Defining and engaging community in Ontario’s community benefits initiatives
Canada’s governments are investing billions of dollars in large infrastructure projects. If done well, this investment can generate significant social, economic and environmental value as well as empower communities to shape their own future – but only if communities are meaningfully engaged in all stages of the process. This is the main finding of Engage and Empower, a new report from the Mowat Centre.
Canadian governments have been increasingly turning to community benefits initiatives to transform the way they purchase, build, employ and think about economic development. The report finds that for such initiatives to be successful, community involvement must begin at the earliest stages. This will ensure that the way community is defined – an unexpectedly difficult task in developing community benefits initiatives – is inclusive and representative of the reality on the ground. Achieving this will require combining place-based and population-based strategies and using a set of guiding engagement principles to overcome potential tensions and challenges.
Once defined, it is essential to engage that community to understand the types of benefits that are most aligned with its priority needs, and to continue this engagement throughout the project as impacts are being measured and evaluated. This process of defining and engaging the community requires an ongoing relationship built on trust and collaboration, the report finds. It is critical that governments avoid an overly prescriptive approach and recognize, instead, that communities are dynamic and robust ecosystems – with existing networks and capabilities – and desire autonomy in the process of defining, articulating and negotiating the benefits to accrue through an infrastructure project.
As our research makes clear, governments in Ontario and elsewhere can, through their infrastructure investment, play a key role in providing support and building capacity for community participation – creating an enabling environment for existing and new groups and networks. Trusting and empowering communities to be part of this process and building lasting social capital is itself a key benefit of community benefits initiatives.
Community benefits initiatives are increasingly becoming a key consideration for governments looking to leverage public infrastructure investments to unlock greater economic, social and environmental value. The Government of Ontario has committed to the development of a Community Benefits Framework that all major infrastructure projects across the province must comply with by 2020. A key part of this framework and all future projects that aim to utilize community benefits will be how community is defined. Mapping out the impacted community in relation to a particular infrastructure project will be among the first and most important steps in the process of developing community benefits initiatives. This definition of community will have lasting implications in all stages of the project’s development – and thus it is crucial that this is done right from the earliest stages.
The process of defining community, and engaging that community to understand the types of benefits that are most aligned with their priority needs will require meaningful engagement and a relationship built on trust and collaboration. Governments have a responsibility to conduct due diligence to ensure that their conceptualization of community is representative of the reality on the ground. However, governments must also be careful not to be overly prescriptive in their approaches to defining and engaging community, and acknowledge that communities should and often do have the agency to represent themselves. Our research finds that there is no one-size-fits-all definition, and the definition varies based on context. Governments should define communities using an approach that combines both place-based and population-based strategies, and use a set of core principles to guide the process of engagement.
Community benefits initiatives provide a key opportunity to maximize the benefits from public infrastructure investments by fostering a more equitable and inclusive society. By putting equity at the heart of economic development and focusing on the most marginalized, community benefits can create shared prosperity and empower communities to build lasting social capital. However, our research has made clear that in order to achieve the greatest impact, governments must recognize that communities are dynamic and robust ecosystems – with existing networks – and desire autonomy in the process of defining, articulating and negotiating the benefits that they wish to see through an infrastructure project. As such, governments can play a key role in providing support and capacity-building efforts to enable the participation of communities – providing necessary resources to groups and networks where they do exist and creating an enabling environment where they do not.
This report is the result of a comprehensive consultative research process, including several key informant interviews, two design labs, a mapping session, public questionnaire, literature review and jurisdictional scan. We asked stakeholders from the public, private, non-profit and academic sectors, as well as the general public, for input on important questions about how community should be defined and engaged in the process of developing community benefits initiatives. This report outlines what we learned, and aims to provide guidance to the Government of Ontario as well as the broader system of stakeholders interested in community benefits in Ontario and elsewhere.
April 30, 2018