Public Engagement or Public Consultation?

In the last election, candidates focused on how they would improve public engagement. In this election, very little mention is made of public engagement. We think it is very important and do not believe Council has been successful in establishing a true public engagement process.

Let’s talk about public engagement and public consultation and what the differences are.

Public engagement involves members of the public in the decision-making.

Public consultation is those with decision-making power, i.e. Council, soliciting input from the public and then making their own decision.

Speaking about public engagement is quite a different thing from carrying out public engagement.

We believe Council has been focused on public consultation and not on public engagement.

There are no safeguards against consultations being used cynically by Council or Town staff to make it look like they had sought to canvass other opinions, while in fact having set a new policy in place even before it asked the question. That is why much of the public have a dismal view of public engagement when they believe that Council has already made up its mind.

Some examples of this:

      • Q&A implemented at Committee of the Whole meetings at the end of a 3 or 4-hour meeting guaranteeing that no one will ever stay to ask questions.
      • Abbot Boulevard sidewalks installed even though most residents did not want this. They were installed because a Sidewalk Policy was developed and needed to be followed.
      • The survey developed during the Waterfront Master Plan skewed results to projects Councillors and Town staff wanted developed.

So, how can Councillors truly engage the public?

The effectiveness of public engagement can only be achieved if the public perceives information was collected in a way that represents them and was free of bias.

Policies established by Council are guidelines and are used to describe best practices and resolve conflicts. They can be changed, or an exemption be made if the public demands it.

Concerns and issues need to be identified early in the process during concept development. It is a bit late to engage the public after something has been brought to Council.

Ensure people are involved in the process of decisions that affect them.

Councillors need to not only listen but hear what the residents are saying.

True empowerment exists when people feel they have been heard and have been part of the decision-making process. This means Councillors transferring their decision-making authority to residents. Councillors are usually not prepared to do this but they should listen closely enough and consider what most residents are saying. Residents need to feel that they truly have been part of the decision-making process.

The key point here is that consultation is a cost that offers little longer-term value. It’s a project cost. Engagement, however, adds ongoing value. By improving the relationships between Council and its residents, engagement is an investment in building capability for the future and its residents.

Ask candidates if they agree with the current Q&A process at Council meetings and how will they improve the public engagement process. Are they willing to let residents truly be part of the decision-making?

That will tell you how serious candidates are about public engagement.