I have a friend and mentor who served on Council during the 60s, 70s and 80s. When I asked him about public delegations, he said “we didn’t have them”.
I may be wrong but I think the first formal effort to engage members of the public in local decision making was in the mid to late 80s when a Public Advisory Committee was established to provide input into the development of a Waste Management Master Plan. This was in response to community concerns with a proposal to build an incinerator in the Arboretum at the University of Guelph.
Community expectations to be engaged in local decision making have increased exponentially since then.
In the late 90s, a group of citizens was assembled to develop Guiding Principles for Public Involvement. These principles have helped inform our practices for many years although not consistently throughout the organization. Almost a decade later, some departments still did not know they existed.
Different projects along the way have moved the bar on how we involve the public, like the SmartGuelph consultations of 2002. Our language has also been shifting from “public involvement” to “community engagement” as we understand there is a spectrum of engagement opportunities from consulting (gathering information), involving (discussing), collaborating (working together) to empowering (partnering).
Gord Hume, in his recent book 10 Trends for Smarter Communities, identifies the need to respond to increasing demands “for greater empowerment and engagement with government”. New trends in social media, communication technology, open government, and open data are only accelerating change.
He has some advice for how smart communities will leverage the trend:
- Clearly identify the purpose of/for public engagement.
- Make engagement as easy, open, and two-way as possible, often using new media.
- Recognize the enormous demands for citizen empowerment and engagement.
- Be more proactive about making information available and using social media to engage.
- Clearly establish city hall (or the public library) as THE informative, trusted source of data and information about the municipality.
- Politicians must recognize and respond appropriately to “one issue” campaigns and demands.
- Develop a civilized debate process at Council that respects differing points of view, but still moves items forward in a timely fashion.
There is a brilliant report – Community Engagement Framework – working its way to Council for approval that does all of this. It builds on our significant history and strength in community engagement and positions us to smartly leverage this trend to promote sustainable city building.
The Community Engagement Framework is a part of the Community Wellbeing Initiative – an initiative which itself represents the next step in our community engagement practices.