Experimenting with the Engagement Process
Increasingly, when it comes to addressing issues and changes communities face, residents want to feel they are involved in the decision-making process. Public engagement sessions and town hall meetings have historically been the most common ways to facilitate these conversations and share information between city officials, project leaders and local governments.
While in general citizens want to be more engaged in the process, it is not uncommon for many sessions to attract the same faces from the community. This phenomenon has always been apparent to Erin Welk, a planner from our Kelowna office, and something she wants to change.
Finding inspiration in changing things up
Inspiration came to her following the “Unlaunching the Okanagan” event held in March of 2016 and hosted by Urban Matters. Welk witnessed first hand how by switching up the format from a more traditional engagement event to a less formal affair resembling a community gathering, the audience changed. People across all demographics, including families and young people, came out to experience the exciting innovation happening in the Okanagan.
Welk was not alone to notice the difference. Representatives from the City of Kelowna who attended the event acknowledged how changing the status quo can affect the success of the event, and enlisted the help of Urban Systems, including Welk, to organize a series of engagement events to bring the community of Kelowna together.
“Experimenting with changing or improving upon the engagement process has always interested me, and the Imagine Kelowna project offered a fantastic initiative to introduce new approaches,” Welk explained. “The City of Kelowna engaged us because we could offer a different approach to engaging with the public, without being bound by the constraints that can limit government agencies.”
Working with an enthusiastic team, Welk coordinated On Point; a four-part speaker series held over the course of a few months in the fall of 2016. Focusing on four key community concerns –housing, economic resiliency, climate change and transportation – the events were an opportunity to test out three experiments that could enhance citizen participation.
Testing out a new approach
The first experiment focused on how to get more than just the usual suspects to come out to the events. By creating an more inviting environment through integrating local food, drinks, arts and music into the evening, as well as making them family-friendly, residents were provided a more compelling reason to attend. And they did. Each event boasted a packed house, with a variety of community members in attendance.
The second experiment was facilitating a more inclusive and meaningful conversation. “This is where the real innovation comes from,” Welk admits. At each of the events, the goal was to inspire citizen involvement to help solve civic issues. Welk believes the idea was surprisingly well-received, but not without its challenges.
“Residents often default to asking the City to address complex social issues because they don’t always know how they can contribute. We challenged participants to really think about their own roles in these challenges.” Audience members left the sessions inspired but wanting a clearer idea of what next steps would be. This is certainly something Welk plans to build upon for future events.
The final experiment, and where some of the newfound community inspiration came from, was re-examining the kinds of speakers they invited. Welk tested inviting community leaders, and not necessarily experts in their fields, to speak. The importance of looking outside the box, for Welk, was to offer a story-telling approach – one where sharing personal experiences can inspire change.
“Having community members share their stories becomes an interesting way to get people thinking about their own ability to affect change,” explains Welk.
A positive path to better engagement
After time to recap the events and review the challenges and successes of the On Point series, Welk appreciates how the concepts can be incorporated into future events, and is currently building them into possible community events for other municipalities. “It can be a creative and positive way to challenge citizens, inspire action, and switch up your regular open house process.”