Unlike the Six Million Dollar Man, it wouldn't take much cash to update local city halls
In Part I of my series on modernizing citizen engagement, I discussed how the current system discouraged true citizen participation at city hall. A cumbersome and antiquated system helps to ensure that the views of the average Joe Citizen are rarely heard at the corner of 12th and Cambie or any other city hall for that matter.
Are there ways Mayor and council could immediately change the process to help encourage citizen participation? You bet. What follows are a series of recommendations on how Vancouver and other cities could modernize their public feedback process to ensure maximum public participation while possibly cutting costs.
Web-based submissions: Allow for citizens to make two minute video submissions from their home. The submissions could easily be shown in the chamber at the end of the in-person session - or any other convenient time. This would allow any citizen or business to use their web cam and make a permanent digital submission regarding their feelings on any given issue. This would also have the side benefit of significantly reducing the number of people who need to come to the chamber, hence reducing wait times to speak.
How could people achieve this? Simple – try the free social media tools used by millions. The City of Vancouver already has extensively used YouTube and other social media tools to promote city news. YouTube.com could be used as a simple vehicle for allowing "video responses" to any given issue. Those responses could be vetted for their relevance by a City admin and posted for council and staff to view.
Similarly, Facebook users could use Walls set up by the City on different topics and again, a City admin would make sure that any submissions would be suited to the discussion. The overall goal is to reduce barriers to entry – and allow people to use tools they employ in their everyday lives toward civic engagement.
Eliminate the first-past-the-post system: Currently if you want to speak before council, you need to contact the clerk’s office and put your name on a list. If a lobby group happened to phone in before you, this will result in your name being placed far down the speakers list. The reality is most lobby groups and standing committees are given a heads up as to when important reports are coming before council, so they have a natural advantage over Joe Citizen. Why not put all the speaker names into a random computer sorting system and have it chose who speaks first? This would level the playing field while ensuring everyone gets a chance to speak.
Allow for 24/7 registration: allow citizens to contact the 311 call centre and place their names on the speaker’s list, thus eliminating the need to contact the clerk’s office directly. This allows everyone 24/7 access to the speakers list and opens up city hall to people who actually work 9-to-5.
Frequent flyers: Find a way of allowing citizens who have not spoken to council in the last six months to be given priority when addressing elected officials. If you only show up to city hall only once in your lifetime, why should you have to wait behind a group of people who are there every month to watch the show?
Listen, don’t surf: I know this goes counter to current trends, but the use of technology by elected officials in the chamber during public presentations should be restricted. There should be no web surfing, email checking or Christmas card signing while the public is speaking to council. If elected officials need to do this on an urgent basis, out of respect for those individuals who made their way to city hall, they should step out of the chamber to do their business. Everyone (with the exception of the clerk's staff) who works in the chamber is guilty of this sin.
Live streaming submissions: Council could set aside time in their schedule each week to listen to streaming video submissions. Why not use Skype and allow citizens to speak to council without ever having to jump in their SUV and struggle to find parking at City Hall. The business and non-profit sector have been using this technology for years, it’s time council gave it a try.
Assign Times: Is there no way that council could organize its schedule and give people a pre-set time when they should show up to council and speak? Perhaps those managing the meetings at city hall could deploy some novel private sector techniques to help better serve their customers. One need only look at how amusement parks have streamlined their line-up system to see that innovation can go a long way in streamlining operations. What? You think there is no correlation between city hall and Disneyland? Then why does the public regularly refer to Vancouver City Hall as being so Mickey Mouse?
311 and social media: 30 second audio infomercials should be developed bi-weekly and could replace the “hold” music for 311. These commercials could alert the public to major issues coming before council in the coming weeks. In addition, an automated service could be established through one of the various social media networks to alert citizens of particular topics coming before council. If interested, the public could sign up for the automated service and be e-notified whenever a report is coming before council that relates to a specific topic area.
Mayor’s Shaw Show: In days gone by former Mayor Philip Owen used to host a half hour open line show on cable television to help answer questions about city hall and get direct feedback from voters. Whether it’s done through Shaw TV or through a live webcast, why doesn’t the Mayor consider restarting this tool as a goodwill gesture to all those folks he referred to as “effin NPA hacks”?
I’ve put out a few ideas for consideration on how this Mayor and council could immediately work toward simplifying the current citizen engagement process and make it more meaningful. There is nothing I've suggested that couldn't be in place prior to the 2011 civic election. Now it’s your turn.
Do you have any other suggestions for Mayor Robertson or other councils? What do you think of what we’ve put on the table? Unlike some people on council, we’re actually looking forward to hearing from you.
- Post by Daniel