Local Wisdom: Cities as Engines of Citizen Engagement

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Happening Now Monday, June 29, 2015 View Count = 2023

Local Wisdom: Cities as Engines of Citizen Engagement

Jane at FCM

In this blog post, Samara's Executive Director tells us about the workshop she co-lead at the Federation of Canadian Municipalities Annual Conference in Edmonton a few weeks ago. 

Can Canada’s municipalities be better engines of civic and political engagement for their citizens? When faced with tight financial resources and growing demands—a near universal condition for local government—it can be easy to answer this question with a “Yes, but...” Yes, most Canadians choose to live in urban settings. Yes, for many the issues that are of greatest concern are local ones. But for councillors and government, figuring out how to build and invest in citizens’ engagement seems like a “nice to do” rather than a “need to do.”

A workshop that I helped to co-lead at the Federation of Canadian Municipalities Annual Conference in Edmonton a few weeks ago tackled both the how and why in municipalities’ citizen engagement work. The workshop featured a facilitated conversation with three individuals who have a first-hand perspective on the challenges and opportunities of doing things differently in their cities: Councillors Michael Walters (City of Edmonton) and Catherine McKenney (City of Ottawa) and Chief of Staff Chima Nkendirim  in Calgary’s Mayor Nenshi’s office. In this blog post, I share some of the opinions of the panellists, as well as their honest and insightful experiences.  But first, a caveat—as I moderated the panel, my notes are somewhat patchy. Where I am uncertain of attribution, none is offered.

Why should citizen engagement matter to cities?

If you’re a city or councillor, there’s no way to know if you’re on track unless you ask people. But councillors shouldn’t  count on citizens to coming to them. Interestingly, the language of improved service delivery to the citizen-client was notably absent in this discussion. Rather, Clr. Michael Walters described the need to “co-create cities” and to “re-wire consultation” when it comes to the relationship between council and citizens. To do so, Chima Nkendirim encourages experimentation, which doesn’t need to cost a lot. Municipalities can figure out how to do things differently if they have open eyes and ears—they don’t need an expensive outside consultant to do this.

How do councillors successfully engage with citizens?

First, councillors should be honest about the fact that past engagement efforts haven’t been without flaws. The panel’s respected leaders were very open about some of their efforts that hadn’t gone as smoothly as they would’ve liked. They claimed these failings were usually due to poor planning and not listening earlier in the process. Clr. Catherine McKenney was up front about the need to sometimes push city public servants out of their comfort zone on the citizen engagement front, but she also admitted that the onus will always be on councillors to lead the way. In the words of Clr. Walters, there has to be “intentionality.” When uncertain, councillors should use the “8 to 80” rule: has something been designed with both 8-year-olds and 80-year-olds in mind, plus everyone in-between too?

Who needs to be more creatively and strategically engaged?

As the loudest voices are the most easy to pay attention to, councils and councillors need to think about the “unusual” suspects. Ideally more diverse citizens would be elected to council in the first place, McKenney noted, but—until that happens—all the panellists saw value in partnerships that help councils reach into more corners of their cities. With the help of United Way, the City of Calgary has undertaken better poverty reduction planning with low-income neighbourhoods; in Ottawa, City for All Women Initiative has connected women from racialized and low-income backgrounds to City Hall; and Samara’s Everyday Political Citizen project has helped Edmonton to identify community leaders in a city changing quickly with many newcomers.

At the end of the session, the three panellists challenged the audience to take an experimental mindset back to their communitiesThe panel believes that by enriching local government, there’s a better chance to leverage engaged citizens as champions of cities at other levels of government, too. 

For this reason, alongside the experimentation that drives engagement innovations, cities and municipalities have to be taken seriously when Canadians talk about the future of our democracy.   

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(Photo credit: Photo from Clr. Walter's Twitter account)

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