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Summary of public consultations

City of Ottawa Public Engagement Strategy

Project Overview and Methodology

Given that the City of Ottawa conducts over 100 consultations per year, Ottawa City Council identified the need for a Public Engagement Strategy as one of their Strategic Priorities.  This Strategy will apply to all City staff and provide guidelines and tools to support staff when conceptualizing, designing, implementing and evaluating public engagement activities. 

In March and April of 2013, the City initiated a public consultation process to find out how residents want the City to engage with them  with a view to shaping the final Public Engagement Strategy according to the public’s expectations of meaningful engagement.

Consultation activities were designed to obtain direct feedback on the City of Ottawa’s draft Public Engagement Strategy, including a set of draft core values and principles that were based on a best practice review of other municipalities, as well as materials developed by the International Association for Public Participation (

The following is a summary and analysis of the input resulting from the in-person and online consultation activities that took place in the Spring of 2013:

  1. Five public consultations held between March 25 and April 16 (total of 74 residents in attendance);
  2. Seven targeted focus groups as well as three sessions with community service groups (City for All Women Initiative; Federation of Community Associations; and Business Improvement Areas) held from April 4 to 18  (total of 116 residents in attendance);
  3. A bilingual online questionnaire which was made available from March 28 to April 26 (generating an average of approximately 350 responses per question);
  4. An online Ideas Campaign which was made available from March 28 to April 26 (generating a total of 33 ideas; 1020 votes, and 13 comments);
  5. Ongoing opportunities to provide general comments (such as comment sheets, edits to the values and principles, or briefs) submitted by mail, fax, email or by hand (65 submissions).

What We Heard

Participants in the consultation activities demonstrated a high level of understanding of the subject matter and were able to clearly articulate what they expected when it comes to meaningful engagement.  Most of the attitudes and opinions expressed were closely aligned with the draft Core Values and Key Principles of Public Engagement that were presented to them as part of these consultations and they had much to offer in terms of fleshing out the details for how these should be put into practice by City of Ottawa staff.

The most prominent theme indicated by participants was the strong desire to have the ability to influence the outcomes of a City project or policy matter that was of interest to them.  For the most part, this can be summarized as requiring three elements:

  1. Having sufficient time and notice to become educated about a subject matter in order to participate in a meaningful way and to provide informed input;
  2. Having the ability to participate early enough in the process, before a decision or concept is too far developed to be modified; and
  3. Having their input considered with the same ‘weight’ as that accorded to other sectors, i.e., developers or other business interests. 

Several participants indicated that they do not believe they currently had the ability to influence the outcomes of a City of Ottawa-led public engagement activity, resulting in growing cynicism and a lack of trust in the municipal process.  Many expressed a high level of dissatisfaction with past engagement activities because they had the impression that the City had pre-determined the outcomes and that public input, although solicited, was disregarded. 

Many participants also noted that an essential element of meaningful engagement was clear communication of the areas or topics where public input can influence the outcome.  In this respect, there was a strong perception that the City was not a very effective communicator when it comes to public engagement, whether this meant the promotion of an engagement activity, or explaining its objectives, how the input will be used, and the parameters of the discussion.  For example, if an activity is intended primarily to inform the public of a particular project, this intention should be clearly stated so as to not raise expectations that public input will be considered in an impactful way. 

Once adopted, the Public Engagement Strategy will help ensure that when City of Ottawa staff seek input on issues, that they do so in a manner that meets public expectations.  Comprised of guidelines and a supporting toolkit, the Strategy will be an essential component to promote trust and credibility in the engagement process.

Identified Elements of Meaningful Public Engagement

The following is a detailed compilation of what participants identified throughout the consultation process as required for future City of Ottawa public engagement to be meaningful:

  1. Provide Ample Information, Early In The Process — Participants Wanted A Solid Knowledge-Base Before Attending Events:
  • Better publicize engagement activities;
  • Provide as much detail as possible, as early as possible (not just a ‘primer’);
  • Make it accessible and easy-to-access on the City’s website (keep information together in one place rather than having to search for it);
  • Include detailed staff presentations;
  • Use plain language. 
  1. Start Engagement Early In The Process — Participants Wanted Real Opportunities To Shape The Outcomes:
  • Begin at the ‘conceptual ’ phase and build-in opportunities to share ideas  (e.g., ideas fair; community visioning exercises);
  • Don’t present pre-conceived decisions that are too far developed to review;
  • Allow for a diversity of opinions. 
  1. Be Open And Transparent — Participants Wanted The Full Picture:
  • Be clear about the true intent of the engagement;
  • Provide ‘real’ scenarios for consideration;
  • Provide all information whether it is positive or negative. 
  1. Provide Information On The Process For Consultation — Participants Wanted Clarity On What They’re Being Asked To Do And Where They Can Have An Impact:
  • Be clear on the parameters; don’t call it a ‘consultation’ if the objective is only to inform;
  • Be clear on where public input can have a real influence in the process;
  • Be clear about the project timelines and how it will unfold. 
  1. Create The Conditions For Meaningful Dialogue — Participants Wanted Real Opportunities To Engage On The Topics Of Importance Or Interest To Them:
  • Consultation questions must be relevant to the project and tied to a decision-point (i.e., so that responses are clearly related to the subject matter/outcome);
  • Plan for frequent and several phases of consultation;
  • Ensure equal weight is accorded to all input (community, rural, developer, businesses, etc.);
  • Allow for community engagement on the decisions that will have a significant impact on people’s lives (i.e., not just the smaller projects).
  1. Be Responsive To Public Enquiries — Participants Wanted To Be Respected And Feel They Are Being Listened To:
  • Staff should be neutral and attentive;
  • All enquiries from the public should be responded to in a timely fashion;
  • Staff should be courteous, interested and engaged;
  • Staff should be prepared and knowledgeable about the issues being consulted on;
  • Promote identification (e.g., name tags). 
  1. Report Back — Participants Wanted To Know How Their Input Shaped The Outcomes:
  • Report in a detailed fashion how public input influenced the project outcome;
  • Provide the analysis or justification outlining how input was used or not used;
  • Post summary reports on the City’s website and provide access to comments and materials. 
  1. Build Relationships With The Community, Especially At The Neighbourhood Level —Participants Wanted A More Collaborative, Community-Driven Relationship With The City:
  • Work collaboratively with community leaders and associations – support and enhance their ability to reach out to their networks;
  • Provide resources to communities so that they can properly be engaged on an issue; allow them to lead some of the engagement processes (e.g., ‘town hall’ sessions);
  • Create welcoming, safe, and comfortable spaces for participants to provide input;
  • When appropriate, target consultations to select neighbourhoods or relevant stakeholders;
  • Plan consultations at the local, neighbourhood level (i.e., not always downtown);
  • Tap into the expertise of local residents (such as retired subject-matter experts or community leaders that have the pulse of local residents);
  • Allow community members to work more closely with staff and the experts. 
  1. Be More Inclusive — Participants Wanted To Be Involved:
  • Go to the people, especially in rural areas (e.g., malls, coffee shops, community centres and sports arenas);
  • Respect the language rights of Francophones to allow them to become fully engaged and productive in the process;
  • Encourage all sectors to work together (communities, businesses, staff).
  1. Councillor Involvement And Support — Participants Wanted To Know Their Involvement Was Considered:
  • City Council support for staff-led consultation processes is important;
  • Improve the process for public delegations at Committee meetings, for e.g., by allowing more time for presentations and greater debate;
  • Provide increased resources to Councillor offices to promote and lead engagement programs.

Considerations For The City

The following is a list of considerations for the City as it develops the proposed Public Engagement Strategy.  These considerations are based on the analysis of the participant feedback captured during the consultations and an environmental scan of the online engagement policies and practices of other Canadian municipalities.

  1. Governance:
  • A number of municipalities in Canada have some form of central office to provide on-going advisory services to other departments such as:
    • Continuously researching and looking to implement best practices in public engagement.
    • Working with client departments to develop engagement strategies prior to initiating consultations (see ‘Methodology’ below), and ensuring adequate resources are provided for meaningful public engagement activities.
    • Providing assistance and oversight in the drafting of a Statement of Work (such as those included in Requests for Proposals) that have a public engagement component to them. 
  • A senior champion within the organization would assist in ensuring all staff are compelled to follow guidelines and procedures and adopt meaningful and appropriate engagement practices. 
  1. Meaningful Process/Methodology:
  • It is important to develop a solid engagement strategy prior to initiating public engagement activities.  Communications staff should be brought in early in the strategy development to be able to provide input into positioning and awareness-raising for engagement activities.  A central office, as described above in ‘Governance’, could also play a supporting role in the development of these strategies.
  • Staff should clearly articulate the type of engagement they are planning prior to going to the public and stakeholders.
    • Consider developing boilerplate material that clearly outlines to the public the type of engagement they are being asked to participate in.  For example, standard-form statements could be developed that indicate where a given engagement lies on the Spectrum (for e.g., “This is for information only.  Decisions on this project are near final because….’) 
  • Staff training on respectful/meaningful engagement and accessibility practices would help ensure consistency in how the Strategy is applied.
  • At the outset of an engagement program, stakeholders that may be affected by a project or policy decision should be identified and outreach programs developed to target them.
  • Policies on bilingualism and accessibility should be easily accessible to staff.  Guidelines that specifically relate to public engagement should also be provided (what needs to be translated; how presentations are to delivered; whether simultaneous interpretation is required; whether bilingual staff need to be present at events and if so, how many; etc.).
  • Resources should be provided to accommodate transportation and attendance needs for members of the public with disabilities or living on low-income, etc. 
  1. Information:
  • Guidelines to instruct staff on the type and depth of information that needs to be provided at the outset and throughout engagement programs would help improve communications efforts.  These guidelines could include information on: timeframes; depth of the content; legibility and readability; accessibility requirements; bilingual requirements; etc.
  • A protocol/guideline should be considered whereby staff are required to post all engagement information on the City website.
  • Boilerplates and templates for all consultation materials would help ensure consistency in the City’s public engagement programs.  For example:
    • Promotional – media advisories and releases; e-blasts; councillor communications; twitter feeds; etc.
    • Consultative – surveys; comment sheets; evaluations; various exercises, etc.
    • Reporting – media advisories; summaries; full reports; etc.
  • The City’s website should be enhanced to facilitate the posting of information (see below).
  • The use of more visuals (graphs, 3D renderings, etc.), video postings to Youtube and the City website, etc., should be encouraged. 
  1. Promotion:
  • A protocol should be considered to ensure the early, consistent and adequate promotion of consultation events (traditional and online).  For example, a protocol could be adopted whereby all engagement activities require a minimum of three weeks’ notice, with reminders.
  • The use of online and social media tools should be promoted, for example by drafting a corporate protocol and by providing adequate resources to properly manage the tools.
  • Communications staff should be involved earlier in the process and sufficient resources should be allotted to allow for the promotion of engagement programs.
  • A listserv (email database) should be created for City engagements.  Recipients should be permitted to self-select the types of consultations for which they want to receive notices.
  • City staff should work more closely with community associations and councillor offices to develop processes to promote consultations.
  • Consider publishing notices in the appropriate community papers (this may require a reassessment of the need to publicize in local dailies, with a view to directing funds to the most effective vehicles). 
  1. City Web site:
  • Consider developing a consultation portal (see ‘Online Engagement’, below).  The portal should meet accessibility requirements, and be focus-tested at the early development stage by community organizations and ‘unique need’ residents.
  • A protocol should be adopted whereby staff are required to post on the City’s website/portal all information related to an engagement program (similar to the City of Edmonton).
  • The City should consider enhancing its website to make it easier easy to browse and search. 
  1. In-Person Engagement:
  • The City should hold more consultation events in public centres, such as malls and community/sports centres.
  • Complement online engagement activities with in-person engagement.  Consider doing both (similar to the City of Calgary’s approach where online consultation should never be the only method of engaging the public on projects). 
  1. Online Engagement:
  • Online engagement guidelines should be developed to clearly outline how and when to conduct online engagement.  Similarly to the City of Calgary, the guidelines should also instruct staff on the limitations of online engagement (i.e., that in most circumstances, online engagement should complement traditional consultation rather than replace it).
  • Consider developing a consultation portal to provide a one-stop access to all current and past consultations. Build-in multiple tools to allow flexibility in online campaigns, such as:
    • Survey tools, listservs, crowdsourcing, forums, social media, etc.
    • Consider calendar, GIS-features, etc., to allow browsers to see when and where consultations are taking place in the City.
    • Allow for future innovations and the ability to incorporate external ‘plug-and-play’ services.
  • Consider building or purchasing access to an online panel (a community of pre-selected respondents that have provided their consent to participate in online surveys over an extended period).
  • Guidance and resources should be made readily accessible to support the development of appropriate surveys and questionnaires (for example, survey methodology). 
  1. Reporting:
  • A protocol should be developed for how to report the outcomes of an engagement program.  For example: a summary plus in-depth reporting; justifications for how input was used or not used; access to all comments and submissions.
  • The protocol should also provide guidance on how and when reports are shared with the public and stakeholders (e.g., within four weeks of a consultation; on the City website; emailed to participants; etc.).
  • Develop templates and ‘how to’ materials for reporting, such as matrixes to capture and report on comments; executive summaries; full reports on analysis; etc.

To obtain the full consultation report, please contact