Creating space for transformative conversations

Engage them, and they will come?

February 25, 2016

By Sebastian Merz

Going beyond the “usual suspects” in public engagement is one of the biggest challenges practitioners face. We hear from elected officials, government staff and residents that reaching more diverse audiences that reflect the diversity of communities is their number one concern for improving public engagement. In this article, we distill key lessons from the Centre for Dialogue’s engagement practice and a recent event we hosted with the City of Surrey: Thrive! Surrey in 2030 – A Residents’ Lab on the Future of Their City.

The Thrive! Residents’ Lab was designed to do two things: bring together a group of residents that broadly represented the demographic diversity of Surrey and give them an opportunity to help shape the city’s future. And it delivered: on a rain-drenched Saturday morning, 125 residents gathered at Surrey City Hall. They came from all walks of life and represented all age groups, all of the city’s neighbourhoods, and all major ethnic and cultural identities. We were excited to find that about half of them had never attended a public engagement event hosted by the City before. So what can we learn from the success of Thrive!?


1)    Treat residents like experts

Residents want to know that the information and perspectives they bring to the table are valued, and will be used to affect change. Our goal with Thrive! was to provide residents with such an experience, and so we decided to turn public consultation on its head: we invited residents to become city planners for a day. They were tasked with addressing specific sustainability challenges that the City had identified, such as reducing water usage or fostering a vibrant local economy.

Residents are experts when it comes to the experience of living in a community, and they can bring this perspective to the planning and decision-making process. Our work at Thrive! and other projects have shown that they are both innovative in developing solutions and that they are able to step out of their individual roles as residents, parents, youth, etc., and look at the bigger picture: “What is in the best interest of all residents?” and “What technical or financial constraints to my ideas may exist?”


2)    Speak accessibility

Every individual and group that you may find hard to reach faces barriers to participating in public engagement—often there are multiple barriers at play. Accessibility and inclusion start with language, including the ways in which issues are framed and communicated—for example, overly technical or other language that requires an advanced level of previous knowledge may prevent participants from participating effectively. Other barriers can include the costs of transportation or child care, uncertainty about whether the event provides a safe and welcoming space for minorities facing discrimination, and accessibility barriers for participants with dis/abilities (examples of helpful guides for planning accessible events can be found here or here).

Accessibility needs and responsibilities are context specific. Meeting them requires dedicated resources and, in many cases, specialized expertise. By developing an accessibility policy for engagement events, building partnerships with relevant experts and organizations, and by building accessibility requirements into the planning process right from the beginning, practitioners can make sure to have appropriate resources in place.1

For Thrive! we made sure that the budget included a line item for accessibility, and we communicated the availability of support clearly in all outreach. Sixty-six percent of Thrive! participants indicated in an exit survey that they attended because they were hoping to work with other residents who represent the diversity of Surrey. Twenty percent of participants said they were specifically motivated to attend because they expected the event to be accessible and felt their needs would be met.


3)    Use a networked approach to scoping and outreach

When you are trying to convince people from diverse backgrounds to spend their time with you mulling over planning problems, it is critical to speak to them in the right way: this means hitting the right tone, speaking to the issues that matter to them, and speaking through someone they trust. One way to do this is through a networked approach with strong partners that are deeply rooted in the communities you are trying to reach. For Thrive! we had the privilege of working closely with individuals and groups within civil society, business, and government in Surrey. They helped us set the frame for the event and get the narrative and language right—from the title of the event to the questions asked on the day.

Importantly, these local partners mobilized their networks to encourage people to participate. Having our message communicated through organizations that are present in people’s lives and that can give them confidence that the engagement will be meaningful also made a difference: a significant share of participants indicated that they participated in Thrive! because someone they trust and respect encouraged them to apply.


4)    Don’t forget to make it fun

This lesson is perhaps as widely understood as it is easily forgotten. Making sure that public engagement is not just for planning wonks but that it can involve games, interactive dialogue, and other dynamic elements is critical for going beyond the usual suspects. At Thrive!, we added role playing and Lego pieces into the mix. And we’re inspired to see local governments coming up with innovative and fun ideas to engage their residents, from New Westminster’s “Love your city” Workshop on Valentine’s Day to Coquitlam’s “Welcome to the City” open house, to name but a few.


Need more ideas? Stay in touch with us!

Engaging diverse audiences is an important issue, and Civic Engage will continue to provide support in this area. Keep an eye out for our upcoming Skillful Engagement workshop this April, which will be focusing on inclusivity in public engagement.

To find out more and be the first to learn about new workshops and resources: simply send an email with your full name and position and the subject line “NEWSLETTER SIGNUP” to


1 Some barriers may be best addressed by hosting additional events designed specifically for and in close collaboration with a group that is not well served by mainstream public engagement events. To ensure your event is accessible, safe and culturally appropriate, ensure to engage relevant groups early, with an open mind, and in a way that ensures mutual benefit.