Engaging the public with virtual open houses

May 5, 2020

Necessity is the mother of invention, as the saying goes.

For Enbridge Gas Inc., the COVID-19 pandemic has meant moving public consultation activities for important projects online so the Ontario-based utility could continue to serve its 3.8 million customers safely and reliably.

“A key part of the regulatory approvals process here in Ontario is the environmental study that’s required for proposed projects,” says Neil MacNeil, Director of System Improvement (Engineering) with Enbridge Gas. “That includes consulting with Indigenous communities, the public, and regulatory authorities on the project, potential routes and impacts. In the past, we’ve used traditional, in-person open houses to do much of that consulting. But we knew we needed to get creative when the pandemic arrived, and large public gatherings were no longer permitted.”

With replacement and reinforcement projects proposed to begin in the London and Stratford areas of southwestern Ontario in 2021, Enbridge Gas settled on a virtual open house format for both.

The Enbridge Gas open house team modified materials to be digital-friendly, developed scripts to accompany presentations, and shared details to the public through social media, newspaper notifications and letters containing a link to the virtual session.

“We created a pre-recorded slide deck with audio that people could access any time,” says Kelsey, an Enbridge Gas environmental advisor. “We typically do in-person open houses after work hours, but since many people are working from home and may not be keeping typical 9-to-5 hours, we wanted to give them the opportunity to view the open house at any time that works for them over a two-week period.

“Participants can also click through to a particular slide they’re interested in, stay longer on one slide, or rewind.”

While it's early days for the new virtual format, it does seem to be popular. The first virtual open house, focusing on the London region, wrapped up May 1 with 514 views and 19 questionnaires completed—about 20 times the turnout of Enbridge Gas in-person open houses, which generally garner an average of 25 people.

“The virtual format is one we’d certainly consider continuing to use even after the pandemic restrictions ease," says Cindy Mills, Manager of Municipal, Stakeholder and Indigenous affairs at Enbridge Gas. “If more people are attending because they find it more convenient than going to an in-person open house, that means we’re better engaged with the communities we serve. This may end up being another great tool in our toolbox.”