was initially hired as Manager of Strategic Development in October 2013, working on a variety of things, including economic development initiatives and the budget review process. Before that, I was with the federal government, dealing with employee engagement, among other things.
Before I went to work at the City, P2 was done as part of the regulations process – on an ad-hoc basis, project by project. The City decided to move towards a more formalized process, so part of my role was to build a public engagement framework. You might say that P2 came with the job.
We did a jurisdictional scan and created a public engagement task force chaired by a member of Council. We looked at other cities and best practices and did a two-month intensive exercise in spring of 2014. I drafted a report to Council that included an engagement policy and recommendations on tools and training, as well as more opportunities for people to take part outside of specific projects. The position I now have was created in December 2016.
We’ve used the guiding principles of P2 and modified them a little bit in our framework. I created my own capacity and brought in trainers to give the Foundations course to about 21 employees. I’ve taken my own skills in needs assessment, strategic planning and communications planning and applied those to P2.
One project we’re currently working on is around the implementation of an automated garbage collection program for the city. There are lots of considerations around that, including the need to reduce the amount of material going to the landfill, as well as occupational health and wellness issues.
The P2 portion is to capture the residents’ key concerns. It’s probably the first time since I’ve been here that we’ve used a focus group process before going out more broadly to the community. This has helped us to determine their concerns and our communications staff has used that to develop FAQs and communications plans.
Automated garbage collection is probably the biggest P2 project in terms of people wanting to talk about it, so we set up a robust process with a variety of tools. Aside from focus groups, we set up a project page on our online engagement community — engagestjohns.ca. There’s a mapping tool, and we’re rolling out a survey that will be open to everyone to take part. We know there are fears and misconceptions about anything new, so we have ten pop-up locations where have people a chance to look at and touch the new bins and ask questions of staff – how much do they cost? how big are they? Right now, we’re looking at accessibility issues, so we have a seniors’ committee and an environmental committee; we connect with landlords. We look at the whole stakeholder spectrum.
We’re using as many different tools to reach as many different people as we can. We might get a hundred people out to an open house, but when we rolled out our web page, we had 350 people sign up in the first week and we’ve now had about 2,500 visits, with people reading the page and engaging.
When we did the budget consultations in 2016, we had forums to increase people’s awareness of the budgeting process. We sent out fact sheets and held an online forum to find out their priorities; we held ward-based sessions to talk about decisions and update people on where the process was.
When you think about the effectiveness of an organization, getting public input is one of those data sets or elements of that informed decision-making process. What’s been surprising for me has been that some of the good practice in P2 is such good common sense, prior to having a policy and framework public engagement was not really saying what was done with the input. So one of the things we’ve instituted has been a “what we heard” document that we put out after every P2 project, where we spell out the input we received. That document goes to Council or project lead for consideration. Ultimately, they are the decision makers.
Another part that’s been rewarding for me has been the chance to help build capacity in people so the organization see the value in P2 – how it can help them implement a program or meet the needs of the residents more effectively.
This is all very new in St John’s and we’re doing an evaluation this year of our P2 work. So far, there’s been a lot of validation for P2: anecdotally, people say they see a difference in the way the City engages with the public. There’s a greater understanding now of what it is that’s new, different or changing. People also recognize that it takes time and that we need to do it well and do it right.
There’s also more support within the organization as they see the importance of P2, connecting with the people and involving them in some way. There’s outside help for the growth of P2 in our city, too. A grassroots group called “Happy City” builds awareness and interest in civic engagement.
When people are involved in the discussion, they tend to take on more ownership of the initiative or project.