Modernizing participation in civic government: Part II

Post by Daniel Fontaine in


six million dollar man.jpg
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. 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


Wow. Nice work. I think I disagree with maybe eight words...

These are great recommendations. You can anticipate that Gregor Robertson will ignore them all as they were initiated by an effin' NPA hack. Unless his feedback comes wrapped in a Hollyhock bow, it is all but ignored.

Us little people without money and influence don't stand a chance with our silver spoon mayor. If you don't believe me then read the Sun's excellent piece yesterday on the Mayor's financial backers.

What disappoints me about your suggestions is that they only address contact points between City Council and the public (only one of many interactions the public have with City Hall over the life of a project, policy or issue). I'd like to know more about improvements that could be made in how staff consult with the public before a report even gets to Council.

I'd also like to know if there's any examples of your suggestions for improving Council/public interaction working in other jurisdictions that you could point to...or are you breaking new ground here?

half the challenge is the time taken between speakers for the banter between councillors on topics that are political - like which administration was responsible for the topic at hand, issues of order, issues of rudeness, issues of wanting to give the speaker at the podium more than their 5 minutes by asking open ended questions that can have someone there for 45 minutes instead of 5. It is totally disrespectful of those patiently waiting their turn. They should also move agenda items to the beginning of each session so people are not required to wait hours for their particular item to come up.

By the time it gets to council chambers we are engaging in political theatre - nothing more. Conversation needs to happen long before this point.

Well said Julia. & the grandstand ?s are usually a useless waste of everyone's time.

This is a great first start but what about some ideas on how we can increase citizen engagement before the politicians and staff have made up there mind. I agree that once the report is public with a recommendation from staff it is almost too late for the public input. I also think the standing committees memvers have too much power and are only there because they have political friends. Are there no other ideas out there besides what Daniel has given us?

With more infrastructre, more people, and a large GDP than Newfoundland we need more than just modernization - we need better representation.

It's time for us to reform broken government processes and implement constructive engagement that helps address community concerns by incorporating ameliorative measures into plans before they're approved, thus ensuring better communities while providing more predictability to business.

Communities deserve a say in shaping development in their area and should have input into the horse-trading involved in balancing density, neighbourhood amenities and necessary citywide infrastructure.

Developers need a more predictable, less ad-hoc business environment so they can accurately calculate costs and profits in each project before they've spend millions putting together proposals.

And spot rezonings, often the focus of much citizen ire, are undermining the entire planning process.

We need a new CityPlan that offers broad planning and zoning guidelines to help shape our city for the next 125 years.

One last thought - the concept of transit-based density coupled with respect for the existing character of neighbourhoods would go a long way to providing a framework for that new CityPlan that I believe stakeholders on all sides of these issues could support.

I used to work for a manager who would say,"I don't it when people come to me complaining about problems in the system as long as they also offer some options on how to fix the problems." This is good stuff.

Correction, he would say:

"I don't mind it when people come to me complaining about problems in the system as long as they also offer some options on how to fix the problems."

@Sean : The rule of three. "reform government processes", "implement constructive engagement" (my favourite), "incorporate ameliorative measures", "ensuring better communitites", "providing predictability to business"(OK, that's 4 words, but still...).

In order : communities DO have a say, but there is never concensus (and never will be); nothing could be a more "predictable environment" for developers than the traditional system of buying Council; spot rezonings have always been an arrow in Council's quiver and are sometimes necessary (see previous point); there's nothing wrong with the old City Plan, let's not waste time and money re-inventing the wheel.

A year and a half ago these Councillors campaigned for election claiming they belived in the things voters believed in, that they had the solutions to the problems which previous Councils had created or ignored, that they and they alone stood for transparency, open communication and so on. Sounds great, doesn't it?

A lot of people fell for it. But now all of a sudden once in office things aren't so clear-cut. They need to come up with a whole new way of finding out what the electorate wants.
On the stump they want what we want, only more so. In office, who the hell knows what those f**kin' hacks are after. They have better things to do than sit around all night pretending to listen to a bunch of whiners.

Your first 5 paras sound great too. But it's just the same empty rhetoric that infests political campaigns at all levels. Fundamentally it's an insult to the reader/voter's intelligence. Or it would be if people didn't keep falling for it.

Well put, Daniel.

As we all know, voter turnout in civic politics is pretty abysmal. In part, that can be attributed to rational ignorance. There simply isn't enough perceived difference in candidates, enough clarity about the context and meaning of proposed policy, or enough perceived personal impact of civic government as a whole to justify the investment of time to cast an informed ballot - or a ballot at all. And we certainly haven't succeeded in making it easy to get informed. Abstention isn't necessary laziness or disengagement - it's a rational tradeoff.

The barriers to entry that you have identified make actual engagement - beyond elections - even less likely for those have neither a) money to gain b) quality of life to lose nor c) too much time on their hands and a love of their own voices. Not that the changes you have identified alone would necessarily change that mix...

Richard Haas put it best when he wrote that "elections should not be mistaken for democracy." Nor, for that that matter, should democracy be mistaken for community.

You forgot to included issues of Councilors 'tweeting' or 'twittering' during session, which for me, speaks to a non-interest of the topic on hand, along with a general rudeness.

A policy needs to be instituted that all cell phones and PDA's need to be turned off prior to a council meeting.

@ Landlord, I understand the cynicism, but despite your assertion that communities do have a say, most community organizations in the city today will tell you they don't have any meaningful input into city decisions affecting their neighbourhood.

You also state that "there is never concensus (and never will be)", and yet here in North East False Creek, the False Creek Residents Assocation has worked proactively with Aquilini and CMP Properties to fashion an exemplary win-win amenities package that has garnered widespread community buy-in. There is also consensus on not wanting the new casino. So consensus is possible - not 100% lock-step unanimity, but general consensus of a majority.

And with respect, I don't think offering a relevant opinion on the topic of Daniel's post after a fellow commenter asked for specific suggestions is insulting to anyone's intelligence. It's an honest effort to try to identify what needs to be done to fix our broken government.

You have identified the most serious challenge - the broad cynicism among voters. I'm trying to identify ways to address that challenge. Both voices are necessary.

As to empty rhetoric, I'm also living what I speak, working at a number of levels within a broad array of organizations to address underlying challenges. In each case I'm working collaboratively with teams of people to tackle specific challenges and reach consensus on how to do so. It's challenging, but it's also possible.

The more ideas are tested by opposition, the more they're improved. And the more you give people a chance to help shape an outcome, the more they buy into the result even if it's not everything they wanted.

We can reform the processes of consultation and planning, and in fact we need to.

I am posting this here, despite being a bit off topic on hand, because it relates to the hypocrisy behind the so called MSM and other partisan blogger sites that are "open" to the discussion only when it suites their own or their party's point of view. Maybe because I'm upset, that's why. So I posted on Frances Bula's site a few hours back under the subject title 'Here’s how to have your say on Hornby bike corridor'
I was agreeing with Mira #4 (LOL) and Bill McCreery's (Exactly right!)post #7 asking 'Mezzanine' # 6 why it is so hard for him/ her to understand that any input on any future subjects or discussions addressed to the Vision gang is futile, keeping in mind that based on the recent events all they get from any speaker(s) who disagrees with their plans is generally considered white noise. They know it all already, you see. It was stamped approved for beforehand anyways (see the bike lanes "trial & consultation" on Burrard, Dunsmuir, and now on Hornby)I ended my post by saying that maybe 'mezzanine' didn't get it because his/her mind was somehow caught between the floors. Get it? mezzanine... So, for some unknown reason Fabula didn't like my comment, and my non endorsement of the fake public consultation that goes on at the City Hall currently. Not one bit. OK? Here's my 'participation in civic government' WEG

I haven't noticed too many posts or posters being denied their say on Frances' blog. My understanding is that if you include multiple links or post from an email address or computer that you haven't used before to comment on her site, your post will be 'moderated' ie it won't go live before Ms. Bula checks and OKs it.

There's at least three perfectly legit reasons right there why your post may be on hold for now. There may be even more that I'm unaware of

Most bloggers are happy to have dissenting opinions on their site. It provokes debate and draws an audience. Certainly is one of the better forums in Vancouver for allowing both sides to have their say. I'd be mightily surprised if you were censored, unless you said something profoundly biased, inaccurate, or engaged in a personal attack on another poster... which it sounds like you may have done based upon your synopsis. If you had a truly revelatory observation to make no website would think to censor you, esp. one concerning the news, where posting a good scoop is a great thing to be able to do.


Try posting on Tsakumis' Blog. I asked where he got his numbers from when he said bike lanes would cost this and that, he berated me, told me I was a hack, ignored my question and deleted/never 'approved' any of my subsequent posts.

It goes both ways! ;)

I'm on the opposite side of many posts on this board but one major positive for this blog is I've never seen anyone's post be denied. Kudos to that.

@ Sean

We can, and need to reform the way planning and consultation are done. But until the old guard are removed, and then it's only a maybe, will anything of substance change.

People can email the clerk to get on the speakers list or leave a message with the clerk so there is in effect, 24/7 sign up.

Regarding web video submissions, wow, that would be a mess. First of all, a group pushing an issue could simply get hundreds of people to submit video submissions. It would cost a fortune to wade through them all and then how would a city administrator sort through them. If council did not see all of them, then people would complain. Besides, the advantage of people appearing in person is that council can and does ask them questions. That is not possible with pre-recorded videos.

Why not just send the councillors emails or call them? That is easier, quicker and better than everyone recording videos.

A better idea might be one evening a week where people could go to city hall and address council on any issue.

Regarding assigning times, while in theory that sounds good, I'm not sure how that would work. For one, council is run by Robert's Rules so I'm not sure how items could be timed without limiting the right of councillors to speak their peace and debate items. Also, often speakers don't show up or speak for less than five minutes. Are council and staff just supposed to wait around if there is a speaker and their time has not come up yet? This would not be very efficient. Also, items can be approved on consent if there are no speakers and there is no disagreement on the issue. I'm not sure how this could be determined ahead of time.

I have to agree with Richard about video submissions. Is Council going to sit there and view the CofV channel on youtube? If they don't, who'd know? If they do, would it matter?

If you really want to reform the democratic process using the Net, put everything to an on-line vote.

Everybody on the voter's list gets a username and password on the City website and every Friday you vote up or down on that week's agenda items.
Such a system would unfortunately render members of Council, the so-called elected representatives of the citizens of Vancouver, instantly obsolete.

Any elector could request a report from staff on any issue and, if enough people logged on and approved it, would get a report with recommendations which would also go to an on-line vote.

I anticipate the objections (issues of privacy [although privacy is a myth], the risk of hacking, etc.) but those concerns exist within the existing system already.

The resulting loss of 1. municipal political parties, 2. their donors and apparatchiks and 3. the tiresome farce of elections with 30% turnout is reason enough to implement such a system as soon as possible

I assume this is the same Richard that regularly shows up to council to lobby on behalf of the cycling community? If it is, I assume you are funded to conduct your activities? If not, how do you manage to spend so much time at city hall and away from work? You must have a very flexible employer.

Richard, with all due respect, you are living in a bubble. Average taxpayers are not funded to sit around at Vancouver council for hours waiting for their issue to come up for discussion. Nope. They are out working and picking up the kids from daycare and paying their property taxes. That's why I've put forward a few ideas for consideration and debate.

I think you need to be a bit more open minded to new ideas that will help dilute the influence a handful of powerful lobbyists have at city hall. That said, I can fully understand why some lobbyists like the status quo - it seems to be working so well for them at the moment.

1:Make it easier to find when meetings are. There's an Urban Planning Committee Meeting today at 4;00pm in Committee Room One. Try finding it on the CoV site...

2:Getting on the speakers list is as easy as 311...if you don't like waiting to speak, well, maybe it wasn't that important.

3:Keep after it. Follow up with an individual councillor or staff. Take notes and refer to them to make sure they follow up-like on vehicle accident stats for the Burrard Street Bridge, which were promised for this Spring, but now we MIGHT have in September.

4: The people you see at City Hall "over and over" again are concerned enough to involve themselves in the democratic process. Would politics really be better as a video game?

Richard puts forth some reasonable counter-arguments and you pillory him for actually doing what so few people do, which is take an active interest in the city's development and then question his employment status and accuse him of being paid for his work in this regard?

Unless you can offer some significant proof to that accusation I think an apology is in order.

Very disappointing.

"Would politics really be better as a video game?". You think it's not a video game?
His Worship the Mayor had a film crew glued to his ass during the Olympics and at every good-news photo-op. There's probably some guy with a Betacam lurking in the forest bordering a certain Cortes getaway. All (almost all) Council proceedings are recorded and broadcast.
Dozens (perhaps a few more) of security cameras recorded everyone and everything during the Olympics (although they have supposedly been removed). Shopping malls have total coverage as do casinos.
All Skytrain facilities and many buses have video surveillance. Get into a cab and the camera comes on. The RCMP (and VPD) learned the hard way that everybody is carrying video cameras and posting practically everything they shoot.

It's pretty clear that TV has won the battle for the hearts and minds of the public and their so-called elected representatives. Who's going to run an ugly candidate?

On a related note, Translink is self-insured for liablilty. Their risk would be reduced by placing cameras on the front and back of the bus. That way you'd have solid evidence when some idiot cuts you off on his bike.

2 minute videos? Is that serious or a joke to see if people are reading?

How about coming to council and speaking for two minutes. Of course, it wouldn't require crossing the digital divide of those who don't have or know how to use their computers to record, encode and submit video. It wouldn't require council and/or staff to sit and not be able to ask questions to the newly-minted TV star.

If people can't be bothered to present they sure as hell shouldn't be pandered to with a 'video submission system'. If there were ever a technological solution looking for a problem that doesn't exist, this is it.

I've checked. you were right. Frances did post my comments later in the evening, so, I apologize for that...
I don't own a web site or blog so I don't understand how and why do they have to take the comment out like that. Aren't they able to see and read the same thing I do? Anyway. It's all good.

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