When the Centre for Public Involvement, a joint initiative between the University of Alberta and the City of Edmonton, launched in 2009, Fiona Cavanagh was its first hire. As executive director, she oversaw a network of academics and practitioners, and helped use research and best practices to put public engagement to better use in all sectors.
One of the centre’s methods was a series of citizen panels, on issues ranging from climate change to urban food sources to the city’s snow-removal plan. Fiona helped recruit groups of panelists from around the city, with a range of backgrounds—not to mention attitudes. “We have people look deeply at their values,” Fiona says. “We try to engage people in more experiential learning as well, so they have a chance to go beyond their top-of-mind opinion, and really work through a challenge and learn a lot about an issue.” By the end of the process, panelists make a list of recommendations, which are then presented to the City.
Fiona was gratified by the response she saw from these panels, but she wasn’t surprised by it. “There’s this myth that citizens aren’t experts,” she says. “But they are experts in terms of values. They have great capacity to provide really in-depth recommendations, given the time and resources.”
Fiona’s interest in public engagement dates back to her earlier work in international development and human rights. And it carries through to her current position with the Alberta Public Affairs Bureau, as well as her volunteer work with her daughter’s school and elsewhere. “Really good public engagement is critical to great cities,” Fiona says. “The more diverse the voices at the table, the more likely we are to address some of these challenges, and have a city that are really inclusive and just for everyone.”