Wednesday, March 25, 2020

COVID-19 Pandemic: Modernizing public hearings, engagement, and dialogue at City Halls

With most municipalities in BC limiting access to their facilities (including City Halls) due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it has challenged some of “givens” around how local governments engage with people.

Most significant items that municipal councils consider have a public engagement component. I’ll use a budget as an example.

Usually, a municipality will post information about how people can attend a public workshop or open house to learn and provide feedback about the budget. In-person, dialogue is able to occur.

There will also be information posted online (usually after the open house) where people can read similar information that was presented at the open house. Generally, people can provide feedback via a web survey, email, or by calling.

Submitting feedback doesn't have the same level of engagement as having a dialogue at an in-person workshop or open house.

It would be unwise to hold an open house or workshop currently, so many cities are exploring ways to connect with people online. There are many tools that can allow people to learn, ask questions, submit feedback, and engage in real-time. These tools that are available today enable the kind of dialogue that occurs at in-person workshops and open houses.

At council meetings, there is the opportunity for anyone to appear in-person to talk about any matter that is important to them. While you can also send an email or letter, it is not the same as in-person.

Again, there are online tools available today that would allow a person to appear virtually that would emulate the in-person experience of appearing at a council meeting.

One of the legislative requirements for approving a budget or updating a land-use bylaw is for a public hearing to occur.

Currently, the laws around public hearings assume that they will be in-person. The provincial government will need to provide guidance to municipalities about how public hearings could occur online. I believe it would be unwise to hold in-person public hearings.

This pandemic has surfaced that we need to modernize how public engagement and dialogue is done.

The business of municipalities needs to continue, and we have the tools today to do much of this business online.

If/when municipalities move forward with these online tools, it will bring a new level of accessibility to local government that will hopefully continue well into the future. People with disabilities who are not able to attend in-person events, and people who cannot attend in-person events for other reasons, would now have the ability to participate.

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