Civic staff and nonprofit managers from Pemberton to West Vancouver gathered at Brew Creek to hear one of the leading thinkers on public engagement as part of a one-day "leadership intensive" sponsored by the Whistler Forum last week.
Matt Leighninger, head of the Washington, D.C.-based Deliberative Democracy Consortium, spoke about what was meant to be a blueprint for increasing Sea to Sky community involvement in those public bodies and social organizations that impact their lives.
The consortium is a network of global practitioners and researchers representing more than 50 organizations and universities, collaborating to strengthen the field of deliberative — or participative — democracy.
Leighninger's presentation, Planning for Stronger Local Democracy, has been shown across Canadian and American cities. He is also the author of an IBM report on using online tools to engage democracy, and a guide, Planning for Stronger Local Democracy, for the American organization, the National League of Cities.
"The way social change and political change can happen is when the two parties, government and community, can find common ground," Whistler Forum president William Roberts said in his introduction to Leighninger.
When the 18 participants were asked about their aims for the day, comments included the need to increase public involvement in meetings from people "who would rather be out riding their bikes," reaching the isolated, bringing new voices to the table rather than "the usual suspects," and wanting to make community engagement less of a task for those trying to break down apparent public indifference.
"How do you take the political part of life, which has been dragged out of people's lives this last 100 years and drag it back in?" he asked his audience.
"People are potentially better informed than ever before, but they are also busier."
In a later interview with Pique, Leighninger said he was trying to "help grow a field of practitioners... who do public engagement, meaning that they are bringing people into more meaningful roles, helping to make public decisions, (and) solving problems in their neighbourhoods and communities."
He said interest in his concepts has grown exponentially in the 17 years he has been working and lecturing.
"It's still amazingly diffuse, with all of these people working in different areas, on different issues," said Leighninger. "Most of the time, they don't know there are other people out there doing similar kinds of things, or that there are resources out there."
Leighninger said one of the main challenges was that sincere efforts to improve engagement run up against a lack of time and other work pressures.
"It's rarely at the top on someone's list, they have all kinds of other things to do in their jobs, so this is kind of often an add-on to everything else."