Doing the right thing: lessons learned from IAP2

Claire Sauvage-Mar is BC Healthy Communities’ former Grants & Engagement Coordinator. 

A few weeks ago, our Communications Manager Johanna and I had the good fortune of attending a public participation (P2) training put on by the International Association for Public Participation (IAP2). We met dozens of P2 and community engagement professionals from around Canada advocating for public input in a variety of sectors and projects. Community engagement is a pillar of Healthy Communities work, reinforcing a ‘whole of community’ approach involving individuals, communities, governments, and other entities in policy and decision making.

I wanted to share a few reasons why P2 is so important:

It offers decision makers what they need to make the right call.

 It’s not always easy to do the right thing. Decisions affecting the public interest can be contentious, and effective engagement allows policy makers to make difficult choices more comfortably. Decision-oriented, goal-driven P2 allows us to come to compromise, without compromising our values.

It gives people a way into the decision making process. 

The public, whether it be a group of elders seeking housing solutions to a city of 75,000 grappling with a new landfill project, is whoever feels impacted by a decision. Folks need a safe place to express their hopes and fears. On the flipside, when people disagree with a decision, they attack the process. A rigorous, empowering P2 strategy mitigates the risk of people feeling they are being unfairly impacted.

It’s becoming expected.

No matter where an engagement process lands on the spectrum of public participation, communities are starting to expect a chance to understand and evaluate public projects.  Clarity, respect, and inclusion of seldom-heard voices in the P2 process demonstrate respect for the people affected by a decision and ensure that commitments to the public are made in good faith.

But before you rush off to design your next P2 workplan, allow me to toss out two cautions to decision makers out there:

  • Don’t let engagement become a crutch, decision makers! Diluting an engagement process with hollow, tick-the-box exercises devoid of outcomes is no way to get things done. Let P2 be a tool to make you more brave and transparent in making decisions… not a chance to shed responsibility.
  • Remember: Some engagement is ‘worse than worthless’. This was an idea I discussed during a webinar on How Local Governments Can Build Equity into Community Engagement Processes. Don’t promise the moon when you can hardly handle a town hall without coffee. Mismanaged expectations can quickly erode trust.

Thanks to Jessica and Richard of Delaney+Associates for a fantastic training. We’re looking forward to incorporating their wisdom into our practice!

Author Credit: Claire Sauvage-Mar

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