In the wake of the Our Voice, Our Hamilton debacle, silver linings are already starting to show. We've seen the power of social media wake up an entire city to demand better from our representatives.
By Dave Heidebrecht
Published January 10, 2013
It has only taken a few short days for the City of Hamilton's new public engagement strategy to implode in on itself, largely due to a social media uproar that took mere hours to take shape.
The project, titled "Our Voice, Our Hamilton" and launched on Monday January 7, was set up to seek Hamiltonians' opinions on what services people deem important in the fact of increasing deficits and an aging infrastructure.
After a Twitter guffaw involving a discussion about the HSR in which the @ourhamilton Twitter account user didn't seem to know that HSR stood for Hamilton Street Railway (the city's transit system), more critiques of the project website ensued, leading to an online outrage the likes of which Hamilton hadn't experienced until this week.
Using the hashtag #TellOHEverything (a clever play on last year's #TellVicEverything Twitter campaign launched against MP Vic Toews for his proposed online surveillance legislation), the online firestorm that took off on Tuesday is still going strong.
Already, the city has taken the project website down, citing "offensive content."
A Tuesday afternoon apology issued by the firm behind the project, Dialogue Partners, admitting that "the first 24 hours of this project wasn't what we hoped", has done little to ease criticism, with many in the Hamilton community (including City Councillors Judi Partridge and Sam Merulla) questioning whether Dialogue Partners should have any role in the project going forward.
As some of this coverage has already noted, and a point discussed more widely within Hamilton's online community, the fallout of this public relations fiasco has come with a very large (and very loud) silver lining.
It has brought Hamiltonians together to share their common anger and outrage at how our city has been run in the past, how it is being run now, and more importantly, how it should be run in the future.
If our political representatives embrace and support the long-term outcomes from this unified dialogue, the city will not only have achieved its original goal of engagement (though perhaps not of the type that had been envisioned), but will have an incredibly valuable pool of community feedback from which to make positive policy decisions for Hamilton's future-a goal that we can all agree on.
As new relationships and discussions are already flourishing, here are a few things for us to keep in mind going forward:
Hamiltonians are passionate, smart, and engaged.
Whether involved in dialogue via Twitter or Facebook, at a coffee shop, in a school, or in a Tim Horton's, we have pride in our city, we know our city, and we want to be treated with respect (and should also treat others respectfully).
There is an incredible amount of frustration in this city with regards to the current functioning of City Hall.
Hamiltonians have seen time and time again opportunities and resources wasted, and poor planning decisions made. As such, councilors should not be surprised that this frustration has finally hit a boiling point, and should take this growing outrage as a serious wake up call.
The power of social media is real and it is growing.
A no-brainer to those already engaged in genuine dialogue online, social media communities are made up of real people who are not only passionate but are also incredibly adept at connecting with each other (in a very short amount of time). In future planning and engagement, this reality should be embraced and not downplayed.
Hamilton is ready for change.
Yes, we have budget deficits, and yes there are infrastructure issues, but what this whole experience should tell us is that there are thousands of capable people willing, if not begging, to be part of a conversation that will inform the decision-making processes that we need if we are to achieve positive long-term change for this city.
These silver linings present us with an incredible opportunity to come together in a participatory and democratic manner. There is already a public meeting scheduled for this coming Monday, January 14, 7:00 PM at think|haus, 25 Dundurn St. North, to establish a community-focused online tool based on a program called "Change By Us".
And this debacle only started three days ago!
As this effort and others like it spring up from Hamilton's grassroots, I can only hope that councillors and employees at City Hall are taking notes. If they are, I have a few suggestions to end with.
First and foremost, Hamilton's passionate and prideful citizens are not only willing to engage, they are chomping at the bit! To successfully engage with Hamiltonians, however, City Council (and those who are contracted by the City) could take a few lessons from the unwritten rules of the Twitterverse (after all, one little tweet did trigger one big mess):
Lesson 1: Practice active listening. Though difficult and requiring much more energy, the ability to not only hear but listen can go a long way.
Lesson 2: Engage in a two-way conversation. Simply pushing out one's own agenda onto others will not win any favours.
Lesson 3: True dialogue takes time. Don't get frustrated early on. Stick it out, keep listening, and you'll find that in time you can make some incredible progress.
Lesson 4: Know that screwing up is part of the process. Knowing when to say sorry - and how to say it - is too.
Lesson 5: Be genuine and treat everyone with respect. That goes for all of us.
It's been an interesting week to be a Hamiltonian, and it's only Thursday! Already, we've seen an incredibly good idea at heart - to engage directly with Hamiltonians - fall apart due to poor planning, a lackluster apology, and a passionate citizenry who collectively called a spade a spade.
In the wake of this fiasco, though, the silver linings are already starting to show loud and clear. We've seen the power of social media wake up an entire city to demand better from our representatives. Already, some of those representatives have stepped up to their leadership roles in response.
Overall, we've collectively engaged in a meaningful dialogue, demanding to be treated with respect, and also serving notice that we care about our city and are begging to be listened to.
The passion is there, the ideas are there, and the opportunity has presented itself for the City to step up, take ownership of this fiasco, and start truly listening to the citizens who live, work, and play in our Hamilton.
First published on David Heidebrecht's personal website.
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