The Nanaimo Public Engagement Solution: A Simple Model for Civic Organizations of all Sizes

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Becoming involved in the decision-making process of your neighborhood or town can be a frustrating experience. On one side (those choosing not to participate) I hear that neighborhood meetings are a waste of time, that nothing gets decided, that the same few people attend and rant about the same few issues and that in any case it’s rare that an issue that someone cares about it addressed anyway. There’s more, but I think that captures the sentiment. And on the other side (those who do attend) I hear that if people cared that they would attend and participate.

From my experience there’s some truth on both sides. But regardless of why more people (and in my opinion, often the right people) are not engaged it’s incumbent upon those asking for more involvement to address concerns. That’s why I found this piece from CreativeClass.com interesting. On a side note I was in Nanaimo, B.C. three years ago. It’s a nice town, but if they can do something like this, so can nearly any town or possibly even your local neighborhood association.

Sometimes, it’s nice to be small. The City of Nanaimo has been pushing the envelope on open data and open government for a number of years now.

Recently, I was directed to their new Council Agendas and Minutes webpage. I recommend you check it out.

Here’s why.

At first blush the site seems normal. There is the standard video of the council meeting (queue cheesy local cable access public service announcement), but the meeting minutes underneath are actually broken down by the second and by clicking on them you can jump straight to that moment in the meeting.

As anyone who’s ever attended a City Council meeting (or the legislature, or parliament) knows, the 80/20 rule is basically always in effect. About 80 percent of the time the proceedings are either dead boring and about 20 percent (often much less) of the time the proceedings are exciting, or more importantly, pertinent to you. One challenge with getting citizens engaged on the local level is that they often encounter a noise to signal problem. The ratio of “noise” (issues a given citizen doesn’t care about) drowns out the “signal” (the relatively fewer issues they do care about).

The City of Nanaimo’s website helps address this problem. It enables citizens to find what matters to them without having to watch or scroll through a long and dry council meeting. Better still, they are given a number of options by which to share that relevant moment with friends, neighbors, allies, or colleagues via Twitter, Facebook, Delicious, or any other number of social media tools.

One might be wondering: Can my city afford such a wiz-bang setup?

Excellent question.

Given Nanaimo’s modest size (it has 78,692 citizens) suggests they have a modest IT budget. So I asked Chris McLuckie, a City of Nanaimo public servant who worked on the project. He informed me that the system was built in-house by him and another city staff member; it uses off-the-shelf hardware and software and so cost under $2,000 and it took two weeks to code up.

Two weeks?

No million dollar contract? No eight-month timeline? No expensive new software?

No, if you’re smart, a couple of creative hackers can put something together in no time at all.

You know what’s more – because Chris and the City of Nanaimo want to help more cities learn how to think like the web, I bet if the IT director from any city (or legislative body) asked nicely, they would just give them the code.

So how Open is your city? And if not, do they have $2,000 lying around to change that?

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