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Interview: Laura Brandes of the POLIS Water Sustainability Project

Posted on June 16, 2015

The June 19 POLIS Creating a Blue Dialogue webinar examined the importance of public participation and media engagement in influencing water policy and law reforms. Prior to the webinar, Water Canada reached Laura Brandes, communications director for the POLIS Water Sustainability Project, to discuss the public’s engagement in the development of the new Water Sustainability Act.

Water Canada: What is the importance of public participation in the process of reforming water policy?

Laura Brandes: When done well, public participation can have a real impact. I say “when done well,” because sometimes public participation is simply a tick box in the decision-making process, and there is limited capacity for governments or decision-makers to analyze and integrate public feedback.

In BC, however, throughout the development of the new Water Sustainability Act, the provincial government has provided multiple windows for public input, and there have been thousands of responses and recommendations from citizens over the nearly six-year process.

WC: Can you give us a quick rundown of how public engagement has influenced and affected the Water Sustainability Act?

LB: In 2010, the first opportunity for public input resulted in over 900 written submissions. In 2013, the government website for leaving comments was visited more than 12,000 times.

The really positive thing about the development of the Water Sustainability Act is that public response has been genuinely reflected and integrated as the government has drafter new papers or refinements. That isn’t to say every recommendation has been incorporated, but it shows the government has been listening, and has given public opinion some value.

But public opinion doesn’t only need to come through formal, government-led processes. Media can be a very valuable tool for influencing decision-making as well, and it’s a place where everyone can be empowered to engage and have their opinions heard.

WC: What can other jurisdictions learn from BC about public engagement and awareness?

LB: It’s critical that decision-makers actually listen to what the public has to say. In BC, the development of the Water Sustainability Act has been a transparent process. The government took the time to wade through and analyze thousands of responses, and has made changes to the legislation based on clear messages and trends heard in the public feedback.

We’re at any interesting stage now in BC, because the province is currently figuring out the details of a number of important regulations which will be the backbone of the act. There’s a chance that government will lead additional windows for public engagement, but for the most part these formal opportunities have closed. This is why I think it’s so important to understand how to effectively engage media so that citizens can continue to keep these important issues top of mind and influence the current regulations development process.

WC: What are some top challenges for water professionals trying to navigate today’s media landscape?

LB: Engaging the media doesn’t need to be difficult if it’s done well. Media is absolutely critical for raising awareness and building public opinion, and it really can influence decision-making. It’s a necessary component of any effective long term campaign, be that law reform, local issues, or awareness-raising.

More specifically, one major challenge is that environmental reporting is fickle. Engaging the media is about relationships, and building strong relationships with competent journalists and outlets can take a long time.

WC: What can participants of the Media Engagement and Water Law Reform webinar expect?

LB: One of the goals of this webinar is to provide some information and tools to empower people to engage with media. We know that decision making has increasingly been influenced by how environmental issues are presented to and perceived by the public. At the webinar, I will be joined by Dan Fumano, an award-winning reporter with The Province newspaper, and together we’ll paint a picture of the current media landscape as the backbone of today’s public sphere; offer some tangible examples showing the influence media has had on water law reform; and offer insight from our own experiences on those core challenges that can be barriers to effective media engagement.

For information on the POLIS Water Sustainability Project and all upcoming Creating a Blue Dialogue webinars, please visit http://poliswaterproject.org

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