Public Engagement: Going Online Only

Appropriate engagement opportunities allow municipalities to make better decisions on projects or plans. Public input can maximize the benefits of a project, minimize any negative impacts, and provide new ideas or initiatives for communities. Since successful waste management systems rely on those that participate, getting public engagement in waste management planning ensures that those taking part get the opportunity to determine how they will participate.

In 2019, the City of Ottawa started to develop a new Solid Waste Master Plan (SWMP) to guide them over the next 30 years. The pandemic delayed and derailed traditional in-person open houses and meetings but planning initiatives and public engagement needed to continue. How has Ottawa pivoted to engage the public in order to move the SWMP forward? We interviewed Rachael Jones, Project Manager for Environmental Services at the City. She provided insight into three key areas of successful engagement: Method, Targeting, and Analysis.


How has the mix of communication channels changed since COVID-19

Communications have shifted from face-to-face to virtual “online only” engagement. Ottawa is using some of the same approaches to reach people, including a mix of earned media, media releases, website, and social media platforms, but we had to get a bit more creative in how we used these channels. For online outreach the Solid Waste team use the triple-S approach, keeping communications short, sharp, and straight to point with tools such as infographics and 15 second backgrounder videos. We are using Zoom to facilitate online workshops and focus groups, and the breakout rooms feature enables those ‘around the table’ conversations.

Rachel Jones, Project Manager for Environmental Services, City of Ottawa

Multiple methods of outreach have been shown to increase participation. How do you ensure that there is consistency between your different outreach efforts?

All our communications go through one key person, who coordinates, trains and works with consultants, solid waste staff, and facilitators. At the planning stage, we clearly set objectives, and answer the questions: what are we asking, why are we asking, and what are we going to do with that information? This helps to make sure the questions are consistent throughout all engagement activities. Also, we have encouraged open and ongoing dialogue with quick and direct responses to all SWMP questions received by phone, email, within forums, etc. All public questions are posted on the Ottawa SWMP website and our team has an aggressive goal to respond to all questions within three business days.

Do you use an online engagement platform to coordinate information?

Similar to other municipalities, we use “Engage Ottawa” to help keep residents informed of municipal activities. For the SWMP, we post backgrounder sheets to inform participants of topics such as “zero waste” and the “circular economy”. These foundation pieces then allow us to engage interested residents in surveys, forums, ideations (an open ideas space), workshops, and focus groups. This online platform offers the public a range of tactics for various levels/times of involvement from individual short input to group and long contributions. For example, residents can simply ask a question, provide an idea, or they can participate in workshops, engage in forums, or complete a survey.


What is your strategy for reaching audiences in underrepresented areas?

The City wants not just a high number of people involved in the SWMP but we want to reach a broad range of stakeholders. To ensure we reached as many as we could we completed a stakeholder analysis which also helped us identify stakeholders in the City’s ‘equity and inclusion lens’. The purpose of the lens is to make sure diverse perspectives are included in City decision making. Contacting stakeholders early helped us to establish relationships and ask them how they would like to be engaged. This was particularly important when we shifted online. It was good to find out early if they’ll have the time and inclination to engage. Last spring (April 2020), people overwhelmingly said they wanted to talk about something else (other than the pandemic). Once the connection was developed, participation was high as the engagement was tailored to either multi-stakeholder meetings or focus groups or one-on-one interviews.


What are the methods you use to track participation from different outreach efforts?

We are mainly tracking participation through Engage Ottawa surveys by asking respondents about their demographics. Particular attention is paid to making sure there are representative responses from the urban, rural, and suburban housing category split. The goals have been set by other “master planning” exercises completed by the City (for example 800 surveys was considered “good”). Engage Ottawa allows us to see how many times items, such as posted documents, have been opened. We have a Stakeholder Sounding Board comprised of 18 associations/organisation across the City and we track their participation. We track the total numbers of people who participate in meetings, focus groups, forums, online activities, Q&A, etc., but it would be good to also try to ask for demographics or geographical location of participants. Also, Ottawa is regularly posting “as we heard it” summary reports to explain succinctly to participants how feedback is being used and incorporated into the final plan.

Top three actions to maximize effective engagement

Overall, having a strategic, fair, open, and representative engagement in public planning processes, like Solid Waste Master Planning, can be challenging. Although the pandemic has shifted the process to new methods of dialoguing with the public, Ottawa has changed the approaches but kept an eye on the target. Further, engagement is being tracked and analyzed through an equity and inclusion lens as well as an evolving list of objectives to boost diverse perspectives.

In summary, Ottawa’s top three SWMP approaches are:

  1. One lead person coordinating short, sharp, straight, and ongoing communications
  2. Opportunities for individual and group engagement with tactics to participate that range from short to longer time periods
  3. Providing regular feedback to demonstrate the impact of engagement on the final plan and tracking participation and representation.

These method, target, and analysis approaches to engagement will lead to effective future waste management program implementation in Ottawa.

For more information contact Rachael Jones at the City of Ottawa.