Citizens Expect More From Public Engagement

A city where we are connected, invested and proud to participate in shaping our community.  — Council Initiative on Public Engagement Vision Statement

When it came time to consult with the community about the next phase of the Lewis Farms Facility and Park development, City staff decided that they wanted to do more than hold a dry public meeting where citizens were talked at rather than with.

Cheryl Clieff and her colleagues in the Facility and Landscape Infrastructure Branch, chose to use the newly developed and approved guiding principles from the work of the Council Initiative on Public Engagement (CIPE). They came up with some creative and interactive ways to engage local citizens, such as creating an interactive video to tell the story about the project background and inviting Rapid Fire Theatre to facilitate conversation around the project.

“We wanted to create a dialogue with community members, which honoured everyone’s input into the project including city staff, the public and community groups. We wanted to be more open and transparent about how we engaged and came to conclusions on how to direct the design of the facility,” says Cheryl.

The result: More than 2,000 responses from participants over the two phases of engagement, who were able to make significant contributions to the next step in planning for the Lewis Farms Facility and Park.

Public engagement creates opportunities for people to contribute to decisions about Edmonton’s policies, programs, projects and services and communicates how public input is collected and used.  

   — Definition of Public Engagement for the City of Edmonton

Claire Ashton in the Engagement Branch says the most significant piece of the new definition of public engagement is that we have removed ‘inform.’ Claire explains that in the past, staff could hand someone a brochure, inform them about a decision and say they had done public engagement.

“Overwhelmingly, feedback from the Council Initiative indicated that we need to do more than simply inform people at public engagement events by giving out basic information. We’ve now made it very clear that just informing people is no longer considered public engagement at the City of Edmonton. Although sharing information is a very important communications function, it’s not a form of public engagement,” she says.

Two other important aspects of the new definition are:

  • Public engagement only occurs when a decision needs to be made.
  • The public must be told how their input will be used when that decision is being made.

“There was definitely a need for change in the way the City engaged with Edmontonians,” says Mack Male, the Community Co-Chair on the Council Initiative’s Vision, Policy & Framework working group who also blogs about urban affairs at “And the City’s heard loud and clear that people want to be provided better, more meaningful opportunities for giving input on City projects.”

Cheryl Clieff who, along with Mack, participates in one of the five Council Initiative working groups, concurs. “There are a lot of passionate people who wanted to get involved in the engagement process for city planning and building, for example, and what the Council Initiative aims to do is strengthen the relationship between administration and citizens, while providing guidance to staff in a more successful way.”

Here are just a few of the 80 or so City employees and community members have been volunteering and working on the three-year Council Initiative on Public Engagement.

Check out the full  Public Engagement Definition, Foundational Elements and Guiding Principles document, which will be continuing to roll-out in the spring. An implementation and action plan from the Council Initiative will be provided to City Council at that time, which will outline policy and procedures for public engagement practices at the City going forward.  

In the meantime, Claire says there are many other groups across the City who are already putting these new public engagement principles to work.