Metro Vancouver’s Public Outreach and Engagement Program
Metro Vancouver

The Problem

Metro Vancouver is the regional governance body delivering various services and political leadership on behalf of 22 municipalities, one Treaty First Nation and one unincorporated area in the metropolitan Vancouver area, in British Columbia, Canada.

Citizen engagement at a broad, regional level can be exceedingly difficult where issues that are not just local in nature may seem remote and their local impacts not immediately evident. This difficulty was compounded by Metro Vancouver’s early approach to public engagement, which was essentially conservative: consult on issues that only directed affected Metro Vancouver’s operations, and only if legislatively required to do so. The Metro Vancouver Board of Directors neither encouraged nor attracted interest from the region’s residents: only two public delegations were invited to appear before the Board in its first five years of operation. Public consultation typically occurred only when major capital projects such as sewer main installations or upgrades would lead to major disruptions in service, public access or traffic flows.

The result of this approach to consultation in the 1990’s was that area residents were either blissfully ignorant of the significant role that Metro Vancouver played in providing public services to the region, or were moderately to extremely concerned with the impact that Metro Vancouver’s operations were having on their daily lives. Consequently, Metro Vancouver’s public consultations were often very tense as residents would strongly criticize its capital planning processes, its poor record of consulting with residents in a meaningful way, or both. In turn, this made it increasingly difficult for Metro Vancouver to gain public support for its planning and utility services programming, since many residents had developed a very real sense of distrust towards Metro Vancouver and its attempts to consult with the community.

Solution and Key Benefits

 What is the initiative about? (the solution)
In the late 1990’s Metro Vancouver set out to radically change its relationship with the community. It sought to create a new sense of trust and realized that this would require an engagement framework that was designed not simply to respond to issues linked to Metro Vancouver’s issue of the day, as had often been the case in the past, but rather one that dealt with the issues as perceived by the community, even where these were beyond the narrow purview of Metro Vancouver’s legislated focus.

The initiative is therefore about transforming the public consultation process into one of community engagement. The traditional process of public consultation about specific projects or proposed policies then becomes just one component of the overall public engagement process.

By engaging the community in discussion processes where there is no apparent nor hidden Metro Vancouver agenda, other than to facilitate public engagement, the hope and intention is to change the public perception from one of ‘buyer beware, Metro Vancouver is trying to sell something’ to one of ‘let us all join in the discussion of important community issues where Metro Vancouver is playing the role of honest broker or facilitator.’

By honestly facilitating such discussion processes, by conducting the events in a professional and competent manner, and by faithfully recording the results and sharing them through various communication vehicles, Metro Vancouver has both raised the profile and changed the nature of its perceived character.

Where Metro Vancouver has an agenda, a proposed policy or project on which it is seeking public feedback, it openly declares that to be the nature of the discussion but follows the familiar discussion and reporting processes. The trust and respect gained in the ‘no agenda’ public engagement processes transferred to the consultation processes on specific Metro Vancouver initiatives to the point where even the declaration that the process is focussed on a Metro Vancouver proposal is seen as a manifestation of the integrity of the process Metro Vancouver now follows.

Actors and Stakeholders

 Who proposed the solution, who implemented it and who were the stakeholders?
The initial ‘prototype’ was a ‘Community Monitoring Advisory Committee’ to rebuild meaningful discussions in response to prolonged differences about the management of Metro Vancouver watersheds on the North Shore. Engaging representatives of local community associations set the foundation for a similar approach on a region wide scale.

In 2002, Canada, won the right to host the 2006 World Urban Forum (WUF). Metro Vancouver saw this as an opportunity to raise the profile of sustainability principles, adopted as its guiding philosophy in 2002 with the launching of its ‘Sustainable Region Initiative’. In 2003, in a discussion with Metro Vancouver Chief Administrative Officer and a BC Hydro Vice President, the International Centre for Sustainable Cities (ICSC, a local NGO co-founded/supported by Metro Vancouver) floated the idea of ‘sustainability community breakfasts’ as a precursor to WUF.

Metro Vancouver saw breakfasts as the opportunity to generate and sustain local interest in sustainability issues. The ICSC initially organized the events with funding from BC Hydro and content and support from Metro Vancouver.

Following WUF, Metro Vancouver – at the request of breakfast participants and in recognition of the value the Breakfasts brought to local sustainability discussions –assumed full responsibility for the breakfasts. Six years later, the Breakfasts, held monthly in downtown Vancouver, engage audiences across a wide spectrum of sustainability interests. While Metro Vancouver and VanCity (a local financial institution) are formal sponsors, the sessions are actively supported by NGOs, businesses and various public sector organizations.

In 2006, ‘The Future of the Region Sustainability Dialogues’ series was initiated by Metro Vancouver as a broader forum for discussion of issues related to the livability and sustainability of the region. More specifically, the Dialogues targeted engaging the business community, and for the past five years have been co-sponsored by the 11 Chambers of Commerce and Boards of Trade in the Metro Vancouver region.

As far back as 2002, the idea of a ‘community assembly’ had been discussed with the Metro Vancouver Board. The 2006 WUF and its attendant breakfasts and dialogue series provided the foundation and in 2008 Metro Vancouver hosted its inaugural Sustainability Summit/Sustainability Congress.

Building on community engagement in discussions about various facets of the future of the region, the Summit was a region-wide initiative that coalesced the various threads of discussion on regional sustainability into a focussed debate on next steps and a call to action. A tri-annual event, both the 2008 Sustainability Summit, where participants voted on how to measure success related to nine regional issues, and the 2011 Sustainability Congress, which asked participants to determine where local leadership on addressing five long-term challenges to regional sustainability should come from, were funded and managed by Metro Vancouver.

Some 500 people attended each of the two congresses, with strong representation from NGO/community, business, academia and government delegates.

In 2010, the audiences for the Dialogues as well as the Sustainability Congress were significantly expanded by having these events broadcast on Metro Vancouver’s proprietary television program, “The Sustainable Region”, via a local cable television channel.

(a) Strategies

 Describe how and when the initiative was implemented by answering these questions
 a.      What were the strategies used to implement the initiative? In no more than 500 words, provide a summary of the main objectives and strategies of the initiative, how they were established and by whom.
Developing an engaged citizenry that is aware of the challenges, opportunities and trade-offs involved in supporting the policy and planning changes necessary to achieve long-term community sustainability is the main objective of Metro Vancouver’s Public Outreach and Engagement Program. The strategies used to achieve this have been:

• Building a regional perspective Changing the focus from particular elements of the region’s legislated mandate to the interconnections and interdependencies of Metro Vancouver’s roles in providing core services, developing and implementing regional plans, and serving as the forum for the discussion of issues of regional significance. Changing the venues for The Community Breakfasts and the Sustainability Dialogues series from just downtown Vancouver to venues in communities throughout Metro Vancouver. Ensuring the selection of topics have a truly regional – if not global – appeal. Subsequent participation in the Sustainability Summit and Sustainability Congress has reflected Metro Vancouver’s success in engaging people beyond the neighbourhood level, with attendees coming from across the region to discuss moving forward on a common agenda.

• Using an unbiased agenda to build buy-in. In order to initiate a dynamic discussion and to engender public trust in the process, Metro Vancouver has identified and presented topics for its breakfasts and dialogues in which it did not have a particular vested interest; rather, the strategy was to initiate a true dialogue and promote a meaningful exchange of ideas. The topics chosen were related to issues of regional significance but did not necessarily correspond directly to Metro Vancouver’s roles or jurisdiction, and the local experts that sat on session panels were selected to provide a broad range of perspectives, experiences and ideas on the topic. By not promoting a specific agenda and by ensuring that conflicting points of view were represented on discussion panels, Metro Vancouver helped develop a level of trust with breakfast and dialogue participants, and gained a reputation as a trustworthy and credible participant in the creation of a sustainable region.

• Building partnerships: To move the sustainability agenda forward, Metro Vancouver realized that it was critical to engage the business sector. Metro Vancouver therefore deliberately reached out to local Boards of Trade and Chambers of Commerce to help promote the Sustainability Dialogues and to identify topics and potential speakers for the regional dialogues. This gave the Dialogues series added credibility within the community at large and helped provide an enriched learning environment for event attendees.

(b) Implementation

 b.      What were the key development and implementation steps and the chronology? No more than 500 words
• The launching of the Sustainable Region Initiative, or SRI, in 2002. The SRI’s tagline is “Turning Ideas into Action” and the first five years of the SRI provided the foundation of practical actions demonstrating the practicality of the initiative. Without this, Metro Vancouver would not have been seen to have a cause or credibility with its initial target audience.
• Metro Vancouver’s leadership role in the June 2006 World Urban Forum gave it invaluable exposure to some innovative work that was being undertaken by other like-minded organizations committed to sustainability principles. Importantly, it also engaged Metro Vancouver elected officials in the sustainability discussion and opened the door for a broader regional discussion on issues such as affordable housing, drugs and crime, culture, waste management, etc.
• Building on the momentum of WUF, Metro Vancouver assumed ownership of the Community Breakfast series that had been implemented prior to WUF and a few months later, broadened the scope of its public outreach programming by introducing the Sustainability Dialogues series – in conjunction with local Boards of Trade and Chambers of Commerce – in locations throughout the region.
• Recognizing the practical and community relations foundations had been laid, in 2008 Metro Vancouver developed and adopted the ‘Metro Vancouver Sustainability Framework’ comprising a regional vision, role, mission, values and sustainability principles. It became the coherent sustainability “lens”, through which all Metro Vancouver planning and service delivery activities are undertaken and was a vital tool to bringing consistency to the message from Metro Vancouver officials, both elected and appointed. A key component of the SRI is Metro Vancouver’s commitment to “build and facilitate collaborative processes among governments and citizens” through outreach, advocacy and education.
• In 2008, recognizing that the community was now ready to move beyond to a higher level of community engagement, Metro Vancouver hosted its first-ever Sustainability Summit, a strategic, region-wide event that engaged a wide range of regional stakeholders in achieving community consensus on key issues facing the region, a common vision for the future and a shared agenda for action to achieve that vision. Metro Vancouver committed to reconvening the Summit every 3 years, and in June 2011, the region hosted the Sustainability Congress delegates determined where must we focus time and resources in order to arrive at the future we want, and who should lead the charge: a “Roadmap for Sustainability”.
In essence, then, Metro Vancouver’s public outreach and engagement programming has evolved from a model that focussed on eliciting the community’s views on current sustainability topics to one that combines debate and discussion with a clear call to action.

(c) Overcoming Obstacles

 c.      What were the main obstacles encountered? How were they overcome? No more than 500 words
As previously described, making regional issues real enough for citizens is challenging because often their local impact may not be immediately evident. Compounding this was the earlier public image Metro Vancouver had developed which was largely characterized by indifference or simmering animosity. Thus traditional indifference to regional issues was compounded by cynicism and distrust which together formed a daunting negative inertia to overcome.

To address this barrier, Metro Vancouver employed three strategies: one, it aligned itself with existing programs that had already developed a measure of public acceptance and credibility (the WUF community breakfast series); two, it developed partnerships with respected public organizations as it expanded its public outreach programming (VanCity with the community breakfast series, regional Chambers of Commerce/Boards of Trade with the sustainability dialogues); and three, it deliberately engaged in public discussions and debates that had little or no direct link to any of Metro Vancouver’s legislated mandate, plans or services.

Metro Vancouver also demonstrated ongoing high level commitment to the process, with the CAO being personally engaged in community engagement activities more often than not, taking care to adopt an ‘engaging’ style rather than the ‘hard sell’ of some earlier times.

Over time, these strategies helped the region’s residents accept that Metro Vancouver was seriously interested in engaging the community in discussions on topics of vital regional importance, and not because Metro Vancouver had a vested or proprietary interest in the outcome of those discussions, but because the discussions themselves were critical to the long-term sustainability of the region. As a result, Metro Vancouver gained a reputation as being both a legitimate convenor of stakeholders on issues of community significance and a recognized regional leader in helping identify the actions that need to be implemented to secure the livability and sustainability of the region.

(d) Use of Resources

 d.      What resources were used for the initiative and what were its key benefits? In no more than 500 words, specify what were the financial, technical and human resources’ costs associated with this initiative. Describe how resources were mobilized
The total 2011 budget for the Community Breakfasts and Sustainability Dialogues is approximately $175,000 – comprising venue rental, catering, audio-visual services, event coordination and moderation, and other assorted consulting fees – plus another $250,000 in salaries and benefits for a total budget of approximately $425,000.

The total budget for the 2008 Sustainability Summit was approximately $50,000 in hard costs (venue, catering, consultants’ services, etc.), plus roughly $60,000 in staff time, for a total of $110,000; the 2011 Sustainability Congress incurred similar costs.

In addition, and related to this initiative, Metro Vancouver conducts almost continual public consultation or information sessions on capital projects and proposed policies or regulations. It was in this context that the first prototype of public engagement was conducted, as discussed under question 3. However, these ongoing consultations are seen as more conventional and separate from the intuitive described in this submission and therefore their costs, which are considerable, are not included here.

A unique component of the Sustainability Summit and Sustainability Congress was the use of a participatory democracy model for the development of action steps flowing from the discussions that took place at both events. Using state-of-the-art wireless voting devices and real time tabulation of results, attendees provided direct feedback to Metro Vancouver on their views regarding the path forward towards the achievement of a sustainable region, a feature of both the Summit and Congress that greatly enhanced the legitimacy of the exercise and helped fully engage participants in the discussions that took place.

The use of online applications for the archiving of Sustainability Dialogues, the Sustainability Summit and Sustainability Congress also helps provide an historical perspective on the development of Metro Vancouver’s public outreach programs, and serves as an ongoing resource for residents of the region who have an interest in these programs or who are seeking information on past events.

Sustainability and Transferability

  Is the initiative sustainable and transferable?
Metro Vancouver’s Public Outreach and Engagement Programming has grown from its small beginnings in the early 2000’s into a mainstay of the sustainability calendar in the Metro Vancouver region; attendance at the dialogues has remained strong over the past 3-4 years, while breakfast audiences have actually grown. Depending on location and time of day, attendance can range from as low as 35 to as high as 150 or more. The legitimacy and transferability of this model as a means of engaging the community in discussions about the future of the region is borne out of the recent increase in the number of similar programs that are being introduced by other regional organizations such as the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University and by the interest expressed by other jurisdictions in adopting the model. In just the past 2 years, no fewer than 4 Canadian local governments (the Capital Regional District in the Victoria, BC region; the City of Calgary; the City Edmonton; and the City of Halifax) have each expressed an interest in starting either a local dialogues series or a community breakfast “chapter” in each of these metropolitan regions. Metro Vancouver has been very willing to share experiences and lessons learned related to the day-to-day management of their dialogues and breakfasts with other interested parties, and continues to actively promote these initiatives to other interested parties as a means of enhancing direct citizens’ involvement in the discussions and debates that so directly impact the ongoing sustainability of the community.

Lessons Learned

 What are the impact of your initiative and the lessons learned?
Metro Vancouver’s experience in developing its Community Breakfasts, Sustainability Dialogues, Sustainability Summit and Sustainability Congress has shown that collaboration enhances the community’s capacity to address the complex problems we all face, because it engenders a sense of shared responsibility and a call to action. Metro Vancouver’s public engagement program has also allowed it and participants to understand that trade-offs sometimes need to be made to meet sustainability goals, and to acknowledge that by working together, we can identify and implement those trade-offs.

Perhaps most importantly, however, Metro Vancouver has recognized that by creating a public engagement environment characterized by great energy and a commitment to change, society’s trust in public institutions can be significantly strengthened. Any government body – whether local, regional or national – retains its legitimacy only through maintaining the community’s confidence in its ability to follow through on its commitments. Through its Community Breakfasts, Sustainability Dialogues, Sustainability Summit and Sustainability Congress, Metro Vancouver has enhanced its role as a convenor of sometimes competing public interests, and reinforced public perceptions of its commitment to a sustainable future.

With the Sustainability Summit and Congress in particular, Metro Vancouver has earned significant political capital by providing an opportunity for hundreds of citizens from across the region to collaborate in setting a sustainability agenda for action. A poll conducted at the beginning of the 2008 Summit conclusively demonstrated that a significant majority of attendees had previously participated in Metro Vancouver’s public outreach programming, through either the Sustainability Dialogues and/or Community Breakfasts. This previous engagement and participants’ faith in Metro Vancouver's participatory process directly contributed to both a broadly accepted consensus on the visions for success addressed at the Sustainability Summit, and the development of a number of challenging objectives over the short to medium term.

The results of the 2011 Sustainability Congress were even more indicative. Not only did the delegates identify Metro Vancouver as the body best able to facilitate addressing four out of the five major issues identified as being critical to the future wellbeing of the community themes (none of which are in Metro Vancouver’s formal mandate); it also emerged that the need for ‘connectedness’ to each other, to community, to government, was seen as the rising challenge of the next decade in this growing region and Metro Vancouver was clearly identified as the one body which should take responsibility for coordinating a region wide response to this challenge.

Ultimately, Metro Vancouver’s public outreach initiative demonstrated the truth of a long understood lesson which needs to be re-learned and re-demonstrated again and again. The license to govern – to decide, to direct, to inform, to coordinate – must always rest on the demonstrated willingness and ability to listen and understand. Listening to the community is not a passive act. It takes resources, courage and resolve. But if properly applied, resources, courage and resolve yield remarkable and vital results.

Contact Information

Institution Name:   Metro Vancouver
Institution Type:   Government Agency  
Contact Person:   Heather Schoemaker
Title:   Department Manager, Corporate Relations  
Telephone/ Fax:   604-314-4922
Institution's / Project's Website:
Address:   4330 Kingsway
Postal Code:   V5H 4G8
City:   Burnaby
State/Province:   British Columbia
Country:   Canada

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