Over the past while, we’ve heard endless talk about the need for public engagement, and to be fair, there has been lots of action to follow up on the talk.
Whether it be issues like the Banks Crescent development, the possibility of a composting station or the renewal of Penticton’s Official Community Plan, our elected leaders and city hall staff are learning that reaching out to the public is a good thing.
Town hall meetings, information sessions or speaker’s nights, like the PenTalkton event recently held in Penticton, are good ways to get the public engaged in conversation about issues important to the community.
But that conversation needs to go both ways for it to be really effective. Too often, information sessions are about city hall telling the public about a proposal, rather than really finding out how the public feels.
Usually, the input collected is passed along in the form of a report from the staff, which can be distorted in a number of ways. Putting aside intentional misrepresentation, there is a natural human tendency to focus on and highlight the elements that appeal to you or mesh with your group’s goals.
That’s why the no and yes sides in any ongoing debate tend to believe their side is in the majority — you naturally pay more attention to the opinions that agree with your own.
Then too, there is no guarantee the public input represents a balanced view; it’s easy for either proponents or opponents to overwhelm a meeting, either by volume of voice or numbers.
It makes it sound like public engagement and input is a lost cause, but what needs to happen is that alongside engaging with the community, methods are put in place to ensure that as unvarnished a report gets back to the decision-makers as possible.