Mar 31, 2015

Civic engagement is more than a “nice-to-have”.

Around June, the City of Kitchener will hire an “e-participation” specialist. Their task will be to foster civic engagement among Kitchener residents through an online Kitchener Commons.

The job will be an uphill battle. The reputation of local democracy will be put to the test…again. Nevertheless, it’s an important initiative.

When the initiative was approved by Kitchener city council, I was the only person in the council chamber not being paid to be there.

This was on budget night, when councillors debate whether services like e-participation are a “nice to have” or a priority. Budget night has the broadest impact of any night in the legislative calendar. Public participation of any kind would have been an improvement.

For some, internet technology is still glitzy and recreational, and therefore a “nice to have” compared to crumbling infrastructure. Their objections will get worse when the e-participation environment looks and feels different than Facebook or Amazon, which is inevitable given the different aims that drive its creation.

The single biggest challenge for the online commons will be to encourage the culture of democracy.

If city council meetings had to attract spectators to achieve a quorum within a margin of error, very little would ever get done. Municipal voter turnout shows that local democratic culture is a little thin.

When they do take part, many voters reflexively compare the public sector to the private sector. It’s like comparing apples to orange roughy.

Consider the numerous strategy documents and policy papers in government, the ones that even Waterloo’s mayor Dave Jaworsky is still catching up on.

Democratic collaboration naturally sees lots of information exchanged between many stakeholders. Political actors, and the media, demand ever more detailed disclosures.

In private circles, shareholders and employees are intentionally kept in the dark, as part of their limited liability (or competition, or…). The facts that really matter can live comfortably in the heads of the board and C-suite. (In democracy, this is called “tyranny”.)

There is simply a different minimum level of complexity in democracy. Computing support is the only way to make deep public participation in government manageable for busy people.

Residents must recognize they need different tools, and skills, and expectations, to take part in fruitful e-participation.

That’s a challenging ask, but an important one.

If even the UK’s Digital Democracy Commission can recommend digitization and plain-language reforms for the ancient “mother of parliaments”, we have no excuse not to try.

Kitchener won’t be the first to roll out an e-participation environment. The City of Waterloo recently launched its Open City Hall web platform, encouraging residents’ participation in developing their new strategic plan. Cambridge took its own huge step, into online voting.

Waterloo made one very unhappy choice: they buried their participation platform within their corporate website. It’s an app within an app, space-constrained and well “below the fold”.

City of Waterloo Open Government environment
100K residents, 409 visits, 33 responses.

No wonder that, from a six-figure population, they’ve collected only a few tens of responses.

Kitchener is making its own strategic choice: the e-participation effort is (reportedly) to be housed within Communications and Marketing. Will the initiative have enough policy tools to overcome suspicions that it’s just a novel form of public relations?

Infrastructure will always be crumbling. Building the consensus to fix it well requires strong democratic culture.

Whenever residents move from disengagement to participation, they shoulder extra work, due to the higher minimum complexity of democracy.

An e-participation system can support this workload, while conforming to their lives. It’s much more than a “nice to have”.