In Conversation With Gay Robinson
Each month, PlaceSpeak presents a Q&A with experts in urbanism, public engagement, and civic technology.
This month, we chatted with Gay Robinson, an independent consultant with over 30 years of experience in communications and stakeholder relations. She is an active member of the International Association for Public Participation (IAP2) – as a licensed trainer for the IAP2 Foundations program since 2005 and in various leadership roles. Gay currently serves on the Executive of the IAP2 Wild Rose Chapter.
Q: Beth Noveck from NYU’s GovLab talks about the “rise of the citizen expert”. How can decision-makers better tap into the expertise of citizens?
A: We need to really define what we mean by the term “expert”, because we’re all experts in our own area — in our own lives, in our homes, and to some extent in our own communities. We have to be very careful that we’re not taking “expert” to always mean technical experts, because technical experts don’t necessarily live in our communities and don’t have the same lived experiences that others do. We also have to make sure that we don’t assume that professionals are the only ones who have the knowledge or expertise to participate.
One of the misconceptions that we talk about in the IAP2 training is that the decisions have to be left up to the technical experts if the problem is complex, but really we need to honour and value the local wisdom and knowledge of all our citizens — everyone is an expert in their own life, and we need to be careful that when we’re trying to gather experts, that we’re looking at how that is defined. When decision-makers are trying to tap into the expertise of citizens, I think they need to look at what kind of expertise they’re looking for. We need organizations to go out and seek those that will be affected, and seek those that are going to have information that will be useful.
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Also, not everybody is going to recognize their own expertise. A lot of people tend to be humble and not realize that they have something to contribute, and I hear that over and over from participants — “Well, I’m not sure I’m the right person, I’m not an expert in transportation or oil and gas…” But the truth is, they’re experts in their own way and we have to find ways to get them involved without necessarily having them register their skills. People also may not express an interest in general because they may not realize that a project is going to impact them, and it isn’t until a specific project comes along that they may say, “Hey, I want to get involved in this.” So really, it’s up to the organization to seek out individuals, whether they do it through an online platform or whether they do it just by talking to people in communities. We need to make sure that we’re going out and seeking the people that are going to have the knowledge, the experience, the values that we need to take into account for the project.
Q: What do you think are some of the biggest barriers to genuine citizen engagement?
A: Some of the biggest barriers are around the idea that organizations and some professionals believe that they know what’s best for the community. They’re not willing to go out and seek the input of the public, because it makes things messy. It’s easier to make the decisions in your boardroom or meeting room all by yourself. The barrier is the willingness to conduct meaningful engagement — and that means helping identifying the people that need to be involved, finding out how they want to be involved, and helping them be involved and building their capacity.
For example, selecting somebody outside of the project team, who is a subject matter expert, to help in the engagement process by acting as a community advocate. Sometimes communities don’t know what questions to ask, how to interpret technical information, and their background on the subject matter may be limited and they need someone to ask questions on their behalf. So the idea of a community advocate that is hired by the project proponent but working for the community — I think that’s an excellent way to use some expertise and at the same time, build the capacity of the community.
The other barrier that I see is that sometimes, the information is gathered but it is not used, or that if it is used, people don’t understand how it is being used, so they feel frustrated with the process.
Q: What role can technology play in improving public participation?
A: Technology has hugely increased our capacity to engage. Where it was very hard in the past to engage people who lived across a broad geographical area because of the logistics, we can now bring them together through a form of technology, whether we’re using an online discussion platform or a webinar or some sort of online survey, that allows multiple people to get involved without physically having to come to some event. If done properly, and the opportunity to participate is communicated appropriately, technology can give us broader participation and increase the amount of engagement.
The caution I always have with technology is that just like every technique we use for engagement, it has to be well thought-out. It has to be appropriate for the situation, and you need to have a plan. Just sending out a survey isn’t the answer if you haven’t figured out the other planning components first to make sure that we’re asking people to participate in a meaningful way.
Q: Over the last year, IAP2 Canada undertook a Spectrum Review, asking “Is it still relevant in today’s environment?” What are your thoughts?
A: It’s an interesting discussion and we spent some time at the North American conference in Portland, Oregon talking about this very thing. In my mind, the Spectrum is still relevant. The part that gets people confused is the first level on the spectrum — inform. In and of itself, informing is not consultation — it’s communication, it’s promotion, but it’s not engagement. People who take the IAP2 training have this conversation in class, but people who just see the IAP2 Spectrum out of context sometimes assume that just telling people what’s going on is good enough and they’ve engaged their stakeholders.
A number of organizations and municipal governments have said, “Okay, for us, we’re going to take ‘inform’ off the Spectrum, and put it as a cap or foundation to the whole spectrum,” because you can’t do any engagement without informing people. It’s fundamental to good engagement processes that you’ve got to have an information flow, preferably a two-way information flow. So I think that it’s more a case that it is misinterpreted, rather than it’s not relevant any more.
What a lot of discussions at the Portland conference were about: What might we add to the list of best practices? And for me, personally, I think there should be some emphasis on building community capacity for engagement. That’s not something that’s going to be covered by the Spectrum itself, but it could be covered within our best practices and that’s certainly something I advocate for in my personal practice.
Q: What is the most important lesson that you have learnt from your extensive experience in community engagement?
A: That you have to ask the right questions. If you don’t ask the right questions, you’re not going to get useable results and you’re not going to have meaningful engagement. Sometimes, I see a project which has become very polarized because of the way the question has been worded. The way the question is worded changes how people are going to react, and sometimes leads it to be less of a dialogue and more of a debate. So we need to be really clear from the beginning — what are we engaging the public about? What is the scope of the discussion? Asking the right question goes through all parts of our implementation — when we’re doing our surveys, feedback forms, having different techniques, etc. Sometimes, changes need to be made to the way the question is worded to make the engagement meaningful.
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The other part of that is to remember not ask questions if we are not going to be able to use the input received. So don’t ask people if they like A or B if their input on that is not going to be able to be used in the process, because that just raises their expectations and leads to frustration if their input isn’t being used.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
A: I think that talking about the barriers to authentic engagement and looking at some of the lessons learnt — IAP2 has done a very good job of capturing lessons learnt and how we can be more meaningful and authentic in our engagement in the training programs they offer. I would encourage people to check out IAP2 and check out the training, and maybe come attend a course some time.