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Workshop Findings – Bringing Citizen Voices to the Table: Infrastructure Needs in a Democracy

This report describes the findings of the May 22, 2014 workshop “Bringing Citizen Voices to the Table: Infrastructure Needs in a Democracy,” hosted by Simon Fraser University’s Centre for Dialogue in partnership with SFU Public Square. The featured speaker was Dr. Carolyn J. Lukensmeyer, Executive Director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse, founder of AmericaSpeaks, and one of the foremost citizen engagement practitioners in North America. The report summarizes participant evaluations of the citizen engagement infrastructure in British Columbia, Canada, as well as participants’ ideas to strengthen the influence of citizen voices on policy decisions. 

Executive Summary

Bringing Citizen Voices to the Table brought together 67 prominent citizen engagement practitioners from British Columbia to evaluate the province’s citizen engagement infrastructure and explore ways to strengthen the influence of citizen voices on policy decisions at all levels of government in the region.

Featured guest Dr. Carolyn J. Lukensmeyer presented seven types of infrastructure required to support citizen engagement in a democracy. Participants then worked collaboratively to evaluate British Columbia’s citizen engagement infrastructure in the focus areas of neighbourhood planning, transportation, and mental health & addictions. Common infrastructure assets identified among the three focus areas included: safe, accessible physical spaces; access to technology; and a network of skilled facilitators. Repeated infrastructure gaps identified among the three focus areas included: a trustworthy, fact-based media; and robust civic education.

Within each focus area, participants voted on the degree to which citizen engagement currently impacts policy development. Average results ranged from “a little” to “moderate,” with the focus area of neighbourhood planning registering the highest perceived impact. Participants then nominated and voted upon the top barriers that prevent the expanded use of citizen engagement at the municipal level in British Columbia. The top three choices related to the voluntary decisions of stakeholders to enter into a citizen engagement process. These were: low political will; commitment by all; and engagement is unappealing.

In the final activity of the workshop, participants each wrote down one key government action that could strengthen the influence of citizen engagement on policy decisions in their focus area. The five most common themes were:

1. Allocate resources and infrastructure
2. Codify engagement responsibilities
3. Make outcomes transparent
4. Leverage third party implementation or monitoring
5. Pre-disclose how citizen input will be used

Two overall themes emerged from the workshop findings. First, the expansion of citizen engagement at all levels of government in British Columbia is dependent on elected representatives and citizens making stronger commitments to collaborative decision-making. Second, participants suggested that many jurisdictions in British Columbia appear to lack a culture of engagement that provides the transparency, predictability, and sophistication required for governments and citizens to engage effectively and with confidence. These two themes could be related; many elected representatives and citizens may treat citizen engagement with skepticism due to negative past experiences with engagement processes that do not reflect modern best practices.

Suggested next steps include working with governments to initiate pilot projects that increase familiarity with modern citizen engagement practices. Over time, such pilot projects could build stakeholder capacity to implement and participate in citizen engagement processes and create confidence that these can be fair and lead to better outcomes. Research is also required to collect the perspectives of elected representatives and citizens, both of which would provide further insights into the status of citizen engagement at all levels of government in British Columbia.

Funding for the Bringing Citizen Voices to the Table workshop was provided through the SFU Centre for Dialogue’s Bruce and Lis Welch Community Dialogue, a yearly event designed to encourage transformative social change through dialogue. For more information, contact Simon Fraser University’s Centre for Dialogue at dial@sfu.ca, or visit www.sfu.ca/dialogue.

Resource Link: www.sfu.ca/dialogue/citizen-voices

This resource was submitted by Robin Prest from Simon Fraser University’s Centre for Dialogue via the Add-a-Resource form.

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