How long have you been in P2, and where have you worked?
I took the formal P2 training in 2014, but I’ve been involved with P2 for about 10 years without really knowing it. While I was a journalism instructor at MacEwan University, I taught students about citizen participation in the news, tracing its emergence and development in the news profession over a period of 10 years. The challenges faced by news organizations to involve citizens in news decision-making are similar to the challenges faced by all organizations – governments, businesses are all facing increased demands in decision-making and policy development.
Why is it important for citizens to be involved in the decisions a newsroom makes? Changing technologies facilitate much more immediate collaboration and cooperation with citizens, and the news industry has been struggling with how to deal with that like all organizations. News professionals have been experimenting with “citizen journalism” over the years, allowing citizens to do everything from attempting to help write editorials to sharing video footage and photos of live news events, but really, there’s still a hierarchy of newsroom decision-making that’s resulted in keeping some doors closed: ordinary citizens are allowed on the front end – sharing their ideas -- or on the back end – commenting – but the doors to the inside, where news decisions are made, are still shut to citizens for the most part.
We see that now with public engagement: the actual decision-making is still done by the “man behind the curtain”; the challenge for governments and news agencies is to be more transparent and to permit more decision-making power to citizens. The issue of what decision doors should be opened and which doors should be closed still needs to be addressed.
The basic problem is that you have evidence that comes from experts and evidence that comes from non-experts, and the problem is to blend the different types of knowledge so they work together. How can newsrooms incorporate the citizen perspective to make the news? And how do governments make decisions and involve citizen voices? How do you gather all the information and make sense of it and then report what you get from citizens to help the experts make the final decision?
It’s about a clash of different knowledge and for years, we’ve “privileged” expert knowledge, but now we’re seeing a rise in the non-expert knowledge, and the challenge is to blend the two.
What turned you on to P2 in the first place?
In 1999-2000, I sought training at the Canadian Film Centre in Toronto in “New Media Design”. I was one of first cohorts in this innovative program, which is still offered today.
I’m what you call an early adopter of innovation, and that’s how I see P2: it is an innovation and a way of giving up control and engaging audiences. That was what led me into online journalism … looking at new ways of doing things, harnessing different voices and making sense of lots of different information and knowledge. It’s about innovation and adapting, and not everyone does it well. I use the lens of innovation to help work with clients to help them find an approach. Innovation is a journey fuelled by change through a social process and it takes time.
Part of the approach is to create realistic expectations for P2. If you simply have one-off events – if you or your organization think you can do something in one shot and that that alone is going to get you the information you need, I challenge that. There has to be an approach, rather than symptomatic treatment of things, which is what I came to realize, putting together this White Paper.
It needs time – a 2-year window, in one study I looked at – to trace the impacts and evaluate the outcomes of public participation. The City of Edmonton, where I live, is going through major innovation through a Council initiative on Public Engagement, and I was invited to be part of it by participating on the working group on evaluation, reporting and awards. An audit report found the citizens of Edmonton said “we’re done with open houses,” and on-high, there’s a realization that the City has to change. It requires massive innovation and corporate cultural change.
We need more evaluation in order to build the body of evidence as to the benefits of P2. Research shows that a multiple-method approach reaches more people. I think there’s a recognition that there needs to be a different approach. We need to be more collaborative and move away from the low end of the Engagement Spectrum.
It’s starting to happen: organizations are starting to review the ways that they engage their citizens, and not because people say they want to do something online. They also want better face-to-face engagement, where their ideas can feed off one another.
It’s an interesting, exciting time, and we need to do evaluation to learn. We don’t know what’s effective, and that’s what hit me when I was writing the White Paper on public participation.
Have you had a “Golden Learning Moment”?
For me, I’ve been steeped in this for years, and the massive realization that I’m part of this growing trend of citizens, eager to be part of the process, has been a revelation in itself.
I’ve been studying Diffusion of Innovations by Everett Rogers over the last couple of years, and it has been one of the best reads of my life, helping me understand myself, all the things I’ve done and witnessed, and the organizations where I have worked. It influences the work I do now, in fact. And Rogers’ insights helped me develop an understanding that P2 is fundamentally about innovation in organizations and about organizations struggling to adopt the innovation. I realized I’d been doing that for years – tracing
it innovation for years in the news industry.
P2 is about changing organizational behaviours and citizens’ behaviours – they need to trust in the system and that changes they hear about are actually happening. It will take time and strategy, but all parties need to adopt the innovation of engagement in order to make our democracy more meaningful and relevant. Newcomers to Canada especially need to be encouraged to participate and not be marginalized.
It’s an exciting time: we have a world that needs solutions to complex problems and we need citizens to be part of the solution.
Part of the task is to educate the news media. Traditional media still have the power to frame the issues. News media professionals can raise some good questions concerning transparency about the way governments do P2: how authentic is the process – how much money -- how transparent is it?
The media are used to public open houses, but open houses have been the tool of the day for years for institutions, and they actually may have discouraged people from coming out. You hear about the fisticuffs and loud voices – free-for-alls, but that was the only place where people could say their piece, and the media witnessed the divisiveness and reported on it, which is their responsibility. But there needs to be different techniques to engage people who have divisive views so they can disagree agreeably.
There aren’t enough public spaces to vent, which is why social media is so popular … lots of people are talking but are people listening? The answer, I believe, is no based on evidence about people’s social media usage behaviours.
I’m concerned that, with things like climate change and the point where we’re at in society with the growing gap between the rich and those who are not, we need to have better dialogue on how to solve problems.
Some newspapers are starting to focus on solutions, rather than problems and controversy. Reporters ought to be asking what governments and organizations are doing with the information gathered from citizen engagement efforts, what I call “citizen evidence”, and not just covering the emotion and outrage. Government reports are written, but fully accounting for what’s been done with that citizen evidence in terms of how it has been considered in decision-making isn’t happening. News media could do a better job pressing for governments’ accountability.
When it comes to evaluation – which is the topic of my White Paper – we need to know how much weight is given to public comments in decision-making. The leading tool I recommended – PPEET (the Public and Patient Engagement Evaluation Tool, winner of the 2014 IAP2 Canada Core Values Award for Research Project of the Year) – addresses organizational context and organizational accountability for how citizen feedback was used in decision-making. There are many variables that influence the effectiveness of P2 and that needs to be considered, like organizational culture and what’s going on socially, politically, economically, environmentally.
It’s a dance – we all dance together – we live in the same space, we share the same resources, and we need to have safe places where we can express ourselves. The media play a role, so do citizens, stakeholders, groups with vested interests in the goings-on in the community. That includes P2 practitioners.
P2 is a tool for hearing voices and listening to people, finding out what people think about issues, feeding their messages to the decision-makers and letting citizens be part of the decision-making process.
What “big wins” have you had?
My recent big win was with engagement workshops I designed and facilitated for the Edmonton Federation of Community Leagues (EFCL). There’s been a push to change city regulations for mature neighborhoods with what’s called the MNO review – Mature Neighbourhood Overlay—which is ultimately about dealing with infill development in mature neighbourhoods as the city grows. A lot of people say it’s really open season for developers. My house was built in 1952 and the yard is so big, people could play soccer in it. Now according to expert opinion, the solution is to increase density in cities rather than continue to permit urban sprawl, and this means changes to mature neighbourhoods like mine. It was a challenging topic, but it turned out to be a success. We’ve been able to narrow down the scope and turn the workshops into something concrete and specific, facilitating a collaborative and dialogue-driven workshop for league members to learn more about mature neighbourhood regulations. The regulations are up for review and the EFCL wants to get its members ready to take part in the City of Edmonton’s P2 process.
But it’s a dry topic and complex -- so what do you do? I worked with the EFCL to design workshops with a learning component, which was easy for me to create given my instructional design background in teaching. And I felt confident about this approach because the evaluation evidence I researched for the White Paper shows that people want to come out of an engagement process feeling like they’ve learned something, and that they evaluate the success of a P2 process through this lens. We had people prioritize the mature neighbourhood regulations based on their values related to mature neighbourhood characteristics. They were so engaged that they stayed a half an hour longer than originally planned in order to complete the last activity, and they asked for more workshops. The evaluation tool that I recommend in the white paper for P2 practitioners to use was intended for the health care field, but I successfully adapted it for the EFCL, and it worked well. The tool is meant to be adapted.
The workshops helped league members build capacity and prepare to engage effectively at the City’s public engagement activities on mature neighbourhoods. The City of Edmonton has put so much money into its public engagement strategy and is re-grouping and changing its corporate culture … and it will come back in their face if they don’t follow through with the MNO and listen to citizens’ ideas.
If you had anything to say to someone just getting into the P2 business …
New practitioners need to develop skills in evaluation, or at least develop an understanding of evaluation of P2, and they need to get accustomed to being more rigorously evaluated. As I explain in the white paper, we live in a world of evidence-based decision-making and practitioners are facing increasing pressure to provide evidence that P2 is effective. That’s why we need more rigorous evaluation of p2 that we design and facilitate – and newcomers to the profession may need to have that in their skill set.