opinion

Open Government

Open Government

This past election has highlighted the fact that many Guelph citizens feel disconnected from City Hall. For some, the issue is about spending tax dollars, while for others it is about decisions being made without sufficient engagement of residents who are most affected by what City Hall does.

A lack of transparency and accountability at City Hall is a common element that many citizens have expressed and the fact that the City’s bureaucracy has grown large and sometimes unresponsive. It’s not a left/right issue – it’s about having a local government that enables the creativity of citizens rather than trying to control the outcomes.  A City Hall where staff are accountable and proud to work for the people of Guelph, directly. There has been a shift in this direction but there is much, much more that can and must be done.

It is time we have a committed to creating a welcoming environment for our government by:

  • Increasing the awareness and citizen engagement, which requires proactive outreach, and being available to our residents.
  • Provide accessible, open forums and other channels for residents to give feedback, ask questions and understand what’s happening in their city.
  • Continue to engage the community on a regular basis

We live here together and we should work on building this community stronger together.

Accountability for actions 

  • It’s time for ethical systems that are based on transparency in all areas of our local government. Our elected officials and Senior Staff must be held accountable for shortfalls as much as they are applauded for improvements.
  • City Hall should be delivering, at least, quarterly reports on the status of programs and services as well as the implementation of various strategic plans.
  • Bylaws should be reviewed on a more regular basis.

Transparency means tracking city budgets and services, as well as making data available to the public more quickly and easily.

  • The potential for Web 2.0, Open Data and Open Source techniques to improve city services, create jobs, and generate new solutions to old problems is huge. We should continue to work with the community and expand The Civic Accelerator Project to find solutions to municipal services. However, we should also, when applicable, look at “off the shelf” ready to go solutions. There is no need to reinvent the wheel for the sake of reinventing the wheel. These solutions must enable every citizen to have access to publicly available information quickly and easily.
  • I believe that the information the City holds should be publicly released in machine-readable data formats that can be used and reused by anyone (except for specific, narrow privacy and public security exceptions).  Let’s ask City Council to mandate Staff to accelerate the release of as much publicly owned municipal data.

It is time to open the doors to City Hall welcoming in the community-at-large

  • Our residents suffer when decisions are “already made” and without effective public leadership. Decisions that have a major economic or social impact on the city will no longer be made without thorough public involvement. Ideas need to be respected and suggestions taken seriously and not brushed off. It’s time we work together not apart.
  • Councillors should regularly host town hall meetings as well as online and in-person public forums to offer opportunities for ongoing engagement by the community.
  • Lets work together to consistently to empower members of our community so that everyone begins to develop a deeper understanding of city departments and the responsibilities assigned to each. I want the overall citizenry to have a stronger voice in budgetary matters and other government processes.
  • We need to increase awareness and citizen engagement, which requires proactive outreach, and being available to our residents.

Community engagement is important.

After all, we as citizens have to live with the choices made within these projects for years to come. Meaningful engagement and thoughtful planning produce better, more profitable outcomes for all stakeholders in the long run.

There are mixed opinions on what constitutes meaningful engagement. Some citizens believe that they should be able to provide input and have control over all project details affecting their neighbourhoods and city. Others believe engagement is simply about being informed; people want to know what projects are planned and how it will affect them, but they don’t expect to influence the planning or decision making.

Engagement vs. Informing

There isn’t one perfect way of ensuring public engagement is done. I believe meaningful engagement should be a multistep process, over time, where the City, citizens, businesses, community groups, private landowners etc. come together with open minds and clear communication on project details including limitations, opportunities, concerns, and ideas. We have a policy and should stick to it.

Communication and clarity are the foundation of meaningful engagement

Items that are open to engagement, in that information gathered can influence decisions, should be clearly identified. Engagement should also happen early in the process where there is still an opportunity to make changes and implement ideas. If there are boundaries on the scope of influence engagement can have (which is perfectly normal), these should be identified. For example, if assessing an intersection to improve traffic flow & an interchange is outside the scope of the project, identify that, explain why and focus the conversation in a meaningful way on what is possible to improve the current situation. In cases where certain decisions are unable to be influenced (such as structure placement or density requirements) then this needs to be clearly identified & explained as to why it is not open to engagement.

Moving forward, we need to make improvements in how we all work together on these projects – I believe the process needs greater clarity and better communication. I think all stakeholders share responsibility in this – including the City, Council, residents, community groups, businesses, and developers. We need to all understand each other’s perspectives; be clear as to what is on the table and what isn’t. That way the focus can be on those areas where change is possible and meaningful conversation can occur on items that are open for discussion and collaboration.

Community engagement is both a process and an outcome

Part of the improvements in engagement could occur by exploring multiple ways of sharing ideas and details about a project. I believe this could help with the quality of engagement. For example, stakeholders could look at tactics and activities beyond display boards and sticky notes typically found at large open house events. Additional activities like conversation café style meetings and small group workshops would improve feedback and promote a better understanding of perspectives. Focus groups with a small group of stakeholders, such as community groups, immediate neighbours, nearby businesses, the applicant, City representatives, could produce some very meaningful discussions and brainstorming. In the case of planning applications, finding a way to coordinate City involvement in applicants’ engagement earlier in the process would help, prior to an official application being filed. It would also be beneficial if there were clear expectations made as to the engagement responsibilities of all parties, from the developer to community associations and residents.

I believe it is critical to empowering community members, community groups, and businesses to influence change through meaningful engagement. We need to acknowledge and trust in the expertise and experience all stakeholders bring to projects and programs. By improving communication and how we engage with one another, we will create stronger partnerships in our communities. Face-to-face involvement is an excellent way for the City and stakeholders to monitor viewpoints, gather valuable information and hold each other accountable for intended progress. This will allow the City and planners to be in a position to better understand the complex issues in the communities they serve, and citizens will be in a position to better understand the processes of the City (and developers where applicable) including the demands and limitations of projects, capital, and resources. Not only does meaningful engagement build important relationships, it increases the chances of project success. With resident and stakeholder support, these projects strengthen the future health and prosperity of our communities.

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