Municipal engagement tips

Lochaber Community Centre, Antigonish County, May 10

Strong communities are vibrant and engaged, with citizens coming together to inform decisions, address issues and create opportunities. But it can be challenging to create and maintain the conditions for this kind of public participation.

That's why we invited Municipal Councillors and staff and community leaders from across the province to come together last month for a day-long engagement clinic. The idea was simple—to learn from each other what works and what doesn't, based on personal experiences across the province. We created an opportunity to learn from past mistakes as well as share and build on community successes. Everyone left with practical next steps they could take to kick-start and sustain grassroots engagement.

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Here are a few key lessons, gathered from the day's sessions.

1. Kick-starting engagement (especially when trust and turnout are low)

  • Get your whole Council committed and involved. 
  • Be creative. In Annapolis, people “voted” for their priorities with Monopoly money.
  • Meet people where they are.Reach out to groups that don’t usually show up because it is NOT enough to simply say, “they were invited…” Meet with key stakeholder groups during the design phase and enlist them in helping to extend and diversify your audience.
  • Be available. In Yarmouth, the town planner set himself up on a park bench and invited people to stop by and share their views.
  • Be clear about what kind of engagement is called for, what is already decided, and what the public can and can’t influence.
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate. Let the community know what was said, how their input will be used, and what challenges might be ahead. HRM published a report after every phase of their 2016 Centre Plan consultation and they produce “here’s what we heard” summaries after every public consultation.

2. Hosting a great community conversation

  • Make sure the invitation is clear and engaging and reaches as many segments of the population as possible. Use social media as well as more conventional channels. In Amherst, an invitation circulated in the monthly water bill, a short invitation video posted on the Town website, and radio ads all drove town hall participation to well over 200 people.
  • Choose the right space to hold the meeting. At our engagement clinic we couldn't help but notice what a difference the room can make.
  • Focus on assets (strengths and what is working) to counteract tendencies to complain, criticize or say “it can’t happen here.”
  • Set up the room and agenda in a way that invites everyone’s participation. Avoid the classic confrontation set-up: a panel of "experts" at the front of the room that faces an open microphone on the floor. Instead use design tools like Café Conversations and Open Space.
  • Work collaboratively to shift the narrative and inspire action. Pictou County 2020, which began in 2014 as a citizen-led group, now has informal partnerships with business, municipality, youth and community groups in the region.
  • Move quickly from talk to action once the community has identified the priorities it cares about.
  • Empower new citizen working groups rather than creating another municipal to-do list.

3. Working across Municipalities and First Nations

  • Avoid tokenism. In 2014 Inverness Councillors had a wake-up call when the Waycobah First Nation turned down their invitation to open an Engage Inverness event with drumming, explaining that they hadn’t been invited to participate in any other way. This led not only to new conversations but also the signing of a shared services agreement in 2015 and an ongoing “Gathering of the Villages” collaboration to focus on supporting the early years.
  • Some of our history is difficult, but the stories need to be told. Without knowing our stories, we can’t understand one another.
  • Better to start by just listening and building relationships before asking for results. Friendship leads to partnership. Share stories and food in a spirit of celebration.
  • Invite yourself to a pow-wow, or ask if you can join a First Nations Council meeting, just to learn and understand and be present without an agenda.
  • Look for “bridge” connections who can invite you in.

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