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Stepping Up To The Plate: Developing Best Practices For Community Engagement And Public Consultation

By Chris Forrest

While wind energy is the fastest-growing major source of new electricity generation around the world, it is relatively new on the Canadian landscape. In countries like Germany and Spain, where wind provides between seven and 15 per cent of electricity, respectively, public opinion polls find a high level of wind energy awareness among its citizens. Most Canadians, however, have yet to set eyes on a wind farm.  

As voice to more than 450 industry members, the Canadian Wind Energy Association (CanWEA) recognizes and values the right of citizens to have a meaningful role in discussions about developments in their community. While surveys show the vast majority of Canadians support the development of wind energy, this support cannot be taken for granted – it must be earned.

CanWEA received strong backing from its Board of Directors to view 2010-2011 as a year where our industry needed to mature in terms of its local engagement and work with communities. We committed as a team to ensuring our mission statement – ‘promoting a responsible and sustainable industry’ – is more than just words. It is clearly understood that with increased growth, comes increased responsibility.

The first major undertaking within this mandate was the development and adoption of an Industry Code of Practice. These principals – for business conduct and standards of excellence – are to be the bedrock of all industry efforts going forward. In order to let local political leaders and communities know they are at the top of our key stakeholder list, we also decided to “put our money where our mouth is” by committing to the development of a comprehensive series of Best Practices for Community Engagement and Public Consultation. These best practices would be designed to guide the work of our developer members working “on the ground” in communities.

The resulting product – a 40-page document – outlines proven, step-by-step strategies for successful local engagement. It covers a spectrum of approaches, including effective media outreach, presentation skills, earning local support, diffusing difficult situations, while also offering a series of checklists and templates to guide the engagement work of a wind energy developer from start to finish.

The entire process took a full year from start to finish. In terms of steps, it looked like this:

1)      Support. It was crucial to begin the process with the full endorsement of our Board of Directors. We also conducted informal surveying of our senior members to determine their corporate support for our initiative. There was no way the project could succeed without full backing from both the Board and top-tier members.

2)      Establishment of an advisory or steering committee. We brought together a diverse group of members – ensuring representation from small to large companies. These members input their broad experiences in terms of “lessons learned” on the front lines.

3)      Project scope and timeline. The steering committee determined from a high level the overall scope for the project, and were in agreement that ‘best practices’ should be comprehensive and instructional in terms of tactics and strategies. Key stakeholder groups were identified. A work-back schedule for review, production, and release was developed. Action items and deadlines were determined, and roles/responsibilities assigned.

4)      Consultation. We consulted, and then we consulted some more. We held a focus group session through the Federation of Canadian Municipalities which allowed more than 45 municipal leaders to share their good and not-so-good experiences with us. We consulted directly and in small groups with hundreds of local leaders and planners via the Association of Municipalities of Ontario.

5)      Environmental scan. We looked at what other industries had done, whether it was the establishment of Best Practices or their broader work in developing a mandate for industry responsibility. Especially helpful was keen insight provided by Marc Choma, head of communications for the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association. As associations, we often try to “re-invent the wheel”, when there exists a significant amount of past experience and lessons learned from our colleagues.

6)      Expertise. We sought out and engaged experts in the field of communications, consultation and conflict management. I had the privilege of learning an incredible amount from individuals like Brian Strom of the Canadian Institute for Conflict Resolution, and Richard Delany, a respected trainer with the International Association for Public Participation (IAP2). These experts, and others, have continued to contribute to our responsibility mandate.

7)      Review & Edit. And edit some more. As one of the most important documents the association has produced to date, we wanted to ensure a high-quality product that our members could be proud of. The review process included the steering committee, the Board, select stakeholders, municipal officials, and the experts mentioned above. The editing process was stringent.

8)      Training. Rather than create a document to sit on a shelf, we committed early on to the continual review and updating as new standards and techniques are introduced. We also backed up our association commitment by customizing training, through IAP2, to ensure our members have the opportunity to receive certification in local consultation.

9)      Communication. In order to ensure the smooth distribution and communication of the document, and the association’s commitment to stakeholders, we created a comprehensive rollout plan. This included target audiences, media work, printing and digital distribution. The document is a cornerstone of our work going forward and a terrific “conversation starter” for stakeholder meetings.

The only caveat to the Best Practices for Community Engagement and Public Consultation is that they are not intended to substitute the specific and expert advice required in areas such as environmental assessment, aboriginal consultation, and regulatory compliance. We are of course encouraging members to do more than just meet provincial regulations for consultation, but to strive to exceed them when possible.

In many communities across Canada, our members have already formed long-term relationships with local citizens, businesses and municipal leaders in the communities where they are working. Our objective as an industry, however, is to strive for continuous improvement, and so our work has only just begun.

This undertaking ultimately provided a burgeoning industry association with a unique opportunity to deliver a significant service to its membership – while at the same time signaling to stakeholders a serious commitment to “responsible and sustainable” development.

 

These principals – for business conduct and standards of excellence – are to be the bedrock of all industry efforts going forward.

There was no way the project could succeed without full backing from both the Board and top-tier members.

As associations, we often try to “re-invent the wheel”, when there exists a significant amount of past experience and lessons learned from our colleagues.

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