Thursday, April 21, 2016

Local government plans + real public engagement = a better community

Far too often in local government, big decisions about the future of our communities happens with limited opportunity for public input. For example, a municipality might hold an open house or two about a major project. These open houses are usually poorly attended, and occur so far along in the design of a project, that the opportunity for meaningful feedback or change in direction of a project is reduced.

In BC, municipalities are legally required to hold public hearings for certain actions such as before the adoption of a financial plan or re-zoning. These required public hearings usually occur at the 95% point. To me, the usefulness of these public hearings are suspect.

Because most open houses are poorly attended, and public hearings occur so close to the execution of a plan or project, municipal staff and councils normally only get feedback from people that are the most passionate about a particular plan or project.

When there is limited opportunity for public participation in a major plan or project, the likelihood of controversy increases.

When municipalities have big decisions to make or plans to approve, public participation is essential. Just holding an open house, and expecting people to show up is not enough. Municipalities have to actively reach out to people. This means going to where people are such in their neighbourhoods, where they shop, and at community events.

The City of Abbotsford decided it was time to update their Official Community Plan (OCP) back in 2014. Engaging with the community was a key priority. Feedback received was incorporated throughout the development of the OCP. After years of hard work and engagement, a draft of Abbotsford’s OCP was launched earlier this month with the opportunity to provide further feedback. It is expected that the OCP will be presented to Abbotsford Council for approval this summer.

The following infographic shows the degree of engagement undertaken as part of the OCP update process.

The scope of public engagement during the development of Abbotsford's updated Official Community Plan. Select infographic to enlarge.

Engaging with a community early and often for a major project or plan usually results in a plan with board support. As a result, when councils make a decision about a plan or project, they aren’t just hearing from the people that are the most passionate.

I believe it is critically important to engage with people in a community throughout the process of developing major projects and strategies. At the end of the day, you end up with a better plan and more accountable local government.

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