The public discussion about the new Newfoundland and Labrador government Office of Public Engagement should be more than one about the financial costs, and definitely more than one about Twitter and Facebook. The discussion is too narrow.
Respectful and genuine public engagement can have profound positive effects in the short and long term on communities.
Public engagement has been seen to play a very important role in improving services, enabling collaboration to help tackle important problems like poverty, and has been shown to increase the tone of dialogue among politicians and citizens.
Public engagement not only includes releasing data, or access to information laws, although both are important components.
It also means actually “engaging” the public in a conversation about the problems we face as a province and in our own communities.
It is also not only “the government talking to citizens.”
Effective public engagement is a conversation among diverse groups and individuals, whether they are government officials, politicians, citizens, members of non-profits, and even the private sector.
It can lead to better solutions and approaches to important problems.
From James McLeod’s article, “OPE won’t cost anything new: minister,” Feb. 4, Liberal MHA Jim Bennett’s comment that “the best thing the government could do to engage the public is to just provide services that people want” is too short-sighted.
Public engagement can not only lead to strong improvements to public services by enabling strong feedback loops, but it can also help identify missing services or enable other non-
governmental organizations and individuals to play important roles in solving problems faced by communities.
We don’t have to look far to see the positive effects of public engagement.
Starting in 2008, New Brunswick ran a comprehensive public engagement process to build a poverty reduction strategy.
They used an effective combination of public dialogues, stakeholder roundtables and action planning to develop their strategy: Overcoming Poverty Together: The New Brunswick Economic and Social Inclusion Plan.
As also highlighted in a recent book, “Bringing Citizen Voices to the Table” by Carolyn Lukensmeyer, the founder of America Speaks, whose “mission is to reinvigorate American Democracy by engaging citizens in the public decision-making that most impacts their lives,” Newfoundland and Labrador’s rural secretariat has also been leading the way on effective public engagement.
Through the citizen-based regional councils and provincial stakeholder-based councils, the secretariat has provided spaces for genuine policy dialogue.
Let’s shift the discussion to include more than the financial costs and more than Twitter feeds and Facebook pages.
Let’s talk about how we can better and more often use genuine public engagement practices and approaches, as have been used in New Brunswick and here at home, to improve life in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Ian Froude is from Twillingate, but now lives
in Ottawa where his efforts are aimed at
improving and increasing public engagement in the development of Canada’s foreign policy.