The clock is ticking on Alberta’s new regulations for local community engagement. The revised Municipal Government Act calls for local councils to create and adopt a comprehensive public participation policy that captures why, when, and how councils will involve communities and stakeholders. Municipalities are expected to have their policies in place by July 23, 2018, approximately nine months from the changes coming into force. The amendments are the result of extensive public consultation on upgrading the Municipal Government Act, the legislative framework for local government across the province.
Each new or updated policy will frame the municipality’s overall approach to community engagement and set out strategies for when and how citizens and stakeholders can expect to take part. The policy is expected to illustrate the types or categories of circumstances under which the municipality will consult local stakeholders – and the municipality will share the strategies they plan to use to address these circumstances. In addition, the policy will have to be available (offline and online) to the public and reviewed once at minimum over a period of four years.
Several Alberta municipalities have already deployed a variety of digital engagement tools to bolster their relationships with the communities they serve. With over 87% of Albertans online, digital tools are an increasingly vital component of local government engagement – and will have a role to play in the developments ahead.
The province’s Public Input Toolkit, developed by Alberta Municipal Affairs, sees key benefits for digital engagement around extending and diversifying engagement, tapping into local knowledge and networks, cost-effectiveness, and open data innovation. In addition to broadening participation, digital tools can help provide unmatched opportunities for conveying information, mapping and analyzing feedback, and enhancing offline engagement.
To this end, many government organizations seek to extend their community engagement via social media. Most community outreach toolkits and strategies today include social media as a standard feature. Social media platforms are useful for conveying or amplifying information to the public – but they have several important limitations when it comes to listening to what the community has to say. Social media platforms can promote or support community consultation – but are no substitute for online engagement spaces designed to facilitate public participation. Here’s why.
Online community engagement platforms can add valuable dimensions to the public participation process. By supporting conversations that are wide, deep, and measurable, they address crucial goals for public engagement. Online tools also help present planning information in ways that are easy to access, easy to understand, and review.
Speaking to the vital challenge of making sense of public input, online engagement platforms also provide ways to capture and assess participation. They can draw a greater variety and number of voices into the conversation than offline meetings at a fraction of the cost – and help create a culture of sustained engagement where communities collaborate with local authorities to solve problems.
While face-to-face engagement will continue to hold an important place in local participation, the use of an online engagement platform expands reach in the community and involves citizens more effectively in finding solutions to issues. Additionally, engagement reporting tools are invaluable to measuring public involvement, as may be required by government legislation.