Entries in open government (1)


Policy Forum 2014: Cultivating a culture of openness with City Hall

Communication and accessibility are the hallmarks of “Open Government”. Many of the ideas from participants of a round table discussion on the issue focused on communication and accessibility. The discussion was part of a policy forum hosted by the Young Professionals Group of the Peterborough Chamber of Commerce. About 45 people brainstormed ideas about how to improve the city and county of Peterborough. Sure it’s a conversation that many have had before - that on some level we have every day, however there is inherent value in continuing to communicate ideas that focus on improving this region. It’s a way to hash out older ideas and develop new ideas. 

The policy forum was based on an article by best-selling author, economist, thought leader and current Chancellor of Trent University, Don Tapscott. The article called “As Toronto dithers, Guelph sets sights on 21st century” was first published in the Toronto Star on Friday, October 17, 2014. It identifies seven key areas for improving a community: 

  1. Promoting Entrepreneurship to Achieve Prosperity 
  2. Open Government 
  3. Turning Public Safety Inside Out 
  4. Rethinking Transportation 
  5. Creating a Sustainable City 
  6. Transforming Social Services 
  7. Reinventing Local Democracy 

In the first article of this series entrepreneurship was the focus and it ended with a call for a coordinated strategy. Having an official strategy would allow all interest groups to map out the united front on entrepreneurship the community wants to present to its own residents, the province and beyond. 

In this article, the topic discussed in broader detail will be Open Government. Communication and accessibility are key parts to improving on what is currently happening in Peterborough and taking advantage of opportunities as they arise. 

Open Government 

Successful communication of information both outward to the residents and businesses of the community and inward to the city staff and councillors, as well as, the expectations of communication between the two groups is imperative to achieve a true culture of openness. The culture of openness also depends on accessibility – making it easier to interact with City Hall on all levels. 

The discussions led by Jason Stabler, Coordinator of the Peterborough Partnership Council on Immigrant Integration (PPCII) identified that already there are some avenues to reach into the municipal government. 

There is a lot of information online at the City of Peterborough’s website, but it’s not always easy to find. As an example there is a lot of geographical information such as details about specific properties. 

The Peterborough-Lakefield Police Service website, which will be the Peterborough Police Service starting in 2015, has crime information about specific neighbourhoods. 

The Peterborough City and County Health Unit has information about restaurants and health issues. 

There are opportunities for residents and special interest groups to present at council meetings, there is live tweeting of council meetings, and there have been Twitter Town Halls on social media. 

So given what is currently happening in Peterborough, the group moved on to discuss the opportunities for Peterborough. Some “Quick Wins” were identified: 

  1. Put the new councillor handbook online. It is a powerful tool to communicate how local government works on a basic level as well as how policies are developed and the role of staff and council. This is a tool the City of Guelph has used and feels it has been a successful in creating the Open Government feel. 
  2. Use external language vs. internal language. Websites tend to use language that has specific meaning to the people inside the organization. The challenge is to use language that appeals to the organization’s audience. The group felt the City could improve the website to be more user-friendly by featuring more external language vs. internal language. For example, a resident may look for their garbage/ recycling pick up information on the city website not their waste management schedule or use “Starting a Business” instead of “Economic Development”. Subtle changes in language can go a long way to further opening the lines of communication. 

The table also discussed a number of “Short-term Goals”: 

  1. Access the current talent pool in Peterborough. City staff is often looking to other communities for best practices on various issues, which are then presented to council. The group felt that reaching into the community to access more of this knowledge would be helpful as well. One example the Chamber can add to this point features the Electronic Sign By-law. The city and business owners have been working together on creating the guidelines for Peterborough. The more this type of dialogue can happen, the more citizen engagement and participation will occur. 
  2. Service Peterborough. This could be a call centre/service desk that offers a no wrong door approach. The caller/resident is easily given the information/person they need. This type of service is available in a number of municipalities including Oshawa. It is packaged as a one-stop shop for City Hall information.  

Two “Long-term Goals” were also presented: 

  1. Creation of an idea bank. Online forum where the City, residents and/ or businesses can float ideas on any given issue. This bank would be similar to a focus group and could also be used to gauge the general feel of the community on priority projects. 
  2. Just-in-time communications. Residents could sign up to receive emails specific to their interests with regard to the City. For example, road information such as crews have just been called to this area for repairs, please use an alternative route. This can also apply to weather conditions affecting City operations. Currently, the media and website are used as outlets, and this would be another way to get information into the hands of residents. 

It would seem this discussion happened at an opportune time as Mayor Daryl Bennett committed to a number of open government directives in his inaugural speech of the 2014-2018 council term. These included: 

  • Encouraging councillors to hold meetings in their wards 
  • Live-streaming of all committee meetings 

The six items above must have the support of councillors and staff, and the implemented suggestions would have to be carried about by councillors and staff. However, this doesn’t mean that residents and business owners don’t also have a role. Communication cannot happen in a vacuum. It truly is a two- way street. For all that we ask the City to communicate with us, yes; they do need to pump a lot of information through a multitude of channels, as residents and business owners we must also be active participants in community engagement. We have to access the information that is offered and let City Hall know we have accessed that information. 

The cumulative effect of all of these suggestions is to demystify City Hall, to make it even more approachable, to eliminate the perceived barriers and to create a community wholly engaged in its municipal matters at all times, not just at times of contention. 

Comment through the "Peterborough Chamber" group of LinkedIn.