As we approach province-wide municipal and regional elections later this month, the subject of civic engagement looms large.
Specifically, the common problem in rural communities across BC of a lack of civic engagement.
How can local governments, often strapped for both time and resources, ensure the decisions they make on behalf of their constituents reflect the wishes of voters?
At last year’s UBCM Convention, the Cowichan Valley Regional District (CVRD) received the Community Excellence Award, Best Practices in Organizational Development & Improvements, for their innovative, region-wide approach to citizen engagement.
The CVRD wanted to reach residents who typically didn’t engage with local government, and sought to find a platform that could be used by all local governments in the Cowichan Valley. This would not only benefit residents by having a single “hub” for online engagement, but each local government would benefit by working together in learning a new tool and be able to reach a larger audience.
Here are three lessons from their award-winning approach that any municipality can apply to start making civic participation habit-forming in their communities.
1. Build an active online civic network.
Many traditional means of collecting feedback online, such as surveys or submission forms, do not support ongoing connections between citizens and decision-makers. By definition, there is no way to determine who is participating in an anonymous survey, much less the ability to build connections and keep participants engaged beyond the initial feedback collection. This often means that reporting back to participants – “closing the loop” – is neglected, which only reinforces the common perception that citizen engagement is just “for show”.
By leveraging a BC-based software platform called PlaceSpeak, the CVRD and its member municipalities have established an ever-growing online civic network that keeps community members informed, engaged and active on an ongoing basis. With the launch of every new online consultation, the CVRD is immediately able to notify a base of thousands of engaged citizens – while continuing to reach out to community members and encourage them to get involved. Community members can engage in meaningful dialogue with each other and with decision-makers, on an ongoing basis.
CVRD’s decision-makers are able to keep participants up-to-date on the consultations that they are following. Participants can be reminded of upcoming deadlines, events, provided with results (e.g. “what we heard”, reports), and informed of how their input had an effect on the final decision or outcomes.
2. Make it easy to stay engaged with different levels of government.
While many people have the desire to stay engaged, time and resources are major barriers which prevent them from participating. For example, the Vancouver Foundation’s 2017 Connect & Engage survey found that 51% of respondents felt they didn’t have enough time to participate in public information events, while 22% said that they didn’t have the money to do so.
Instead of having to visit multiple websites or subscribe to several mailing lists, the CVRD has made it easy for community members to keep up to date with new projects, initiatives and consultations. CVRD’s web-based civic engagement platform breaks down silos between the regional district and its member municipalities, creating a safe, secure and convenient “hub” for residents to have their say on issues that matter to their community. Reducing the effort required for citizens to stay engaged and putting them at the heart of the process is the first step to building stronger communities.
3. Engage on a wide range of issues.
From watershed management to backyard chicken coops; from parks and trails to affordable housing, the CVRD and its member municipalities are able to provide a space for secure online discussions and engagement around a wide range of issues. This has been instrumental for drawing in a diverse range of participants, introducing people to issues which they may not previously have considered, and establishing a strong, engaged base of residents.
For example, someone who is interested in issues around recreation may sign up to with the intent of sharing their thoughts around a new Parks and Recreation Master Plan. However, as part of the regional district’s civic network, they can subsequently be notified of the opportunity to provide feedback on a new transit route or a proposed redevelopment in their neighbourhood. These consultations “cross-pollinate” each other – community members who initially showed up for one consultation are available to be notified of other initiatives in the future
Cynthia Lockrey, former manager of strategic services for the Cowichan Valley Regional District, said the district’s web platform allowed them to foster discourse on serious topics such as soil management and bylaws related to dogs — but the district also used it to do fun things, for example, asking for lists of favourite places to spend time in the area. Relatively early in the platform’s deployment, over 1,200 residents had signed up and were using it to discuss issues, make suggestions, and keep informed.
This is a stark contrast from attendance at local in-person meetings — gatherings that require staff and resources — which can draw as few as half a dozen community members.
“This is not just about the technology,” Lockrey said. “It’s about the people.”