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June 1, 2023
A Threshold of Responsibility in Community Engagement

There has been an increasing focus on how communities are engaged in discussions of city building. As more and more of us live in cities, figuring out how to share ideas and make decisions is more important than ever. Recent media attention has focused on the role of engagement and its effectiveness in ensuring citizens have a voice in the future of their communities. These conversations are often difficult, but they are extremely important if we are to figure out how to live well together.

There have been some recent examples in our home of Calgary, where engagement has resulted in claims of verbal and physical abuse and even a death threat. Most times, the only burden of responsibility discussed is on the organization that organizes an engagement process. While there indeed is a great deal of responsibility on the organizer, we propose a consideration of a “threshold of responsibility” that needs to be considered where the role of the community is explored. We propose that if everyone lives up to their responsibilities as outlined in this article, we can all have the best possible dialogue on how we build our cities.

Understanding engagement

To frame this article, we’ll use a few terms to describe the engagement process. The word “community” will be used broadly as all potential participants – from the general public to special interest groups.

We define engagement as a conversation that helps inform a decision-making process. Many groups think engagement means a “do-what-we-say” situation.  In reality, true engagement is an essential part of the decision-making process, but it is not the only part. Decisions in city building involve a variety of professional and technical expertise, existing policies, consideration of different time frames (current issues to long-term strategic growth) and other financial, social and environmental considerations.

In order to have the most constructive and meaningful engagement process possible, there needs to be a shared responsibility between the organizer of the process and the community that is being engaged. It starts with a great deal of responsibility on the part of the organizer, but there is a threshold of responsibility that exists, where the community needs to do their part as well.

Responsibility of the engagement organizers

The engagement process all starts with the group or organization that initiates the discussion. Generally, the decision to embark on formalized engagement is the result of an issue or potential for change that is expected to have an impact on the community at large.

All of the following responsibilities need to be taken seriously and addressed if the engagement is to truly mean something.

Responsibility to notify

In order for the community to participate, they need to be aware of the process. The organizer needs to make a legitimate effort to notify the community of the opportunity to engage. How this happens will vary from project to project, but there has to be a thoughtful approach to spreading the word about the conversation.

Responsibility to provide opportunities to engage

The days of the one-time open house are done. A legitimate engagement process gives the community a variety of opportunities to engage. In today’s era of busyness most everyone seems busy, it is important to provide a variety of engagement types (online, face-to-face and social media options, for example) and times for people to engage. Citizens need choice in how and when they engage.

Responsibility to be clear on scope of conversation

It is rare that a project has no existing constraints or influencing factors. The organizer of an engagement process needs to be clear on what these influencing factors are and to use these issues to define the scope of the conversation. This helps to guide the information that is shared and to define the questions within the process. Essentially, it defines the proverbial “sandbox” that everyone is playing in. This also helps build learning into the process, where citizens or community stakeholders may not be aware of all the factors that are involved.

In our work with land developers, influencing factors often include city policies, developer performance needs, community feedback and professional/technical expertise. This helps to frame the discussion as a balance between this variety of factors, allowing us to focus the conversation with the community on areas that can influence the decision-making of the developer team.

As an example in this situation, if a developer were to purchase a piece of land that has supporting policy and zoning for some kind of development, a resident’s desire to turn the site into a park would be outside the scope of an engagement process focused on HOW development should occur on the site.

Responsibility to provide clear and honest information

In order to effectively participate in the process, the community needs to understand the information that is relevant to the conversation. The organizer of the process needs to spend a great deal of time and attention considering both the content and format of the information being shared. Information needs to be designed intentionally to emphasize accessibility, clarity and interest for the users.

This approach prioritizes public experience. It promises a selective and organized approach to information delivery and design. It displays important and relevant information in a clear and concise way. It isn’t about hiding potentially unpopular ideas from public view or promoting those seen as ‘safe’. It is the distillation of ideas to their most significant elements.

In some engagement processes where linguistic diversity is a key attribute of a community, we have translated engagement information and questions into multiple languages, to ensure that all community members would have access to the information being presented. In other cases, new technologies and digital engagement strategies have helped make the process more inclusive.

This approach to information allows for a more authentic experience, where even if the content of the message is not well received, the opportunity to engage is.

Responsibility to hold a respectful conversation

The point of authentic engagement is to listen to the ENTIRE spectrum of thoughts, insights and experiences as they relate to the process at hand. It is vital that as the host of the conversation, participants who take the time to engage with you are treated with the utmost respect. This means taking the time to answer questions, listen and ask questions of their own. A large part of being respectful is being honest. This particularly relates to the constraints and influencing factors that are informing the project in addition to community input.

Organizers of an engagement process can think of themselves as hosts of a dinner party. It is their job to make people feel comfortable and welcome. Once they feel at ease, then they are much more likely to openly and honestly share their views. Whether it is someone thinking that your concept is amazing or someone that thinks it’s the worst idea they have ever seen, it is the job of the organizer to treat everyone equally and with respect.

Responsibility to authentically listen

All of these responsibilities mean nothing if the hosts of the conversation aren’t willing to authentically listen to the feedback being received. Otherwise, the entire process feeds into the scepticism often found in engagement processes, where terms like “tokenism,” “window-dressing,” and “going through the motions” are used. A commitment to authentically listen means that all feedback is considered equally, whether supportive of a project or not.

In the past, we have actually fired clients who demonstrated they were not going to listen authentically to the community. It’s that important.

Responsibility to report back

Fully reporting back is at the core of transparency within an engagement process. Reporting is how the organizer of a process closes the loop with the community and the conversation that has taken place. The best reports share not only what was heard, but where the feedback influenced decision-making – and just as importantly – where the feedback didn’t influence decision-making, and why. To be a true engagement process, the organizers must demonstrate how the feedback informed a decision. This is different from whether or not a participant agrees with the decision. This distinction is where confusion about the quality of an engagement process typically shows up. A quality engagement process can still result in people that are unhappy with the eventual decision.

While the reporting typically happens at the end of a phase or process, it is the responsibility of the organizer to plan to report back and declare their intention to the community at the outset of a project.

The threshold of responsibility

Engagement is at its best when a two-way conversation is happening. In order for this to occur, both parties need to participate constructively and authentically. If and when the engagement organizer has met all of the previously discussed responsibilities, then a threshold of responsibility occurs – where the responsibility shifts to the community to get involved. In order for a great engagement process to occur, both sides of an engagement process – the organizers and the community – need to participate. (Of course, this threshold of responsibility applies to situations where the community has the capacity and ability to participate. Situations involving oppressed or marginalized communities require a more full discussion of engagement and empowerment.)

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Responsibility of the community

Once the threshold of responsibility has been met, our focus shifts to the community, where there are a number of responsibilities to engage in a process.

Responsibility to be informed

During any engagement process, there’s usually a wealth of information to draw from. It’s important for citizens to take the time to review the information at hand, so they are in a position to provide informed input. There are often technical issues and development restrictions that impact what’s up for discussion, and what alternatives can be considered. This information gathering process takes some time and commitment, but it’s the only way to ensure a balanced and responsible outcome for the discussion.

Responsibility to participate

Every engagement process should have clear timelines and multiple opportunities to participate. It’s the responsibility of the citizen to be informed about these opportunities, and to select the means of participation best suited to their situation and schedule.

Responsibility to share your views

Many engagement processes stumble simply because not enough people take part. By sharing their views, community members can help ensure all sides of an issue are reflected and considered.

Responsibility to listen

It’s not at all uncommon for engagement process to be polarizing. People often have steadfast opinions and a lack of trust in the process when they first engage. Oftentimes, we’ve seen a participant use their specific perspective to speak in broad, general terms. One recent example can be found in a proposed development project we are involved in that involved a major new transit hub as part of the concept. One participant came in and told us “no one in this part of the city uses transit.” Just 45 minutes later, another local resident came into our engagement space, saw that comment and wrote her own note, stating “I use public transit.”

The best engagement processes involve learning for everyone who participates. One of the most rewarding parts of engagement is when people are able to have constructive, respectful conversations about issues that include a willingness to consider different sides of an issue. Different opinions and perspectives are a reality, and in fact are a positive part of the engagement process, helping to create unique solutions and approaches that otherwise would not have been possible. The opportunity to learn from each other and hear the perspectives of others is an integral part of an effective engagement process.

We don’t all have to agree on the issues, but we do need to agree to listen to each other.

Responsibility to be respectful

Regardless of our opinions or perspectives, we have a responsibility to treat each other with respect. Everyone should feel free to share their ideas, and no one should feel bullied or fearful about expressing their opinions. Each participant in a process is voluntarily taking time out of their lives to help make their neighbourhood or city better. That alone deserves our respect.

Responsibility to share opportunities to get involved

Community members can help ensure their neighbours are involved in engagement processes by helping spread the word about the opportunities to share input. This helps broaden the perspectives that are shared during the process, and helps generate input that’s reflective of the larger community, and not just a handful of individuals who are the most vocal.

When communities become engagement organizers

Sometimes a community may feel that they want to organize their own engagement process on an issue, which they have every right to do. That’s the beauty of our democratic system – citizens can organize in order for their voices to be heard. However when this happens all the responsibilities of the engagement organizer, as previously described, are now placed onto the community organizations that are doing their own engagement. This is important to recognize, because if the responsibilities of the engagement organizer aren’t met, it can hinder open and constructive dialogue – something these communities are looking to do when they start their own process.

Learning how to talk about our shared city

Engagement at its best happens when everyone involved behaves responsibly and constructively. These processes lead to more open discussions about the issues, concerns and possibilities as they relate to building our cities. Over time and across projects, these kinds of dialogues can help evolve the conversations in a city, so that all those who help build our communities – citizens, governments, developers, professionals and community organizations – can all be part of an ever-improving dialogue.

If we can get there, the result will be better, stronger cities, with a greater sense of community that benefits us all.