Show and Tell
Public engagement and consultation in the building industry is nothing new. For decades, community members, activists, opponents, protesters, politicians and potential stakeholders have shown interest in projects, offering support to push an initiative forward or expressing concern to stop it in its tracks. In sharing their plans, companies have long sought to connect and communicate with the public, improving their proposals, garnering support, and putting worries at ease. In today’s changing landscape, however, businesses and organizations must find innovative solutions for achieving and maintaining the interest and support of those whose lives will be affected by the projects.
Burlington: Utilizing Staff
The City of Burlington recently unveiled its 2015-2040 Strategic Plan, an initiative aimed at controlling sprawl, supporting jobs, improving transit, and encouraging healthy lifestyles among its inhabitants. The Plan “takes on the challenging issues of today and tomorrow, seizes current and future opportunities and helps Burlington prepare for the next 25 years,” according to the City’s website.
Over the course of its development, the Strategic Plan was shown to residents, community groups, city council staff and local businesses in an attempt to gain valuable insight and feedback, and to encourage active participation in City initiatives. “It’s about improving efficiency, maximizing resources, applying creative consulting methods to reduce costs, and strategizing to apply mutually beneficial consulting partnerships,” says Michelle Dwyer, Coordinator of Strategic Initiatives with the City of Burlington. Over the course of one year, the City made 176 changes to its draft plan based on the feedback heard.
In order to achieve its outreach goals, the City of Burlington engaged the public in traditional yet reliable ways: through phone surveys; community events; open houses; city hall meetings and more. However, the feedback process was strengthened as soon as attention was paid to the City’s internal team. “When we looked at our staff, we realized that more than 50 per cent of them not only work in Burlington, but live here as well,” says Dwyer. “They spend a considerable amount of time here, and many wanted to have a voice in the decisions that impact them.” Dwyer says that every engagement opportunity planned for the public was mirrored with its staff. “Each level in the organization was able to help us identify priorities and envision what Burlington will look like in 25 years,” she says.
In addition to sharing ideas in meetings and through surveys, the City established corporate teams of volunteers in its various departments to “give the staff a sense of ownership in the Strategic Plan,” says Dwyer. “These teams not only helped in the decision making process, but showed a vested interest in making sure that the Plan and all of its goals were brought to life as a result of their work.” Groups included the Engagement and Communication Team (in charge of creating and revising draft documents); Data Synthesis Team (compiling acquired data and identifying trends and priorities); Ambassadors and Facilitators Team (acting as champions for the Strategic Plan, both internally and externally); and more. The City also organized Strategic Snacking Sessions with its teams, where food was used to bring staff together and encourage a casual, collaborative discussion on progress and pitfalls.
Ultimately, by engaging and utilizing its staff, the City of Burlington was able to make significant progress towards the revision and completion of its 25-year plan. As Dwyer notes, incorporating staff in the consultation and engagement process helped them to “feel a sense of ownership, knowing that they were a part of making the Strategic Plan a success.”
York: The Power of Politicians
By 2041, the Regional Municipality of York is expected to house 1.8 million people and accommodate 900,000 jobs. In order to support its population and employment growth, a Transportation Master Plan was created in order to “establish the vision for transportation services, assess existing transportation system performance, forecast future travel demand and define actions and policies to address road, transit and active transportation needs in York Region by 2041.”
Similar to the City of Burlington, York Region utilized its internal staff in order to move project s forward. However, it also leveraged the power of local politicians to help spread the message to the public on the Plan’s initiatives and goals. “Our politicians are our champions,” says Tamas Hertel, Senior Transportation Specialist with the Regional Municipality of York. “They have the biggest following and the biggest influence in our community.”
To involve its politicians, York Region set up an advisory task force consisting of 10 members of regional council led by its regional chairman and CEO. “We brought in industry experts from around North America to provide presentations to this task force on industry best practices and evolving transportation trends,” says Hertel. Using this knowledge, the politicians were able to communicate directly with the public on the critical issues facing the Plan and offer guidance for the development of adequate solutions. “Transportation is increasingly the number one issue for our residents,” says Hertel. “We can’t drag our feet anymore.” Using the voice of politicians, York Region was able to efficiently fine tune is Transportation Master Plan and move it towards completion.
Trans Mountain Expansion Project: Managing Opposition
More often than not, individuals welcome new projects especially if they promise amenities or changes that entire communities can benefit from. But what happens when people are passionately opposed to a proposal? For example, in 2016 when concerned Ottawa residents joined together to protect the Central Experimental Farm, a national historic site, from development after the Liberal government announced plans to transfer 60 acres of land to the Ottawa Hospital for the construction of its new campus. Or when plans were revealed for a new highway connecting Hamilton to Fort Erie, Ont., and grassroots organizations in the Greater Toronto Area fought to educate the public on the destruction that the freeway would cause to the otherwise untouched Niagara Escarpment.
How do companies and organizations deal with push back and handle public pressure to put a project to an end? “It’s important to find a way to navigate that environment,” says Lexa Hobenshield. “It’s about encouraging people to share their concerns” and “ seeking solutions for mutual benefit.”
Hobenshield has had to traverse the waters of opposition as External Relations Manager with Kinder Morgan Canada, the largest energy infrastructure company in North America and whose Trans Mountain Pipeline project received Federal approval in December 2016. The project will twin an existing pipeline in operation since 1953 and, where practical, lay another pipeline along the route from Edmonton to Burnaby, B.C. “The existing pipeline supplies most of the Vancouver area with gasoline and fuel for vehicles, as well as Washington State refineries with oil for their local markets,” says Hobenshield. “The $7.4 billion Trans Mountain Extension pipeline project will triple the capacity of our existing pipeline and introduce 980 kilometres of new pipe, 12 pumping stations, 19 new tanks and more.”
Though Hobenshield advocates its potential for positive change, the pipeline project has, unsurprisingly, been met with strong opposition. Hobenshield says the best way to avoid controversy while remaining respectful is to distinguish between activists and opponents, and to plan your discourse accordingly.
Activists, she says, are protestors who typically travel to different sites, are generally well-funded and extremely organized. They carry out their work “on any given day, on any given construction site, anywhere in Canada.” she says. “They aren’t necessarily there to protest our project, but rather the gas and oil industry in general.” Opponents, on the other hand, seek to educate others using anti-pipeline materials. “They write articles, share their thoughts, and have conversations with our team,” she says. “While we don’t seek to engage with activists, we work hard with our opponents to find common ground.”
Ultimately, both activists and opponents are common and while some are more open to conversation than others, it’s important to address all concerns and respect the reality that many individuals can be affected by such change. “Opinions along the pipeline are extremely diverse,” says Hobenshield. “It’s important to acknowledge our neighbours in the communities where we operate, and encourage meaningful dialogue along the way.”
These case studies represent only a small fraction of projects that have used engagement and consultation to their advantage. In reality, however, there are a number of unique ways to leverage outside input. Karim Mamdani, president and CEO of the Ontario Shores for Mental Health Services, for example, argues that a comprehensive stakeholder strategy is key to advancing a consultation plan. Likewise, Sara Cappe, managing director of Public Affairs and Agency at Maru/Matchbox, stresses the importance of engaging the younger generation. “Millennials can be very challenging to bring into the mix,” she says. “It’s important to make them feel valued and feel like their contribution is important.” Cappe says that the best way to engage millennials is to reach out to them digitally, ask a lot of questions, and circle back with feedback where relevant.
Ultimately though, public participation will almost always act as a domino effect to strengthen proposals and ensure that a project is given the attention it deserves; and despite a heap of best practices, Dwyer lists a single approach to ensure interest and support from your peers. “A piece of advice: Make sure you have a story to tell,” she says. “People want to know why they should care about a project. Having a story—a hook, if you will—is incredibly important.” Without it, all other engagement initiatives will fall short. The most effective approach in public engagement and consultation is to make people want to participate and care.