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Public engagement in Saugeen Shores and beyond

Presented by Dana Van Allen
in Communication

Sponsored by Saugeen Shores

Engaging a wide range of citizens is a challenge for municipalities, well, everywhere. How do you ensure that everyone affected by a project or decision has a voice? How do you make two-way communication part of every municipal initiative? And how do you do all of this consistently, without overburdening staff or slowing down projects?

The Town of Saugeen Shores asked all these questions (and many more!) as it began exploring the development of an engagement strategy last year. Here’s what the process and final strategy look like – with a few of the lessons learned along the way.

CISCO October 2020 Web banner large

Where it Began

First, the research. In June 2019, council members and Town staff gathered to share ideas and input. During these consultative sessions, participants identified engagement challenges and opportunities, with the overall goal of improving public participation in the Town of Saugeen Shores.

Some of the current challenges that were discussed included:

  • identifying which stakeholders need to be engaged;
  • defining the scope of engagement;
  • establishing communications around engagement; and
  • ensuring an equal voice for all participants.

Defining Mission and Creating the Strategy

From this, the Town’s mission for public engagement was born: to “strengthen relationships between decision makers, staff, and community members by establishing a consistent, standardized approach to engagement that follows current best practices in public participation.”

And, after presenting the resulting engagement strategy to council in summer 2020, Saugeen Shores staff are now getting to work on cementing it into how the Town does business.

Led by the Strategic Initiatives Department, the goal is to have both staff and external consultants familiar with the levels of engagement and the series of templates in the strategy document for use in designing and delivering public engagement.

Takeaways for Other Communities

Even at this early stage, Saugeen Shores has a few takeaways that could be helpful for other municipalities looking to develop their own engagement strategies.

Time for engagement planning should be built into project schedules – Effective engagement takes time. While every year sees projects and outside situations that take us by surprise (2020 has been a prime example of this!), engagement planning would ideally begin four to eight weeks prior to the first engagement touchpoint.

Having outside facilitators lead focus groups is worth the cost – Hearing staff and council speak about engagement challenges honestly and transparently was invaluable for the strategy development process. A great team of outside facilitators led these conversations, allowing those participating to be more forthcoming than they might have been if staff led the sessions directly.

A cultural mindset shift is required – It’s not going to happen overnight. Relatively speaking, Saugeen Shores is just at the beginning of its engagement strategy journey. There is still a lot of work to do to ensure that engagement is delivered consistently – and to report back on how public input was used in decision-making processes.

All the best in your own public engagement journey – and feel free to reach out to us with any questions you might have along the way. MW

Dana Van Allen is the interim Communications Specialist at the Town of Saugeen Shores. Her portfolio includes media relations, messaging, social media, and supporting other departments to provide clear and engaging communications.

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