Civic engagement encouraged

Photo by Alexandra Guizzetti

Photo by Alexandra Guizzetti

The City of Waterloo has recently started an initiative to spur public engagement called Open City Hall. This initiative presents an online forum through the City of Waterloo website that allows citizens to give feedback to the City.

Open City Hall stems from the city council’s 2011 strategic plan, which outlined a goal to increase civic engagement in local government.

After observing polling results which concluded a large number of Waterloo residents would like to give feedback online, the City began to look into hosting an online forum.

“We did a survey and found that three in 10 residents want to give input online to the city, and for students that actually increases to four in 10,” said Dave Jaworsky, mayor of Waterloo. “We really want to make sure we can capture and generate citizen ideas.”

The City of Waterloo, following these polling results and their strategic plan, reached out to a California-based company called Peak Democracy, which creates and maintains civic engagement platforms for government agencies in Canada, Australia and the United States, in July 2014. They are also able to monitor all of their current clients’ services, hosting them on company servers, providing needed bandwidth, as well as offering training for staff.

“What we’ve heard from other users of this tool is that they’ve seen their public responses increase between 100 per cent and 1,000 per cent,” said Jaworsky. “That makes you stand up and take notice.”

The City was interested in the company’s current government clients, including the City of Edmonton, which currently hosts a similar online town hall forum.

Open City Hall operates quite differently from typical online forums.

Online forum users can often find themselves in the presence of vulgar language, cyber-bullying and trolling.

However Open City Hall features none of these traditional forum setbacks due to its management and maintenance by Peak Democracy.

The service Waterloo has purchased provides a filtering process to eliminate foul language whilst maintaining free expression.

“The feedback we’re seeing is very thoughtful. The way the tool works is unlike many online forums,” said Jaworsky. “Open City Hall has decorum built right in, so you wont find bullies, trolls or any words that make you blush in this tool.”

Going forward, the City of Waterloo plans to expand the Open City Hall initiative, as well as continue to expand civic engagement, using both traditional and online methods. This will continue to build upon the 2011 strategic plan’s goal of increased civic engagement.

“I think these tools are a critical part in how we engage the public in the 21st century,” said City of Waterloo councillor, Jeff Henry. “We have a digitally native generation coming forward, and everyone these days have access to a computer and technology. Heck, my grandparents have been online for a decade. It’s an area that we need to be in.”

 

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