I have been pondering the idea of public engagement recently. The three municipalities on the Saanich Peninsula are at various stages of updating their Official Community Plans and public engagement will be an essential component of their reviews. It is challenging to get wide-ranging participation in “normal” times but it will be even more difficult during a pandemic.
COVID-19 has driven us to meet, communicate, and debate online. The platforms we are using are in some ways inherently more inclusive than in-person engagement and in some ways are more problematic, especially to those who don’t have access to the technology. Location, lack of awareness, access, and the times events are scheduled can be barriers to participation.
Consultants will be soliciting the opinions of a wide range of stakeholders. Regardless of the consultation platform, I wonder if the stated preferences and opinions gathered will be useful as the subject is complex and the final product will be managed by experienced planners and engineers who better understand its context and application. Those who participate in stakeholder consultations assume their opinions matter, that their voice will be heard, and that their opinions will be acted upon but accommodating everyone is clearly impossible.
I will be watching with interest to see if consultants are able to solicit input from groups beyond the disproportionately influential. The views of residents are important as they are experts in knowing how they use the infrastructure in their community. So too, are the views of the business leaders who create employment and contribute to our economic vitality.
It would seem the best, most inclusive, way to do public engagement is in public, in person. Watching how people move throughout the community. Listening to their struggles. People’s actions can often be more informative than their words. Context is everything.