Ready to Engage? Probably NOT.

engage Feb 29, 2016

Photo credit: National Post

Over the last week I have been watching a situation unfold and rapidly escalate in the City of Calgary. I think there are some big questions that should be asked about the nature of public engagement, and the ways in which citizens and government intersect.

In short form, it goes like this:

  • The City of Calgary did public consultation in 2010 on long range transportation visioning and planning. Then they announced a plan for a $40 million South West Transit Way project. The project includes Bus Rapid Transit with dedicated bus lanes and buses running every 10 minutes during peak periods, lots of stations, and basically lots and lots of construction over a very large area. They held a couple of information sessions in the summer and fall of 2015 to let institutional and community stakeholders know the project was coming. You can read the fact sheet about the project here.

  • Some citizens were supportive, excited and happy with the project. And some are probably neutral. I say this because I know that is always the case from my past experience in countless public engagement projects. It is never true that “everyone” is opposed to a project or a process, even if it feels like that in the media or online.

  • Some citizens are really concerned — and from a quick review of the issues it seems the biggest concerns relate to lack of information, lack of respectful and meaningful engagement process, lack of understanding about why, how and what is being implemented, and concerns about impacts and costs.

It had been building for a while, but things really blew up last week.

Photo Credit: Wikipedia, nuclear explosion

Last week at an open house for the project (reportedly one in which thousands attended), things got out of control.

Councillor Pincott (a local Alderman) stated that a small group of citizens “acted like classic bullies and prevented their fellow citizens and Calgarians from engaging on the issue.”

Mayor Nenshi stated that there was “yelling, swearing, pushing, shoving, physical assault and even a death threat” at the open house.

Emma Stevens, a Communications staff person at the City of Calgary went public in a Facebook Post and stated “I spend many of my nights at public engagement events. Lots of citizens have great ideas that help us improve our projects, and I’m thrilled that I can be a conduit for those voices. But not all citizens demonstrate the respect that my colleagues and I deserve, not just as City staff trying to do a job, but as human beings. I have been berated, demeaned, physically assaulted and disrespected by complete strangers on too many occasions.”

As a result, Mayor Nenshi cancelled all future face to face public engagement on the project, because of the “history of bad behaviour on this file.” He attributed the “bad behaviour” to a small group of organized citizens known as Ready to Engage. He referred the death threats and physical assault to the police.

Ready to Engage asked for an apology from the Mayor, noting that they do not condone or participate in what he accused them of. You can learn more about Ready to Engage here.

The Mayor refused to apologize, and reiterated the group was responsible for the cancellation of the public engagement process, further accusing them of spreading misinformation. More on that here.

As a public engagement practitioner with more than two decades working in high emotion, conflict, and controversy I am truly astonished to see things get to this point, with so many signs along the way that challenges were occuring. *See my note at the bottom of this blog about previous engagement work with the City of Calgary.

I believe there is an opportunity to learn and improve this existing situation and also the way citizens and government engage for the long haul.

Here is my first quick list of lessons to be learned, and I hope others add to it:

  • NO ONE should be treated in a way that subjects them to harm, intimidation, fear or threat. Ever. Seems ludicrous that it needs to be said out loud. And it applies all around — to citizens and City staff too.

  • You need some “rules of engagement” for public engagement, especially in situations of high emotion, controversy and conflict that are created WITH citizens, stakeholders and organizations (not delivered to them like a list of rules on how they should behave). These rules should be made public — online and face-to-face, and should be moderated, supported and encouraged by participants and proponents alike. That way everyone is clear on expectations, and can work hard to support each other in a respectful process. This creates a sense of reciprocal responsibility and promotes civil discourse. No one wants to be treated with disrespect, on any side, but there can be nuances and variation to people’s definitions of what is acceptable in a given situation. For example, one of my “rules” about what is not OK is defamation of character, libel or slander. Don’t say unproven, bad stuff about other people’s characters or intentions without proof. I would suggest in this case that includes suggesting that all members of the citizen’s group Ready to Engage are bullies intentionally intimidating other citizens and engaging in “bad behaviour” (with the implication that this includes shoving, physical assault and death threats). I wrote a blog recently about being really clear where the line is on behaviour that is acceptable, and where it is not, and how you need to balance generosity with boundaries.

  • If you aren’t prepared to take a little passion along with the supportive comments, you might need to rethink your compatability with your job. Let me clear, I’m not saying public engagement practitioners should be OK with being yelled at, abused or anything else like that. All employees have a right to respect and a safe work environment. I AM saying that public enagement involves people, in all their intensity, emotion and care. And when people feel strongly about something that really matters to them they can sometimes get a little heated. If you are OK only with positive, supportive comments or people providing input to “improve projects”, then you might not be right for public engagement. You might be better at communications or public relations. And that’s OK. Because public engagement means people tell you everything they think, and you don’t have to agree with it, like it or believe it yourself, but their voices — all of their voices — are your job.

  • We live in a democracy, and participatory processes are messy. Just because a decision has been made, doesn’t mean everyone agrees with it, and in a democracy people HAVE A RIGHT TO HAVE A SAY ABOUT ISSUES THAT IMPACT THEIR LIVES. That includes the right to say they want the project stopped, changed, or improved. In the end, we all have to live together in our communities, and we are far better served to believe the best of others when we come together to talk about issues that matter.

  • If you plan a public engagement process then YOU ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR THE ENGAGEMENT PROCESS. If things go badly (like this situation), the first question you should ask is how did public expectations and organizational expectations get so far apart? How was the process planned to support constructive, meaningful conversation — or not? Because I’m pretty sure it isn’t a surprise to the City that people were upset and concerned, and that this was building. I can think of 20 things off the top of my head that could have immediately been done to adjust, enhance and improve the engagement process for this project — just based on the media reports and website reviews. Just because you have a public engagement plan doesn’t mean you can’t change it. And if your job is public engagement, then you are responsible and accountable for the engagement process.

  • I can’t believe it needs to be said but OPEN HOUSES ARE NOT TECHNIQUES FOR SITUATIONS OF HIGH EMOTION. Enough said. Instead, they are probably generators of high emotion, especially when large groups of upset people converge together. Open Houses, Town Halls, and Public Meetings AREN’T on the list of techniques that bring people together.

  • We need to stop engaging people about the little things when what they want to talk about are the big things. Stop asking about station design, noise attenuation etc. when what they really want to talk about is route, necessity, cost etc. It feels disrespectful, condescending and irrelevant to people.

  • If you’ve got high emotion and outrage on a project, you need to address that before you address the substantive issues or things go BAD, FAST. When conflict is building any organization is best served to ask why, and to seek to understand what is triggering it and then to step into the conversation so that the concerns are clearly understood. If citizens are saying the engagement process has been disrespectful and lacking meaning, that might be a good thing to understand better before you keep driving the train forward (or the bus in this case). Creating that opportunity to understand more is a basic sign of respect, and that step can deal with a lot of the concerns that are raised.

  • Practice a little empathy and a lot of respect. Citizens have clearly taken enormous amounts of energy to participate in this process, whether they are for, against or neutral. That passion and energy is a gift. Be respectful of it. Seek to understand it. Be aware of the power of it.

  • The biggest barrier to dealing with the outrage of public and citizens is your own outrage at their outrage. Mayor Nenshi is outraged. Citizens are outraged. And things have escalated, and will continue to escalate. I anticipate law suits, court cases and increasing polarization, with ripple impacts on many other City engagement processes. Take a time out. Step back.

  • The more polarized the debate becomes the less likely things are to resolve, and everyone loses out. When people start characterizing each other with negative attention and talking about each other, rather than with each other things go from bad to worse. It’s best to stop demanding apologies, and responding via the media, and hold off until things are calmer.

  • We live in a blame and shame culture, and it gets the best of all of us sometimes. Sometimes the societal desire to place blame at the feet of someone, or to seek out a scape goat, cause or villain for evil doing is so appealing we don’t even see it happening. Look at U.S. politics right now for some examples, or situations where cyber bullying have led to horrific results. Or check out the twitter feed about this situation in Calgary. Consider resisting the urge to blame someone for what is happening and try to believe the best of others. Imagine if citizens believed elected officials and City staff had the collective interest of Calgarians at heart, and were working to build a better City? Imagine if City staff and elected officials believed citizens were engaging to make projects work better in their communities, from their knowledge of their lives and experiences?

  • Online engagement DOES NOT decrease high emotion, conflict or controversy. In fact it makes it worse, removes the requirement to look each other in the eye as humans, and removes the need to be accountable for the impact of our words, accusations and fears. If you think there were challenges with face to face engagement, I can only imagine what will happen when things go online.

  • Don’t be afraid to push the “STOP” button, call for a pause, or admit mistakes were made. All round. All sides. Things got way out of hand. Lines have been crossed. We are all human. Calling for a pause so you can figure out what is next is the best thing to do in a confict. They call it a truce, and it is usually a prelude to peace talks. Either way it lets tempers cool, allows the dust to settle, and at its best creates an opportunity to remember we are all in this together, and we want many of the same things for our communities.

I’ve got lots of other lessons swirling in my head for this list, but these are the most obvious ones. I’d love to hear your ideas, lessons and observations.

In the end, we are in this together. And when our organizations and citizens fail to interact and connect respectfully on issues that really matter, we all stumble. I’m rooting for everyone in this situation, and have high hopes things can improve. But the first step is to stop.


  • Here is my disclaimer and fine print. I’m a consultant and at the time of writing this blog ran a company that specialized in public engagement. We had done work with the City of Calgary in the past, and trained many of their staff over the years in public engagement. I have not worked on this project, and my knowledge of it comes from the media and online research. I’m hopeful this blog will be read by the City and citizens alike in the spirit it was intended — as a reflection on the practice of public engagement. But I’m realistic that it might not be. And that is life.


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