Engaging Perspectives

At a recent council meeting we decided to post and hire an engagement specialist until November of 2017. Engagement has many different forms and aims…from ensuring information is properly reaching residents, to getting feedback on initiatives to involving and collaborating with the public in the decision making process.

Over that last week, the need for the position has been challenged publically. It has been suggested that staff work harder or if staff are at capacity, as suggested by a member of the Canadian Federation of Taxpayers, we should ask the public what services should be cut or reduced. Our community expects and wants more services, not less. Ironically, how would we even go about this conversation with the public when we rarely ever get a solid cross section of the community to offer their feedback? How do you engage the public when only 33% of eligible voters care enough to vote?

When the City hosts an open house or public hearing we typically get 20-50 people and sometimes a little over 100. With a population base of 34,000 people having 100 people voice their opinion, support, or concern is not a true representation of the community; especially if a special interest group dominates the numbers. Yes, we have a committed and engaged contingent of letter to the editor writers, but does this represent a good cross section of our City? Should Council make decisions based on letters to the editor? Part of creating a better engagement strategy is actually going to the people instead of waiting for them to come to you. Families and residents of Penticton work hard and play hard, very few have time to make it to a face to face event to comment on sewer changes; however, where and how the poop goes affects everyone.

Face-to-face engagement with our citizens will always be a mainstay of our engagement, but we need to find a way for our busiest residents to have their say too. Digital tools have the most potential to reach the most amounts of people. Online you can not only house the basic information but also informative videos, links, and a platform where people can interact to provide comment. Even if most had the time to participate in person at an event, my experience is that very few people feel comfortable expressing their viewpoints in traditional public forums. People need more mechanisms to get factual information, interact, feel safe participating, and be respected for their viewpoint(s).

The Saturday community market is a good example of face to face interactions that we currently do well - where staff, and occasionally a member from council, has a booth to answer questions. It can be about garbage vs recycling or parks and recreation feedback. This booth is not about spin doctoring or bolstering Council’s image. It is about answering questions, being available, hearing what the public has to say. The new engagement position will help create regular mechanisms for Council to become more interactive with the public. The position will also reach out to the public on how they want to offer their feedback to staff and Council, digitally or otherwise.

Council has embarked on some very ambitious initiatives that will need community involvement and input. We are reviewing our OCP (Official Community Plan), Parks & Recreation Masterplan, Facilities Masterplan, Asset management plan, and 2017 capital budget.  Each masterplan does have a budget set aside for communication and engagement so when we created the position for an engagement officer we were not starting from scratch. It was felt that having the same person handle all major projects would create better synergies and would be something we could leverage for other City initiatives throughout the next year and a half.

As we start creating these ‘masterplans’ at some point we will need to prioritize what projects are more important as we will not be able to implement key findings from each plan all at once.  Do we invest in infrastructure underground, or above ground such as facilities; which ones and do we renovate or rebuild.  This is where engagement becomes very powerful and impactful.

Providing accurate information takes time to gather and ensure it is passed on to an informed public. Staff is working hard and there are plans taking shape for staff to work smarter. More engagement however is needed to ensure all perspectives are being heard so collectively we have a greater comfort that information council uses now and in the future is a fair representation of the community