We are nearly six months into the mandate of the current HRM Regional counciland from my observations little has changed in how our elected municipal officials engage citizens. Since the October elections, the majority of Regional Council meetings start at 1pm, and at times end before people are home for the evening news. Recently, one council meeting was cancelled because of a ‘light agenda’. Additionally, the standing committees of council generally meet in the morning or afternoon, and these are not streamed online. Combined with the HRM website, the access to our city governance is prohibitive and cumbersome.
I find this a problem because democracy is about access, openness and accessibility. Agenda’s are listed for regional council and standing committees, as well as previous minutes; however even for citizens that are interested it is a commitment to read every report. Furthermore, the way the reports/agendas are presented do not always lead to clearly indicate what the purpose of each agenda item is. Politicians and municipal bureaucrats need to be more embracing of their audience, realize not everyone wants to read lengthy reports and realize ‘lengthy’ is a subjective term. For example, if we look at the current budget document available for view on Halifax.ca: it is presented in its entirety. This is good as there are benefits to reading it line by line, but it would be equally be as beneficial to have a simplified overview of financial allocations. There are many people that are interested in what is going on, but don’t have the time to read pages upon pages, but in a simplified format I believe they would read it. Then, if they had further questions they would be prepared to either contact their councillor or read further into the main document. Also, on the present budget presentation, there were no public engagement sessions to consult with public about what our priorities are.
Herein lies the problem, public engagement from our municipal politicians is still a failing grade. Aside from community councils, emailing your councillor or public hearings on a particular topic there is little involvement of citizens. So, how does council know where our priorities are? Is it fair to judge it just by on who contacts you: No. Does regional council need to look at how to better reach people for their input? Yes. I was hoping that with a new council, that this would change and much more engagement would happen. From an outside observer, there seems to be no way to hold councillors accountable on responding to residents. I live in Dartmouth Centre, and since the election any email I have sent to my councillor has been answered. However, there have been times that I have emailed other councillors because of their stance on a certain issue and never been replied to. Sadly, many still seem adverse to be engaged over Twitter or Facebook which is unfortunate considering our society’s demand for immediacy and how social media can fulfill that desire.
Even with short comings, there are some positives: regional council is streamed online weekly in its entirety. Also, recently launched is Open Data, which provides regular citizens with access to a host of municipal info across various municipal departments. Also, the grand parade e-newsletter has been a welcome addition, but we can still do better. HRM does well on engaging citizens on most big projects, but I feel their shortfall is on the day-to-day business of governing our city. So, how can city hall help to make people feel better included in municipal governance?
- Stream all regional council, standing committees, boards and commissions of HRM online.
- Archive streamed video, so residents have the ability to review video after the fact.
- Re-design Halifax.ca to make it a more user friendly site, where info is more easily accessed.
- Provide some workshops on HRM Open Data, to help people learn how to better use the info it holds.
- Mandate public consultation for subsequent budgets, to be aware of citizen priorities.
- Better use of social media to connect with residents
- Better use of print and online media to communicate pubic info/ consultation sessions