How long have you been in P2, and where have you worked?
I started in P2 over a decade ago. My background was in writing and publishing – I worked at the Institute of Urban Studies, and then with several magazines, but that was at a time when the publishing model was changing. My shift to P2 came when I was heading upNext American City (now Next City), a Philadelphia-based national non-profit organization in the US. When my visa ran out I came back to Winnipeg and have been here for the past 8 years, the last 4 with my own consulting practice.
What attracted you to P2 in the first place?
One of Next American City’s main initiatives was its quarterly print magazine. When the print model “blew up”, we saw a real opportunity through P2 to engage more directly with individuals and organizations leading change in cities to enrich our content for publication in print and online, and to increase our impact.
We started hosting conversations in cities across the US – connecting on the most pressing urban issues in each community then we would share back what we learned with our readers and networks to help inform decisions about sustainable urban practices in cities across the country. We were using engagement to help municipalities develop policies better aligned with the public interest. For me, improving that alignment is what public participation is about.
Here in Canada it’s been so rewarding to be involved with IAP2 – and I’ve even reconnected with peers from my time in the US. Some of our original Next American Citycontributors are people I now connect with through IAP2 – including the former IAP2 USA president, Larry Schooler and American Institute of Architects’ Joel Mills.
Have you had a “Golden Learning Moment”?
One example comes to mind: in the typical open house format you miss the opportunity for true group dialogue. In a recent project, we did some initial engagement with stakeholders on the process design and we heard, loud and clear: if you’re doing events, there needs to be a Q&A.
My initial instinct was resistance – traditional town hall meetings and public hearings immediately came to mind, where there’s lots of opinion-sharing, but much less focus on productive dialogue. But as a team, we worked to move past a “this could go sideways” stance towards looking at how we could make it happen in a way that would support productive dialogue.
At more than one of the events, participants expressed their thanks at the opportunity for the group to ask questions and for all participants to hear the same response on important questions. Now we’ve developed a new face-to-face format that can be adapted for projects and initiatives moving forward.
What “big wins” have you had?
It’s more like a high-5 moment: seeing what happens when leaders – whether government or organizational leaders – really “get” P2. I’ve worked with municipal leaders where strong communications and P2 have resulted in outcomes better than they could have imagined. I’ve witnessed positions on P2 go from “risky” – “do we want to talk to the public about this?” – to advocating for P2 as a fundamental part of strategy on important policy decisions.
We have a couple of things on the go right now that I’m really proud of: helping a municipality assess their communications and engagement to evaluate what is working well and what can be better, and it’s very exciting. They want better transparency, want better decision-making, and they want public input to assess where they go from here.
Tell us a bit about your time as president of the Prairies Chapter
I am so pleased to have served a region with a growing interest in good public engagement. We have the very pleasant problem of having a very high level of engagement in this Chapter! Sold out events, and great volunteer interest. We’re the fastest growing chapter in the country – when we established the chapter in 2012 we had 20-some members and now we’re at over 80 from across Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Northwest Ontario.
I think the next opportunity for our Chapter and IAP2 is to broaden the conversation with decision-makers, citizens and the media about how better public engagement can help ensure policies and projects are aligned with the public interest. The work IAP2 does with the Core Values Awards and other initiatives helps demonstrate how innovative, responsive engagement practices can result in better outcomes both for policymakers and the communities they serve and we need to continue to highlight that good work.
If you had anything to say to someone just getting into the P2 business …
You’ll never have a dull moment. That’s the wonderful thing about the work we do: you’re dealing with the most pressing and important issues. We’re helping to inform decisions that affect all of us. I feel privileged to do this work.