The Halton Region Citizens' Reference Panel involved 36 randomly-selected participants deliberating on the community's priorities and challenges in order to make informed policy recommendations for the Regional Council.
Problems and Purpose
The Halton Region Reference Panel brought together 36 randomly selected residents to learn about the Region’s programs and services and make informed recommendations for Regional Council to consider. The Panel was a new tool for decision-makers to involve citizens in public policy. It provides Regional Council with a clearer sense of the Halton community’s priorities and values.
Overall, the Panel had three tasks:
- To learn about the programs and services offered by the Region;
- To consider the challenges and issues facing Halton in the years ahead;
- To identify common values and priorities, and make recommendations based on those values and priorities to inform Halton Regional Council’s development of their four-year strategic work plan.
Background History and Context
Halton Region is a regional municipality in Ontario, Canada. It is located in Southern Ontario, in the southwest part of the Greater Toronto Area. Halton Region has a population of over 500,000, and a land mass over 967 km2. Halton must plan for a total of 780,000 people and 390,000 jobs by 2031.
Each new term, the newly elected Halton Regional Council develops a strategic work plan that sets out its priorities and establishes its strategic direction for its term of office. The strategic work plan provides a framework for decisions that need to be made relating to the Region’s budget and how the Region delivers important programs and services. To seek the ideas, perspectives and advice of Halton residents on these important matters, in 2010, Halton Regional Council decided to create the Region’s first Citizens’ Reference Panel.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
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Participant Recruitment and Selection
The members of the Halton Citizens’ Reference Panel were selected through a Civic Lottery. Ten thousand households across the Region received a letter from Regional Chair; this was an invitation to nominate one member of the household to volunteer to serve on the Panel. The households that received the letter were selected through a randomly generated list of Halton postal codes. Saying yes to this invitation required volunteers to commit to four full Saturdays over five weeks.
Over 550 residents volunteered. Another 500 expressed interest in the process but were not able to commit to the full four days. From the pool of respondents who said yes, 36 were blindly selected to fulfill certain attributes, including age, gender, geographic location, whether they rented or owned their homes, and short or long-term residency in the Region.
Methods and Tools Used
The Citizens’ Reference Panel model differs from traditional methods of public consultation. It gathers a representative group of the public for several daylong sessions over multiple months, and provides opportunities for informed discussions and reflection on the competing factors that accompany difficult decisions. Following a dedicated curriculum, the panellists come to a common understanding of the key issues and identify priorities on behalf of their communities. They deliberate on the implications of these priorities, and make informed recommendations to decision-makers. In this way, the Citizens’ Reference Panel gives citizens the insights and tools to translate their opinions and ideas into credible advice that decision-makers can use to inform their choices. The process allows citizens to speak for the shared interests of their community, and not just from the position of their own personal experience.
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
Day One: Saturday, Jan. 8, 2011
The 36 panellists met for the first time on January 8th, 2011. They were welcomed by the Regional Chair and Chief Administrative Officer, who explained that the Panel was a pilot project to discover new ways to engage residents in strategic planning.
Next, Panel members were invited to stand up and spread out across the room as if it were a large map of the Region, standing in the approximate location of their hometown; this illustrated the geographically diverse and representative nature of the group. Panellists introduced themselves and talked about why they had volunteered to be a part of the Panel.
This first day emphasized learning. After an introductory presentation on the division of responsibilities between levels of government, Panel members completed an activity to familiarize themselves with the services and programs offered by Halton Region. Next, Panelists were presented with the results of a survey on regional service and living satisfaction, to understand the concerns and contentment of the wider population.
Panellists spent the balance of the afternoon hearing presentations from regional staff members. Each presentation included an overview of how the Department works, its responsibilities, and the challenges of providing services in a tight fiscal environment to a changing population. Panelists also learned more about pressing issues for Halton including projected future growth, and poverty.
After a long day of learning, panellists gathered at their small tables to discuss what issues struck them as important for discussion over the next few Saturdays. Each table was lively with hands flying and heads nodding as panellists deliberated the merits of intensification plans, expressed frustration over infrastructure lags, and wondered how Provincial cutbacks would affect Regional services. After an intense discussion, some popular issues were identified by most of the tables:
- The aging population and service delivery for seniors
- The pressures that a growing population could put on Regional finances
- How to manage the influx of both Canadian and international families to the Region
- The infrastructure and financial needs related to Regional growth.
Day Two: Saturday, Jan. 15, 2011
Day Two began with two presentations from community experts. First, the Executive Director of Community Development Halton presented the Panel with an overview of the Region’s social profile, based on socio-demographic characteristics of Halton residents. Looking at the changes between 2001 and 2006, census data shows that although Halton’s population continues to age, growth will come from migration and immigration, and that these new Halton residents will mainly be young families.
Finally, the presentation reviewed the implications of poverty in the Region, and emphasized the reality and seriousness of the needs of low-income residents and families.
After a short break, Panel members gathered in groups of seven or eight at small roundtables. They shared and then recorded what they liked and valued about their communities on a long list and then reported back to the group. As Panel members shared their lists, they eliminated any duplication and asked each other questions to clarify the meaning of suggested values.
They agreed on five values to put forward to Regional Council for consideration during their strategic planning process. These values later became criteria for assessing the Panel’s own recommendations, ensuring that they broadly supported members’ expectations for their communities.
The 5 values were:
- Social Inclusiveness: Halton Region is a welcoming place where people have a sense of belonging and have an opportunity and the tools to succeed.
- Affordability: It is important to be able to afford and responsibly deliver the services that make Halton Region an equitable place to live. This entails a commitment to sustainability, efficiency, and economic expansion.
- Ecological Responsibility: Recognizing the value of sustaining and improving our use of our natural resources to keep Halton appealing and inviting to new and current residents.
- Mobility and Accessibility: It should be easy for everybody to get around Halton Region via a region-wide integrated transportation system that balances economic efficiency and affordability.
- Responsiveness and Adaptability: The ability to act on the input and adapt to changing local needs, through effective communication and engagement with local communities, neighbouring regions, and different levels of government.
Panel members spent the afternoon identifying and deliberating on important challenges for Regional Council to address in the next four years. First, they gathered in small tables to create a long list of potential challenges facing the Region, drawing on the information they had learned through the presentations by Regional staff and community experts. They recorded these challenges on coloured cards. Each table shared the results of the discussion with the rest of the room, discovering several similarities.
The challenges corresponded to five themes: Economic Issues, Environmental Issues, Social Issues, Transportation Issues, and Quality of Life Issues. Each table was assigned one theme. Panel members gathered up all the challenge cards that fit under their theme and worked to eliminate duplication and cluster similar challenges to create a short list of challenges for each theme. Finally, panellists plotted these refined challenges according to high and low priority for the Region, and whether they felt the challenge should be addressed in the short or long term. This was the first in a sequence of prioritization exercises panellists would complete over the next few weeks as they considered the challenges and created recommendations for Regional Council.
Day Three: Saturday, Jan. 29, 2011
Panel members returned energized from a two-week break and used the first hour to ask questions and seek clarification about presentations from the first two sessions. They wanted more information about commuting patterns, employment sectors, and wait lists for assisted housing in Halton. The Strategic Planning and Policy Division provided this additional information and hosted a question and answer session to ensure everyone felt comfortable with the vast amount of information they had received.
Next, the President of the Oakville Chamber of Commerce, made the final community expert presentation. He spoke about the role of small business and economic development, the need for attracting jobs in the Region, and need to strike a balance between financial, environmental, and social sustainability.
The Panel’s next task was to revisit the list of challenges they had identified and prioritized during Day Two. Splitting into their theme-based working groups, Panel members explained unclear challenges, noted and in some cases eliminated challenges that were outside of the Region’s responsibilities, and looked carefully to see if any important issues were missing. Finally, each group re-prioritized their challenges to account for any changes. In the final activity of the morning, panellists drafted recommendations to Regional Council based on their top challenges. In partners or groups of three, Panel members crafted three to five recommendations for each challenge. They discussed options that were within the Region’s jurisdiction, reviewed how the options supported the group’s values, and decided between recommending swift action or further study of the issue. Facilitators at each table collected these recommendations to distribute for revision during Day Four.
After a short lunch, panellists gathered in the auditorium of the Regional Centre to welcome more than fifty Halton residents to the Public Roundtable Meeting. Fifteen tables were assigned one of the five themes for a total of three tables per theme. As members of the public filed in they were asked to sit at a table with a theme that interested them. Two or three Panel members were at each table to greet the community members and help facilitate the discussion. Guests were provided with an overview of the Citizens’ Reference Panel process to date.
Each table held several activity cards outlining individual challenges for that particular theme, and participants were to discuss whether these challenges made sense, and to add their own thoughts. Every 30 minutes (2 hours total), the participants were given the opportunity to switch tables and begin a new conversation. Participants talked about their experiences living in Halton Region and expressed their hopes for the future. Panel members facilitated the conversations and had the chance to ask participants what they thought about the Panel’s chosen priority issues. The Roundtable gave Panel members an opportunity to hear back from the wider public on the work they had completed thus far.
When the Public Roundtable meeting concluded, Panel members assembled in their meeting room to talk about what they heard. While there were several strong interest groups represented at the tables, overall, the panellists were extremely pleased with the fresh viewpoints from the public. They found there was general agreement on many of the challenges and added some concerns raised that day
Day Four: Saturday, Feb. 5, 2011
At the last meeting, the Panel was given their most important task: to produce final recommendations for Regional Council to consider during Council’s strategic planning process. First, Panel members spent time in their themed working groups, revising their priority recommendations. Next, each table identified a member to visit a different working group to hear their recommendations, while one panellist remained at their table with a facilitator to hear feedback. Panel members were excited to learn about what other tables had been working on, and had useful suggestions for combining, clarifying and strengthening the language of the recommendations. When everyone resettled at his or her table, panellists reported what they had heard at other tables and listened to the feedback received on their recommendations.
They had 20 minutes to rewrite any unclear recommendations. Before the lunch break, Panel members had crafted 49 recommendations corresponding to 22 priority areas. After lunch, panellists returned to see their recommendation sheets, organized by theme, taped up on the walls. Now it was time to vote on their personal top priorities. Each member received 24 red ‘dots’ that represented 24 votes. They walked around the room in silence, reading through each priority and subsequent recommendations carefully, and placing their votes. Panellists could only vote for each recommendation once, and they were not forced to ‘spend’ all 24 votes. Prior to this voting exercise, a 12-vote threshold was set, meaning that one third of the panellists had to support the recommendation for it to be considered broadly supported. Finally, panellists broke into small groups to write their report. Panel members spent a busy hour capturing their thoughts in point form notes.
Wrapping up, panellists were thanked for their immense contribution to their community, and each Panelist was presented with a Certificate of Public Service and a book about Halton’s natural heritage. The Panel adjourned — members were all smiles for a group photo, and then had a small celebration to mark the completion of a momentous task.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
The Panel outcome was a list of 49 recommendations, with a list of "'Top Recommendations" selected through a Panel vote (each priority that received 12 or more supporting votes was considered a "Top Recommendation"). The Panel also looked across their themes, priorities, and recommendations, and made 7 observations. The recommendations and observations can be found in the final report.
The Panel helped inform the draft priorities for the 2010-2014 term of Halton Regional Council and the Citizen's Priorities for the Halton Region 2011-2014 Action Plan.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
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Halton Region Citizens' Reference Panel on Strategic Priorities 2015
 http://www.halton.ca/cms/One.aspx?portalId=8310&pageId=78634 [dead link]
Halton Region Citizens’ Reference Panel on Strategic Priorities
Halton Region Rural Agricultural Strategy p. 1.13