We live in interesting times, and this is especially true for elected officials and/or policy makers. The public expects them to step in to mitigate the impacts of extreme weather events on infrastructure, and address the ever-increasing number of people struggling with mental health issues, poverty, homelessness, traffic congestion and other complex issues that keep growing.
In the context of a local government or public agency, decision-makers provide direction to staff by putting in place strategic plans and defining goals and values to inform policy development and of projects. It is a complex process that often requires the search for compromises. This is where things get interesting, as residents realize how certain issues are affecting their lives and what they might have to give up to fix them. Members of the public have different opinions about development, zoning changes, official community plans – especially if they affect marginalized communities – or intensification.
Diverse interests are often accentuated by coordinated digital campaigns that have the potential to refocus the conversation, shifting a dialogue about choices and trade-offs into a polarizing campaign intended to promote different perspectives and even attack decision-makers at individual title. This means that decision-makers may feel increasingly isolated and challenged to oppose a plan they originally supported; in some cases, they may even be bullied. Not all dissenting opinions manifest as a coordinated digital disinformation campaign designed to amplify and propagate hate speech, systematically manipulate political discourse, or disrupt decision-making,
As practitioners of public participation, we are frequently asked for advice. What strategies do you find most effective? What techniques have you learned, during AIP2 Canada training or through the organization's networks, and which have proven to be effective? How can we convince decision-makers to involve the public and residents early in the process – before a plan is developed – so that these people realize the value they bring to the process and the compromises they are willing to make? Are we able to organize community conversations to explore the impact of choices on other people and on the system as a whole? Can we help participants see beyond their own interests and become aware of certain things (for example, “Ohhh…Icontributes to traffic jams" rather than "Traffic jams make me late", or "It is advantageous for me to buy a house in an area where prices are lower, but the price of housing increases, which which means that people who occupied accommodation in a basement or a less expensive rental house will have to find accommodation elsewhere”).
As practitioners of public participation, we can design processes that raise these kinds of questions, explore trade-offs, and help people see beyond their own interests. Also, when people see their views taken into account, they tend to be more accepting of policies and decisions that they may not fully support. We are all part of the problems we face, which means we all have a role to play in finding a solution.
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