Catherine Rockandel, CP3 version française
IAP2 Canada President
We live in interesting times, particularly if you are an elected official and/or a decision maker. The public expects you to respond and address the impacts of extreme weather events on infrastructure, the growing number of individuals in their communities struggling with mental health issues, poverty, homelessness, traffic congestion and an expanding number of other complex issues.
In the local government or public agency context, decision makers provide direction to staff through strategic plan goals, objectives, and values that inform the development of policies and projects. This is a complex process, which often requires trade-offs. This is where things get interesting, as residents see how their lives are impacted and what they might have to give up to respond to the issues. There are very divergent public opinions about development, rezoning, or official community plans, particularly if they involve marginalized communities, or increased density. Pretty much any change that’s perceived to threaten our quality of life will face opposition.
Diverse interests are often amplified by coordinated digital campaigns that can shift the focus of the conversation from a dialogue about choices and trade-offs to a polarizing campaign to advance different perspectives and even attack individual decision makers. The result is that decision makers may feel increasingly isolated and challenged – or even bullied – to oppose a plan they had initially endorsed. Not all dissent is a coordinated digital disinformation campaign, designed to amplify and disseminate hate speech, systematically manipulate political discourse, or disrupt decision making, but some of it is.
As public engagement practitioners we are often looked to for advice. What have you found are the most effective strategies? What have you heard through the IAP2 Canada training or networks that is working? How can we convince decision-makers to involve the public/residents early in the process — before the plan is developed, so they can understand what they value and how comfortable they are with trade-offs? Are we able to host community conversations to explore the impact of choices on other people and the overall system? Can we help participants see beyond their own interests and realize (for example) “oh – I am the traffic” (rather than “the traffic is making me late”); or “I am benefiting from buying in a lower-priced neighbourhood but housing prices are going up, displacing people who had been living in basement suites or less-expensive rental houses.
As public engagement practitioners we can design processes that raise questions like those, explore trade-offs and help people to see beyond their own interests. What’s more, when people see that their views are being listened-to and accounted-for, they tend to be more accepting of policies and decisions that may not favour them 100%. We are all part of the problems we face and thus we have a role in the solution.