Zahra Ebrahim is a public interest designer and the CEO of Monumental, a new organization focused on equitable urban and institutional recovery from COVID-19.

We’ve long known that the public consultation process is in dire need of reform, and COVID-19 has presented the necessary awakening for planners and engagement practitioners to re-envision how we dialogue with the public. The pandemic has made it clear that governments need to better serve the public through a social determinants of health lens – truly understanding all of the integrated factors such as mental health, housing and employment access that affect public health – and to do so requires an approach to public engagement that looks at the whole lives of residents, not single factors.

Many ideas have been proposed over decades of conversation about reimagining public engagement. And while improving the conditions of engagement sessions – better catering, increased compensation for time spent and costs incurred, and more collaborative exercises – has been a positive first step (and a long overdue baseline), we need to interrogate the practice at a more fundamental level, and with an equity lens.

The premise of consultation is loaded with orthodoxies – unchallenged wisdom that, left unchecked, can inhibit progress and create blind spots. Some of these include that we talk about a single project, that sessions are facilitated by engagement experts and planners, and that some vulnerable groups, in joining consultations, find themselves in a room with folks representing the institutions that made them vulnerable.

Dialogue with communities is about what life in the future looks like for these places, and while there are some technical responses, the primary goal should always be to situate an opportunity for change (a development, for example) within the context of a community-led vision. This vision should be shaped by leaders in those places, and it should talk as much about the desired experience and connection people want (the social infrastructure) as the physical infrastructure elements. If a municipality were to support the development of this social infrastructure, it could leverage it to alleviate stress on municipal systems in moments like our current public health crisis.

Further, COVID-19 has demonstrated that the success of relief efforts is amplified in places where communities actively support each other through mutual aid. With supported social infrastructure as proposed here, governments could more easily dialogue with communities about their bespoke needs in periods of both change and crisis.

Communities across Canada do an outstanding job of organizing these visions. In Toronto, St. James Town’s Community Corner Spring Gathering and the East Scarborough Storefront’s Community Speaks model are great examples of grassroots-led organizing around a neighbourhood vision. So often these efforts are self-funded or supported by philanthropic dollars, but really should be subsidized cross-departmentally by municipalities because they give more holistic indicators of where change and development is wanted and needed. Doing so would enable city departments to consolidate their engagement budgets, but more importantly, would tax the time and energy of residents less, and provide more nuanced, accurate information. A significant part of better policy-making is having better data. By continuing to build the capacity of grassroots community organizations, municipalities position themselves to surface key qualitative and quantitative data from those typically underrepresented in decision-making processes, and put us on the path to truly “build back better.”

To this effect, it makes sense for community organizations to have the opportunity to be their own “engagement practitioners.” Typically, when municipalities don’t have capacity to deliver on public engagement for a particular project, they issue a Request for Proposals (RFP) to engagement practitioners who have experience planning, facilitating and analyzing public dialogue. However, there are already so many talented individuals and organizations in this space; there could be an opportunity to include them in the RFP process by creating simplified processes for community-based organizations to get training and capacity-building on engagement methods (if needed) and allowing them to apply to be the “vendor of record” for the consultation.

This would also properly compensate these organizations that are often the first call for practitioners and municipalities when a consultation process is beginning, and who leverage their social capital to get residents to the event, but aren’t often part of the outcome: the process of analyzing the data from those engagements, the follow-up from the engagements, or shaping the key recommendations. This ultimately leads to trust gaps between these organizations and their constituents, as the expectation often rests with the former to be the voice of the project in the community. In this moment, when municipalities are delivering some of the most critical services to respond to the needs of those most impacted by COVID-19 (and relying on grassroots groups and community organizations to reach the most vulnerable populations), we need to ensure that the foundations of those relationships are strong.

Borrowing from best practices from across the country, an approach to having more meaningful relationships, honest and productive dialogue, and deepening public trust in municipalities is to develop place-based engagement teams at the neighbourhood level. Funded by the municipality, the teams would be led by residents and individuals working at neighbourhood organizations. Instead of putting them on the receiving end of requests to leverage their social capital for a development-inspired consultation, this model would put them in a position to proactively shape priorities, develop a place-based evidence base, and steward the creation of an equity impact assessment for their community. The equity impact assessments would surface key principles, priority issues and needs, and outline vulnerable communities that need specific approaches to engagement for their voices to be included.

As mandated consultations arise, these teams would be the first point of contact with planners and engagement professionals, and this existing neighbourhood data would inform how to proceed with an engagement. This type of approach could allow consistent application of an equity lens without having to start each project from scratch, which would especially benefit consultations with short timeframes and limited resources available for engagement.

If we must continue with public consultation, we have to change the baselines. We need to define the “we:” who is asking, why are they asking, how have they done the work to understand and build trust in the place where the initiative is happening? We also need to be clear about the “why” in any engagement or consultation, so that we can design thoughtful, fair, bespoke processes that support people to feel seen and heard. Julia Ableson of McMaster University’s Faculty of Health Sciences offers a helpful framework on clear goals for engagement from a health equity perspective:

  • Instrumental (outcomes driven): better decisions, policies, programs, research, outcomes
  • Democratic (process driven): better decision-making (e.g. more inclusive, legitimate, accountable)
  • Developmental (capacity driven): increased competency and capacity to contribute to individual and collective decision-making
  • Principle/ethics (rights driven): engagement as a right

Finally, we need to be clear that no engagement can be successful without acknowledging the context that the initiative is being introduced into. The Creative Reaction Lab, led by Antionette Carroll, developed an Equity-Centred Community Design Framework that articulates three key components to building trust and co-creating with community: acknowledging the scenario and historic moment; identifying the history and requisite healing that needs to be done to address potential harm or trauma associated with that history; and actively acknowledging and dismantling power constructs that stand in the way of honest, productive dialogue and co-production. Their team offers practical ways to address these components at the start of a process, and could very easily be adapted to increase the opportunity for trust-building when municipalities or the vendors representing them begin engagements.

As COVID-19 forces a reimagining of “business as usual,” this necessary reframing of what it means to understand and engage with communities could begin dismantling some of the entrenched, paternalistic approaches to “listening” and really begin the process of municipalities more consistently co-creating with their bright and capable residents.