Two public entities that had to overcome skepticism on the inside and hostility on the outside took top honors at the 2017 IAP2 Core Values Awards. Donna Kell, Communications Manager with the City of Burlington, Ontario, Michelle Dwyer, Burlington’s Public Involvement Lead, and Deanna DeSedas, Public Outreach and Engagement Manager with the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency joined us for the October Learning Webinar. In both cases, it was a message from the public, loud and clear, that decisions were being taken that affected them and they wanted “in”. And the proof of the pudding is summed up by one official: “My phone stopped ringing.”
Burlington had a wake-up call in 2010, when a report by “Shape Burlington” – a city-conceived committee of citizens – brought in a scathing review of the city’s community engagement. Not only did it identify gaps in communications and recommend the city make a commitment through an Engagement Charter, it described the current culture at city hall as “toxic”, and said that needed to change if there was to be proper engagement.
The review came out on the eve of municipal elections, so it got a lot of attention in the campaign that followed. Two members of the Shape Burlington Committee were elected to Council. As well, Burlington – with a population of about 180,000 – has been rated the “Best Mid-Sized City in Canada”, so there was a sense that that reputation was on the line.
Effective engagement requires four key elements:
- A champion – inside and outside
- Interested citizens
- A supportive organization
- People passionate about P2
One of the breakthrough moments for Council members came in a course on “P2 for Decision-Makers”. Michelle says one could see “the light go on” over the heads of Council members as they realized that P2 is not about giving up authority but about sharing power. She knew then, the organizational support was there.
In 2013, Council approved the Community Engagement Charter, and it was implemented the following year. The Charter Action Plan was drawn up, with the Charter Action Team – aptly called “ChAT” – to ensure the Charter stayed front-of-mind.
Staff in each department received IAP2 Foundations training, as well as training in facilitation and survey writing and analytics. P2 tools are also made available to staff, with the P2 Spectrum front and centre. Tools include workshops, world cafes, focus groups, workbooks, telephone town-halls and a relatively new one, Feedback Frames. The City also launched an online portal where people can give their input as and when they need to and an online portal to give people the opportunity.
A very important use of the Community Engagement Charter has been in the development of Burlington’s 2015-2040 Strategic Plan. That plan includes Community Engagement as one of its four pillars. Burlington’s commitment to engagement also reaches out to the next generation(s), realizing that they’re building a city not just for now, but for the future.
P2 practitioners often go to great lengths to evaluate the success of a process. For the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, it was summed up by one top manager this way: “My phone stopped ringing.”
It’s a bit more complicated than that, but fewer phone calls meant fewer angry citizens. Public hostility towards the SFMTA – one of the largest multi-modal transportation systems in the USA – had reached a point where staff was resistant to planning or attending town halls and open houses. The Agency had become seen as a major government entity that simply dropped its projects on the public without considering the citizenry. The leadership readily admitted there was a problem, but had to tackle the big problem of how to solve it.
The solution was POETS – the Public Outreach and Engagement Team Strategy, a three-year project to make the public part of SFMTA’s plans and allow the agency to deliver its hundreds of projects successfully.
Deanna DeSedas, Public Outreach and Engagement Manager, says POETS has four key purposes:
- a strategy to strengthen relationships and build trust with the community
- a process to improve consistency across projects
- a model for other departments in the City of San Francisco
- a program to support and recognize staff efforts
Deanna and her team researched practices in no fewer than 25 other transportation agencies, and found almost all were in the same boat. She came up with a five-step approach that involved (1) identifying the “pain points”, (2) researching best practices, (3) making recommendations to officials, (4) implementing those recommendations and (5) evaluating and improving the processes. (Right now, SFMTA is at Step 5.)
Deanna’s team found that stakeholder frustration was costing money both through delays in projects and potential lawsuits, and that it was all traceable to the lack of engagement with the community. People were in the dark about the hundreds of projects around the city and there was no consistency in keeping citizens in the loop.
From there, the team developed POETS, and that strategy has included training over 70 staff across all departments in IAP2 Foundations (over 200 staff members are involved in POETS) and new hires are given an overview course in POETS – POETS 101 — as part of their onboarding.
POETS includes Public Outreach Notification Standards, guidelines all staff must adhere to for outreach and engagement in their projects. Developing a communications plan is mandatory, including a project needs assessment, stakeholder briefings, multi-channel communications and identifying P2 techniques in line with the IAP2 public participation spectrum. Staff members are supported with an extensive online library, which includes communications plans from other projects, materials from “POETS 101” and P2 peer group support.
From an agency dealing with a disorganized and often frustrating approach for outreach and engagement, has emerged a strategy, POETS, that has provided standards and structure where there was none. By providing staff with the necessary P2 tools and training, they have become empowered and are now connecting with communities and building a greater sense that staff and community engaged makes for better decisions, trust and relationships.