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Dammed if we don’t: How a hydro project drove public participation innovation

When time was running out for New Brunswick’s largest hydropower station (the Mactaquac Generating Station), its owner had a big decision to make. Potential solutions would cost billions, and the province’s ratepayers would foot the bill.

NB Power understood that robust public engagement would be essential to supporting a durable decision that New Brunswickers could understand and get behind.

Strong communication and a well-designed engagement process generated the input of thousands to help shape this important decision. NB Power’s Deborah Nobes (Manager, Special Projects) and NATIONAL’s Chrystiane Mallaley (Vice-President, Strategic Communications & Public Engagement & Acting Managing Partner of our Ottawa office) had the privilege of co-presenting the Mactaquaction engagement project at the 2018 International Association of Public Participation North America Conference in Victoria, British Columbia.

Here is a summary of Deb and Chrys’ learnings from the Mactaquaction project that you can apply to taking public engagement to the next level in your organization.

Credible and trust-building public participation is led from the top.

There’s a lot of talk about public engagement these days, but ultimately, the success of any process hinges on strong corporate commitment, and that needs to come from the very top. Commitment to the process, to the time and resources required to do it well, and to doing something meaningful with the input participants provide, even if you don’t like what you hear.

Good engagement requires strategic communications.

It doesn’t matter how thoughtful an engagement process you’ve designed – if no one beyond the usual suspects knows it’s happening or why it’s important, and if they’re not motivated to participate in some way. For public engagement on the future of the Mactaquac Generating Station, we wanted as many New Brunswickers as possible to know that a big decision needed to be made, it was going to impact them personally, and that their input was important. Doing this required a compelling narrative and a comprehensive, integrated communications strategy to invite New Brunswickers to the conversation.

Put the participant and their experience at the heart of engagement design.

So you’ve got people’s attention, now what? Different audiences have varying interests and engagement expectations. And one size does not fit all. For the Mactaquaction project, we knew we had to provide a number of opportunities for New Brunswickers to participate at the level of their interest – from open houses and community dialogue sessions, to an interactive, easy-to-use online engagement tool.

We must all be champions for good public engagement.

People have the right to information and a say about the decisions that stand to impact them. And the expectation of meaningful consultation and engagement is not going away. Our advice to organizations is to make these processes work for you. Use them as opportunities to understand your stakeholders and what’s most important to them, and use those insights to make better decisions. You will gain credibility, build trusting relationships that strengthen your reputation, and bring benefits to your business and the community.