In retrospect now, when I first found myself in a room talking citizen engagement, I didn’t REALLY get it. I had come out of the education sector and had just implemented a fairly large legislative and policy change that allowed for a robust k-12 online learning system in the Province.
Citizen engagement? Who has the time? That my first thought.
Had we done citizen engagement in my old world we would have never made the legislative window. And furthermore, what if parents wanted something different, or what if students had ideas that we couldn’t possibly implement? My mind was rife with skepticism. I struggled with understanding the value and the return. Talk to citizens, but why? I knew what was required, after all, I was a career public servant, a lifelong bureaucrat, an e-learning expert <facepalm>. I knew best.
It’s funny where inspirations come from. Shortly after moving into my citizen engagement role, I took a hiatus to work at the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver. I spent two weeks in the heart of the Olympic throng – Robson Square wearing the famous blue jacket, the “Ask Me” pin and wielding giant map of Vancouver. Most local Vancouverites who visited Robson Square felt tremendous pride and ownership over the venue. You could tell that locals were engaged by the number of comments they had daily, ranging from cleaning suggestions, to recommendations on better art placement to nightly entertainment commentary.
I realized that beyond the people in blue jackets, there was really no way for citizens to have their say. Which got me to thinking during one of my late night shifts:
· What if we would have got citizens involved in planning the venue?
· What if there was a website where citizens could make suggestions?
· What if citizens could get involved in ways they wanted, cleaning the venue, wearing those “Ask Me” pins, blogging about the history of the venue or tweeting their experience as locals living in a city transformed?
I saw then and there just how citizen engagement would have created a very different experience. And yes, it would have taken time, but, it would have been worth it. So there it was right in front of me, wearing my blue jacket, map in hand, surrounded by thousands of citizens, I had my ah-ha moment.
Three years later, I still don’t claim to “totally get it” but as I develop engagement initiatives or support others with doing so, I try to remember that experience, that lifelong Vancouver resident who just wanted someone to talk to, a place to go, a web site URL so she could make a “few suggestions”.
You can hear more about my experience designing engagement initiatives and what we have learned through engagement projects like www.bcjobsplan.ca at the GTEC Ignite Panel on November 6th. You can check out all of the BC government’s latest citizen engagement initiatives at http://www2.gov.bc.ca/govtogetherbc/.