What do you do when democracy fails? What do you do when a city holds an election and two-thirds of the people eligible to vote don't bother showing up to the polls? Can the successful candidates really claim a mandate to govern? And if they can't, is it their fault citizens didn't do their duty to vote?
These were the tough questions faced by the City of Vancouver after the 2011 municipal election only drew 35 per cent voter turnout. It spawned Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson's Engaged City Task Force, which was put to work on creating a city that is more connected, where people are interested and excited about speaking up for what's important to us, and where local government demonstrates that it is, indeed, listening to all of its important communities: newcomers, immigrants, businesses, developers and social justice groups.
Often, cities are faced with only hearing a slice of feedback from groups that want to hijack a process. Often, citizens genuinely don't have the time to attend council meetings or town halls or open houses. It doesn't mean they don't have something to say.
It's against this backdrop that the City of Vancouver has launched Talk Vancouver -- an online community bringing citizens the next generation of civic engagement and public consultation. This online community follows in the footsteps of CitySpeaks in Surrey, where citizens are already weighing in on important civic issues, and the Open Minds Forum at UBC -- where students and alumni engage online with their university. This is innovative public consultation and citizen engagement. And a key to its success is the fact that these local governments and public institutions are going where their people are: online.
More and more, we're doing work, finishing errands, having fun and connecting with friends and family via our smartphones, tablets and personal computers. Engaging with your local government online is an extension of that. You no longer have to postpone dinner or sacrifice checking your kids' homework to attend an evening town hall meeting. You can tell city hall what you think from your phone on your commute to work, or from your couch at the end of the day. Local governments are trying to make it easier for you to have your say about transportation, or the cost of living, or city budget priorities, or your library or community centre's opening hours.
If you live in Vancouver or work or attend school there, the city is inviting you to join Talk Vancouver by going to www.talkvancouver.com. Signing up is easy, it takes just a few minutes, it's private and secure. You'll be asked some questions about you, but the city will never release that information, and city staff looking at the data won't be able to tie your demographic information back to you personally. Your information isn't sold to any third parties. It's meant to be used to help the city make better decisions about things that are important to you.
Local governments are asking you to talk to them through online communities such as Talk Vancouver. But the obligation to communicate goes both ways. It's important for cities to share information back to their online community members. They need to be transparent about why they are asking the questions they're asking. They should even try to make it fun. A recent survey says Canadians look at 120 websites a day on average. With all the funny cat videos on YouTube, citizen engagement managers will have to come up with some creative ways to capture your attention. It's an innovative start though. Give it a try.
Shachi Kurl is Vice President, Communications and Citizen Engagement at Vision Critical, the BC-based technology company whose software platform is powering Talk Vancouver.