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Karen Zypchyn is always on the lookout for new ways of using technology to tell stories. She taught journalism at MacEwan University, and before that was a reporter for CBC Radio, stationed everywhere from Sudbury to Yellowknife. But when she noticed her work was becoming increasingly collaborative, Karen decided to double down and move into the world of stakeholder engagement — and it wasn’t long before she saw similar opportunities in the world of evaluation.

Evaluating a public engagement project may seem like a subjective process, but research shows there are universal targets to consider and measure. For one, Karen says that when people engage their city, they expect to learn something along the way. They also want to be involved early — not as an afterthought. And most importantly, they want to feel that they are actually influencing the decision being made. “There are quite a few targets to hit,” Karen says, likening the process to “an octopus squared, with so many different arms that are moving.”

And yet when evaluation is done correctly, new stories emerge. Karen recently wrote a white paper for the International Association for Public Participation (IAP2), examining the problems and opportunities that come with evaluating public engagement. “The big conclusion of my paper was that there has to be more collaboration between researchers and the practitioners,” she says. There are proven, effective research tools out there. The challenge is to make sure that practitioners find these tools and put them to use.

Beyond her work on the evaluation side, Karen believes in public engagement as a citizen, too. She believes that engagement gives people a sense of belonging, which makes them healthier and more connected. “We feel that we have some control over our environment,” she says. “I call that good citizen medicine.”

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