BLOG #684: Our politicians and our bureaucrats say that are committed to citizen engagement and there was signs it’s true. There is progress on this front, but sometimes assumptions mess things up.
Friday, June 1, 2012 – London
London’s political leadership and the civic administration are learning to be more open and accessible and engaged with the citizens of this community. Perhaps not as quickly as they should, given how much attention is paid to the subject these days, but they are learning.
However, it’s the recurring little assumptions that still dog more rapid progress. Last week’s Lake Huron pipeline break was one good example.
City Hall communicators are hip these days to so called ‘social media’ so when the Lake Huron water pipeline broke on the morning of Wednesday, May 23, the alert went out to and through all the media – radio and TV, newspapers, Facebook and Twitter and City of London webpage. Citizens were asked to conserve water.
There were periodic updates throughout the first day and into the next when the break was finally fixed.
You might recall what happened next. Given we were in the middle of a heat wave, a lot of people rushed to crank up their dishwashers, have a bath, water the garden – and levels at the city’s reservoirs began to drop precipitously.
Finally, at 8 a.m. a week ago today, a mandatory outdoor water ban was issued. But well into Saturday many Londoners were unaware of the ban and were blissfully spraying away.
Matt Brown, councillor for Ward 7 brought the matter to city council’s Civic Works Committee this week. He wants the civic administration “to develop a communications plan to better inform and reach members of the public during emergency situations.”
What was clear in this emergency that just posting a message on Facebook or a snappy 140-character tweet on Twitter is not much more effective than the so-called old media. People are not connected 24/7, nor at many paying attention even when they are connected whatever the medium.
But hello City Hall, this is not news. So why were we caught so unprepared?
There are other options. Some communities use a form of robo-dialing to blitz residents by phone. Smaller towns crank up those rusting air raid sirens from the last century – hoping, one supposes, people remember what they’re for. Street-by-street loud speakers could be used. So could some form of the Amber Alert deployed for kidnapped children. Or banners pulled by airplanes. Or street hawkers.
But really, perhaps the place to start is by asking Londoners: In case of a civic emergency, how would you like to be notified? That would be citizen engagement.
A second good example actually is asking Londoners what they want. On Tuesday, June 19, city council’s Community Services Committee will hold a public participation meeting at 7 p.m. (venue still undecided) to solicit comments on changes to the noise and hours of operation policies for special events.
For each there are three options. On the noise bylaw the options are (a) no change in current policy of 90 decibels beyond 30 meters from the front of the stage with no peaks; (b) increase decibel levels to not exceed a sound pressure of 100 beyond 30 meters from the front of the stage with 5 peaks; or (c) increase decibel level somewhere between the range of 85 and 100 with 5 peaks.
On the hours of operation for amplified sound the options are (a) no change in current policy of 9 a.m. to 11 p.m.; (b) 9 a.m. to 12 midnight; or (c) 9 a.m. and 1 a.m.
The committee of five was split – the mayor, Stephen Orser and Dale Henderson were gung ho to raise both the sound levels and the hours of operation; chairperson Matt Brown and Harold Usher favoured hearing from the public first. The mayor ultimately agreed so the committee has made no recommendation.
Councillor Henderson, one of those who doesn’t yet seem to get the concept of citizen engagement, put it this way: “If we’re going to have a public participation meeting we should make the decision here, tonight. The results will come back to us very quick if we’re too high. If we go to the people we’ll spend three hours and still not decide anything.”
He makes the assumption people don’t know what they want, when the truth is not everyone wants the same thing. Citizen engagement is about listening to everyone, then making an informed decision that offers the most benefit to the most people. Yeah listening is a bitch sometimes, but it is one reason we pay councillors the equivalent of $37,000 per year.
About Social Media – I don’t know what wag dubbed today’s digital-based media as social but it’s really not. It’s interactive media in that it allows back-and-forth communication. Back in its heyday when virtually everyone read it, The Free Press generated far more across-the-fence chatter and coffee shop gossip than all of today’s media together. When radio came along, Londoners used to hang onto every word – just ask Bill Brady who was there (well almost) at the beginning. Now that was social.