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Nicole Swerhun, founding principal of Swerhun Inc., began her work in community engagement in Toronto as the city contemplated removing the Gardiner Expressway East, an aging piece of elevated waterfront highway. She continued in Bosnia as communities came together to rebuild immediately after the signing of the Dayton Peace Accord. She also organized processes for the rebuilding of a devastated neighbourhood in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

In the course of these diverse and often conflict-ridden processes, Nicole found that the mechanics of the processes were critical to success. Building on the experience and work of others in the field, she developed a set of working principles, techniques and tools that could be useful in a wide range of situations.

With her co-author, Vanessa AvRuskin, Nicole has synthesized these experiences and principles in this easy-to-use manual. Together, they describe these methods and their potential uses to provide a unique and pivotal contribution to the evolving art of community engagement.

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Discuss. Decide. Do.

Although it is now accepted that public engagement is essential for good planning and city building, there is not a clear understanding across the board of how to do it effectively, nor even its purpose. For some it is simply "getting to yes" (which implies selling a pre-conceived idea) but ideally it is true consensus building that begins a clear slate. 

The mechanics of public processes are critical. All too often unnecessary stumbling blocks are created  that make it difficult to proceed. For example, the process might have failed to engage a sufficiently broad range of interest groups, or there may not have been effective communication and means of recording feedback, or consensus on basic ground rules may not have been established at the beginning.

And that is where Discuss. Design. Do. will be the most helpful. It combines the lessons of the last 50 years with the current experiences of Nicole Swerhun and her colleagues. It is a straightforward, objective presentation of the tools that we all need to conduct successful public engagement in a wide range and topics.

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The Big Idea

The better the information people have, the better decisions they will make and the easier it is to find the common ground you need to take action.

Effective consultation manages risk.  It brings certainty to an inherently uncertain environment and puts your organization in a position where your work is championed by supporters and the process is defensible to criticism from naysayers.


THE SITUATION: People want more from the engagement process

There are a number of reasons why people want and need more from public consultation processes, including:


1. People have more access to information.

  • The internet has changed the landscape of knowledge. More people are able to educate themselves on any topic; they're also able to share their experiences with others.

2. People are more likely to question authority.

  • With more information people expect authorities to explain their decisions in a way that's consistent with the information they've learned on their own.

3. People have an expectation that authorities will listen.

  • There is a shift in power. Power used to be about who had the best access to information. Now, because everyone has access to information, it's not only about who's responsible or liable for making the decision, but also about the support decision makers are able to build.
  • Technology means people have a greater influence.  They can share experiences with communities across the city, province or country to make a bigger case for ignoring stakeholders (e.g. Upton Farm in PEI connected with communities have issues with CLC across the country).
  • People are now more capable than ever of exposing authorities that don't listen through the media and through connections with other stakeholders.              

4. People expect to be treated as investors.

  • Every government and public agency operates with the oversight of elected officials and is connected to taxpayers' dollars.  The public is aware of this and demands to be treated as investors or a board of directors. 
The breakdown of the barriers and the kicking out of the gate-keepers is a victory for democracy and for access, but it is also a nightmare for those trying to make sense of complex issues.
— Fieschi, 2012

THE SOLUTION: Effective engagement will make it easier to find common ground


1. You'll save time

  • By managing risk during the process you won't have to return after the process to respond to and address issues.

2. You'll be more aware of issues

  • By understanding the project or proposal from the perspective of participants you will understand what's important to them. This means you'll be able to take advantage of opportunities they identify and address specific concerns they raise.
  • By creating an effective two-way communication flow with participants, you will be able to share with participants the consequences of different potential paths of action, and their feedback and advice will be informed by knowledge of those consequences.

3. You'll keep the discussion focused on content rather than process

  • By delivering a defensible process you're helping to ensure that decisions are made based on the merits of the information available.

4. You'll build a bridge between technical experts and the broader public

  • By focusing on what and how messages are shared between experts and the broader public, you are in a position to help shape communications in a way that builds respect for the value of what different players contribute to the decision making process. This helps build common ground rather than reinforce divided positions.

5. You'll manage expectations and become a trusted information source

  • By giving participants a clear overview of the entire consultation process, you'll be creating an environment where all participants have a shared understanding of what, why and when certain decisions need to made.
  • By providing objective and balanced information, participants will know that a call to you will be more effective in answering their questions or resolving their issues than a call to an interest group or the media, who don't necessarily have a vested interest in telling a balanced story.
  • By earning the trust of participants, proposed actions will be considered thoughtfully rather than attacked. You'll earn the benefit of the doubt.
Nothing is more important in a cooperative system than communication among participants. When people are able to communicate, they are more empathetic and more trusting, and they can reach solutions more readily than when they don’t talk to one another. Over hundreds of experiments spanning decades, no single factor has had a large an effect on levels of cooperation as the ability to communicate.
— Benkler, 2011
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What it is:

Building relationships refers to establishing the opportunity to build a strong interpersonal connection between all people participating in the process. This includes the facilitator of the process, decisions makers who will receive recommendations from the process (typically senior civil servants and elected officials) and everyone who contributes to the development of those recommendations (i.e. public, stakeholders, etc.).


  • When there is a positive relationship between people there is a lot more tolerance, flexibility, willingness and space to see things from other perspectives. This is very helpful when many different interests have to negotiate to find the common ground needed to make decisions that are supported, and ultimately move forward.
  • Building strong relationships recognizes that any information a participant chooses to share is helpful, even if it’s negative. Showing that all feedback is valued increases the likelihood that participants will be honest about their opinions, giving you the opportunity to respond to them.
  • Mistakes and misunderstandings can happen.  They are easier to overcome with a strong and trusting relationship – it’s much easier to work together when people are willing to give each other the benefit of the doubt. 
  • Building strong relationships ensures a regular connection with participants from the beginning of the process through to completion.


Examples of how it matters:

  • At the start of many projects there is often an articulate, informed, vocal community leader that is extremely concerned and passionate about what’s happening. Often their opinion is based on a small subset of project-related information that has made its way into the public realm prior to the project actually getting underway. These leaders often feel they have a strong responsibility to protect their communities from the threat of apparent injustices that are being planned. It is critical to build relationships with these leaders – and this starts with earning trust, freely sharing information, and really investing in expanding their understanding of the work. This effort has proven time and time again to be worth it – these concerned leaders regularly transform into strong project supporters when an investment is made in building a strong relationship with them.


  • A regional transit authority was conducting a public consultation related to the design of a major new piece of transit infrastructure.  A participant in the process, who was a retired employee in the Provincial Ministry of Transportation and was very familiar with the technicalities of infrastructure planning, wrote a long email with feedback.  Although many of the points in the email were not relevant to the work or incorrect, there were a couple of points that contributed to the discussion. The relationship-building reply demonstrated an appreciation for the effort that went into providing the feedback, identified the feedback that was particularly helpful, explained at what point that feedback would be considered in the decision making process along with feedback from others. Focusing on the advice that has value is the key here.


  • Elected officials appreciate having opportunities to connect to their constituencies.   One important relationship-building option that can be very helpful involves working with those elected officials to distribute invitations or meeting notices through their office to their constituencies.  Some councillors will take you up on it and some won’t.  The offer in itself demonstrates that you have respect for the networks they are accountable to, and recognize the value of using their networks to reach out on projects.

Guiding Principles for Consultation that help create and maintain strong relationships:

  • Accountability. Provide accurate, timely information and demonstrate how it has made use of input received from participants.
  • Clarity. There will be well defined objectives for, and limits to, consultation and active participation during the process. Clarity regarding respective roles and responsibilities of all participants will be provided.
  • Timeliness. Consultation will begin as early as possible in the process to allow a greater range of opportunities and issues to emerge and to raise the changes of successful issue resolution.