The changing context of public engagement: A national opportunity

When I founded Context Research in the mid-1990s, ‘public engagement’ was rarely considered an independent practice. Engagement often consisted of town hall meetings or open houses, led by planners, engineers and company officials. Often held in response to regulatory requirements, there was far less interest in learning and problem-solving with the public and communities – and anyone brave enough to stand in front of the crowd was eligible to carry the credentials.

While this approach may have met client and regulatory requirements, it often failed both to meet the expectations of participants, and to build the relationships needed for clients to be successful in the long term. People often left frustrated – not feeling heard and distrusting the host organization.

Over the past 10-15 years, the practice of public engagement has changed dramatically: in response to changing professional standards, and, more importantly, to public expectations and societal trends that now demand the public be involved in the decisions that affect their lives. Clients are now recognizing that an effective engagement program leads to better planning and decision-making, more efficient project approvals and implementation and reduced costs. Engagement is no longer a one-time event, but requires a long-term commitment to building strong relationships with the public and communities.

Context’s merger with the Argyle Group — a team that has managed large, complex public engagement processes for public, private and non-profit clients in other provinces, and at the federal level — brings us, as western Canada’s public engagement leader, to the national field. As part of the new Argyle, Context’s engagement practice will ensure the public has a real opportunity to participate, that information and ideas flow among all participants, and that the input received is meaningful and leads to better plans and decisions.

Engagement is a rapidly evolving discipline, and our team continues to adapt to community practicalities and priorities. Here are some of the lessons we’ve learned that are key to effective modern public engagement:

1. Get creative!
People want to be heard and be part of the solution, not just bombarded with information. Engagement processes need to be designed to facilitate interaction, sharing of ideas and problem solving. While there is still a place for the traditional open house, real engagement means rolling up the shirt sleeves and using interactive engagement techniques that empower people to share ideas and to create solutions.

2. An invitation alone isn’t enough.
Once upon a time, placing an ad for engagement in the newspaper or online was all you needed – but times have changed. Our engagement programs reach out to communities and meet them on their level – where they play, shop, learn and work. Whether it’s community centres, workplaces, pedestrian plazas, or shopping malls, if you don’t meet people where they are, you are unlikely to get the input that truly reflects the diversity of a community.

3. Welcome to the digital world.
Digital means more options for more people to engage, and the buck doesn’t stop with SurveyMonkey. We use innovative tools to not only facilitate information exchange, but offer more choices for people to participate on their own terms. If you are not online with an interactive platform, you are missing a large segment of the community with many layers and perspectives of input. And don’t forget the importance of social media in raising awareness and keeping people informed.

4. A multi-cultural landscape needs culturally sensitive design.
The increasing cultural diversity of our communities brings unique challenges and complexity to the design and implementation of engagement processes. In 2017, we conducted leading-edge research to better understand the failures of typical multi-cultural engagement programs, and to learn how to be better – much better. Engaging multi-ethnic and Indigenous communities requires unique skills and approaches fostered through early and ongoing relationship-building with cultural groups and their citizens.

5. Don’t do this yourself; get a professional.
Perhaps the most significant change in the past 10 – 15 years is that public engagement has become a well-recognized profession. Engagement professionals receive training and certification through organizations such as IAP2. They know how to design processes that work; they know how to create the right environment for constructive discussions; and they know the right way to capture participant input and provide the transparency essential for a credible process.

These are just a few important ways that the public engagement landscape has changed. Many firms, however, still rely on more traditional, and often less effective approaches. Truly effective engagement requires an understanding of participant needs and strategic insight into the cultural dynamics of communities, their power structures, and how to engage and interact in ways that are meaningful to participants and also meet the needs of our clients.

The new Argyle brings a creative and dynamic approach to public engagement. By combining a full range of services including strategy development, research and analytics, creative and multimedia, online engagement, media relations and communications, and the ability to facilitate and manage all types of events, the new Argyle establishes a new standard for design and delivery of effective public engagement across Canada. We are excited to be a part of it — and to help put the public even more at the centre of the decisions that affect them most.

About the Author

John Forsdick

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