deep, organization-wide culture change.   As we move forward, we are shifting the City’s culture to a citizen-centred approach, that of undertaking public engagement with and for the public.

What’s Been Accomplished

The City’s new PE Policy was approved April 2017, and includes a new definition of PE, a revised PE Spectrum, explicit roles for Decision Makers, recognition of activities that support effective PE and guiding principles.

We have developed a new visual experience for marketing and communicating specifically about public engagement activities to reduce confusion with other public events the City hosts.

We have a public engagement promise to the public. This is a reflective summary of the key needs of the public that we heard from the Council Initiative. It is our organization’s collective commitment to the story of public engagement that we are committed to building.

We have adopted a new overall approach to public engagement which moves away from being focused on templates and rules to a more intentional approach.  This means we are starting at the first step of IAP2’s Five Steps for Public Participation Planning, and focussing on building capacity and processes to do Step 1: Gain Internal Commitment.

We have developed a new approach to working with decision makers, project managers and staff in defining our decisions and making commitments to the opportunities for public input.  This clarity of purpose will support success of everyone involved in public involvement, whether that be City staff, consultants or the public.

Of course we can’t do this alone.  In 2014 the City’s PE team consisted of four people. With the combined impacts of a major reorganization, the creation of a stand-alone Communications and Engagement Department and the conclusion of the three-year Council Initiative on Public Engagement with a new policy, City Leadership decided to expand the resources in our Public Engagement section.  We are building out our team and structure to meet our commitments and fulfill our promises to public engagement.

In 2018 the City’s Public Engagement Section will consist of 28 brilliant staff broken out into three units to support public engagement across the organization: Public Engagement Services (advisory, support and implementation functions), Methods and Practices (standardized processes, templates, learning and training) and Research (supporting surveys, focus groups, public opinion research).

A number of our people are allocated to specific, long-term, and large-scale projects (e.g. LRT, Freeway Conversion, Bus Network Redesign), while others support various “buckets” of similar work (e.g. Planning and Major Facilities, Housing and Social Development, and Major Roads and Utilities).

To hold us to account and ensure transparency regarding our changes to public engagement culture and practice, a Guiding Coalition for Public Engagement is being created. The Coalition’s role will be to monitor the City’s progress on delivering the actions of the Council Initiative and ensure community perspectives remain forefront throughout the implementation. The Coalition will work collaboratively to provide advice and guidance about the City’s delivery of public engagement processes and activities through regular review of reports and performance measures.

Crossing The (Non-Existent) Finish Line!

There is much more exciting work to be done.  What we’ve learned from where we’ve come from is that this job of improving public engagement will never be done.  It is a journey of continuous improvement that relies on constant evaluation and iteration.  So our approach and state of mind about our practice is one of: Evaluate – Refine – Evolve.  Where we are currently at within the City of Edmonton is one point-in-time in our public engagement journey that will continue to evolve as objectives are accomplished and new challenges arise.

If you are interested in joining our expanding team, check out the current opportunities at the City of Edmonton.

City of Edmonton’s Vision for Public Engagement: City where we are connected, invested, and proud to participate in shaping our community.

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