The State of Affairs – Municipalities, Twitter and Citizen Engagement

As a student of public administration, I have spent the past six months studying the functions and responsibilities of municipal governments. I’ve tried to narrow down the issues that I believe are relevant, (mainly for personal interest, and a little bit for my 40-50pg major research paper), but I’ve found that the issues I believe are important tend to be those that are neglected. Let me clarify, they are not neglected because of ignorance (for the most part), but rather due to the constraints that are imposed on municipalities in Ontario.

Before I get too ahead of myself, I will define my priorities, not all at once, but as time allows.

Increasing Citizen Engagement

With abysmal municipal voter turnout rates, how can we (municipalities) better interact with citizens? As a 24-year old, my first reaction would be to look at how I spend the majority of my time, which is on my computer. I have the facebook, and I’ve embraced twitter and its ability to transmit information to the masses. But its about much more than transmitting information through twitter, it’s about the strategy behind it.

If a municipality adopts a policy encouraging the use of twitter, what will it share? Who will post material: a single operator or individual departments? Or will there be multiple accounts for municipal departments, who gets one, who doesn’t? Who will handle queries? If they share too much, the message is diluted, share too little, and people will not anticipate receiving it. An effective strategy is the key. Larger cities such as @torontocouncil and @edmontonclerk update their tweets as items are being debated in council and committee meetings, which is great for those who want to be involved. But does that translate into enticing the other 2/3s who can’t be bothered to pay attention. I’m not trying to discount the use of twitter, far from it, I believe that municipalities need to go further than tweets, to encompassing media strategies where streaming/downloadable video is available, but that is for another time.

So, back to the issue hand. If we define the issue surrounding the 2/3s who don’t bother to cast a ballot as one where they do not believe it is in their interest physically cast a ballot or fill a seat at a public meeting, then how do we reach them? I was inspired to write this post after watching Naheed Nenshi’s interview on The Agenda. Here is a politician who actually took the time to articulate policies – his vision of the community, and most importantly, acted upon his philosophy, which is “go to people where they live.” Wow. What a crazy idea. Mr. Nenshi went to the people; he didn’t try to deceive them with loaded statements and one-line catchphrases, and he actually won. He is appealing to those who use twitter, and he is appealing to those who don’t. He can speak to me, someone living in southwestern Ontario in an instant, and I can contact him with the likelihood that he will respond. It’s nearly revolutionary, but for those of us who believe that social media is the cure for the common malaise, I think we are kidding ourselves. We should explore the best ways to utilise the tools that are available, but we cannot forget that nearly 90 percent of westerns don’t use twitter, and probably 99 percent of that 90 are those who aren’t engaged in political matters. Perhaps my future, grey haired, sully self is coming out already.

I encourage comments, like I said above, I have a major research paper to write and I feel like I am stuck on a one-track mindset. Anything, praise, venom, gibberish (well, maybe not gibberish).