Citizens Doing It For Themselves

GuelphWhat occurs when a city turns its back on citizens? Read what happened when a volunteer-run organization took their campaign to boost civic involvement to doorsteps in one small Ontario town in this Think City interview with the Guelph Civic League’s acting president Annie O’Donoghue.

"I don't think citizens should ever be in a place where they back off. I think we're even more energized and we've woke up the citizens of Guelph." - Annie O’Donoghue commenting on the Guelph Civic League’s impact on last fall’s municipal election in Guelph, Ontario - Guelph Mercury, Nov. 15, 2006

Acting president Annie O'Donoghue and her Guelph Civic League (GCL) swear by citizen engagement. Moreover, the strategies they use speak succinctly to the needs of community organizations trying to forge a place at the table in the often contentious and chaotic world of local government. The GCL’s recipe for change is not uncommon or difficult to implement, but it can make all the difference.

The Guelph Civic League formed in 2004, on the heels of a municipal election that saw just a third of eligible voters turn out at the polls – pretty much the average with one exception as far back as the 1980s. Much of the GCL’s initial activities were focused on building engagement with the electoral process. They quickly discovered, however, low voter turnout was symptomatic of a larger, more systemic disconnect between the populace and their government.

Guelph is a city, like many others, where the opportunity to participate in major policy decisions, despite being public in name, are often only available to sharp-eyed readers who actually catch the municipal announcements printed in the local press. At the onset of their activities, O’Donaghue’s group realized building up electoral engagement meant pushing for broader participation in other areas of local planning, policy-making and governance.

To this end they have achieved success by agitating for better civic engagement on two fronts: first by advocating at city hall, pushing the local political machine to be more inclusive in its planning process; and secondly, by working with the community so that residents of the city know how, where and when to engage on civic matters.

As a result, the Guelph Civic League has put a strong-focus on building community capacity. In addition to developing strong networks with and between Guelph's citizens and community organizations, the GCL has worked to strengthen existing neighbourhood groups by providing them with tools for engagement as well as a forum for exchanging ideas.

In so doing, the GCL has found a niche. From their humble kitchen-table origins, the League has seen its membership grow from 50 to 3,500 in the space of three short years - growth that has come with the barest minimum of funding.

Not only that, but their push for genuine public consultation and active engagement in the election paid handsome dividends. The most recent municipal contest in 2006 saw participation climb increase by 14 per cent over the 2003 election. Much of the credit for this has been placed on what O'Donaghue refers to as the GCL's values-based campaign - selling the community less on the technicalities of being engaged and more on the virtues of participation.

Of course, causalities are often hard to establish in election results, but even if the GCL is only responsible for part of the increase in voter turn-out then it's still an enviable jump - as well as a good indicator of change in people's willingness to engage with the political process at Guelph city hall.

Talking to the Elected, Regardless of the Weather

The 2006 election was just the start. The League had built considerable momentum during this period, and members were keen to carry the group's work further.

"The mistake that many communities make is to abandon the progressive candidates once they've been elected to assume that they can fend for themselves," says O'Donaghue. "And yet you don't want to just be engaged when things aren't going well."

"Post-election you still want to have input into what's happening in the city. You have to pay attention - even when you're happy with who's sitting around the horse-shoe," says O'Donaghue. "Many progressive councillors feel abandoned by their constituents once they're installed in office. And yet what they really want and need is the support of progressive members of the community...they need them to come to council, to make delegations, etc."

Turned the other way round there's a lesson here. Something that is as much a red flag in Vancouver's electoral landscape as it is in Guelph's. When things are good, contrary to what one might expect, community involvement often declines. People get comfortable and stop coming to meetings because they assume that things will be looked after by their candidates, or their groups.

Authentic Engagement - 365 Days a Year

On reading the Guelph Civic League's literature one is struck by their emphasis on what they call genuine engagement. This is a way of differentiating a more progressive (and hoped for) form of consultation from the narrow space for participation that often characterizes the municipal planning process.

How do you tell the difference?

"If it's authentic engagement, there's considerable effort paid by the local government to involve people," says O'Donaghue.

In Guelph, as with many municipalities, there was and still is a need to do more - something beyond the status quo definition of due diligence. A tiny back-page public notice announcing a major policy initiative might work for hawk-eyed newspaper readers. Yet for a good chunk of the community who miss the ad but might otherwise want to comment on the policy, the public notice bats zero.

To O'Donaghue and her colleagues, a robust form of announcement - big ads, different papers and bulletins - is only the beginning. Genuine engagement also means looking at all the points in the policy development process where people are consulted. If this engagement is at the end the process, as a last add-on, then there's a problem.

"The community needs to be involved at every step of the way," says O'Donaghue. "The policy process needs a range of feedback loops at key decision-making points in order to ensure it is truly reflective of citizen input. And as part of that, participants need to be given real options to weigh."

Beyond gathering input into these decisions, it is important government be accountable for using the intellectual resources thus bequeathed to them. Here, says O'Donaghue, there are other questions that need to be asked. What is done with the information? Where does it go? Where's the transparency around how it's used? What opportunities do people have to see this?

In Guelph, the development of a truly inclusive process of engagement is still a way off. Yet, as a result of the League's work, the city is now setting up a transparency and accountability committee - on which the GCL will have a seat.

O'Donaghue is hopeful that this signals another move away from the status quo and towards a more inclusive city.

Keeping the Community Involved

The 2006 election - showing the substantial increase voter turnout - was a resounding affirmation of the Guelph Civic League's hard work. It also was a chance to pause and assess future opportunities. With their own membership swelling exponentially in the previous few years, it was necessary to check in and focus on their own organizational development. To O'Donaghue and the GCL steering committee this represented another opportunity for creating an inclusive planning process.

As a result of a comprehensive series of consultations with their members, the GCL has pressed on with a number of new initiatives. Chief amongst these is the development of a series of tools that will help to measure community engagement.

"We wanted to go one step further than merely encouraging people to participate" says O'Donaghue. "As a result, we're in the process of devising some sort of mostly educative but also evaluative tool that looks at the level of engagement of both city council and the community."

The measure will likely be survey-based, enabling the GCL to try and ascertain the extent of community involvement via a number of indicators. This will mean asking things like what sorts of community events are there? How easy is it for the community to access information? Were the councillors in each ward in touch with their constituents' issues? Are they seen around their respective communities and visible at community events. Interestingly, it will also ask people to rate their own level of engagement.

To measure, they say, is to know. A barometer of engagement such as this will act as an indispensable litmus for community development - enabling a further move towards genuine participation amongst citizens.

In Guelph, thanks to the work of the League, the barometer is rising.

Guelph: A Brief Sketch

Guelph sits about an hours drive west from Toronto. Its population of approximately 115,000 is enlarged by the presence of the University of Guelph and the city's demographic profile bulges with the influx and seasonal rotation of twenty-somethings.

Guelph's roots are on the farm, though its local economy has diversified substantially over the last fifty years. To its rural and academic pedigree one must also another quickly growing community - the commuter culture beneficiaries of much of the new development in the community over the last few decades. Almost a fifth of the city's population has arrived in the last decade, and the population of the city continues to grow faster than that of the province. Looked at regionally, the city acts as suburban centre for new homeowners and commuters to the Greater Toronto Area.

Perhaps because of this demographic profile, or perhaps for other larger reasons, Guelph has struggled with citizen engagement. Like many other municipalities across Canada, it too has faced the realities of several decades of declining voter turn-out.

Strategies of Engagement

O'Donaghue suggests the following strategies have been critical factors in ensuring the GCL's success:

(1) Build your networks and make use of existing networks. Rather than creating your own meetings and gatherings, look for ways to partner with groups that are meeting already. This enables information, issues and other strategies to be shared. It also lends itself to the establishment of good will and rapport.

(2) Ensure good quality communications. It sounds easy, but this one often given short shrift. In addition to backgrounders and other issue-related materials, consider the importance of the humble e-bulletin. One of the cornerstones of the GCL's work has been their excellent newsletter - which gives regular updates and ensures the organization articulates a continued presence in the community, even when they're not actively pushing a campaign.

(3) Cultivate friends in city hall. Establishing mutually respectful relationships with councillors and staff enables the organization to build political capital and also ensure a more continued dialogue on issues.

(4) Have fun. Ensure at least some of your activities have an element of fun. Making engagement enjoyable is an incentive to further participation - both for volunteers and the community at large. It also helps to spread the word about your issues and concerns.

(5) Check in with your organization's members. A well-polled membership ensures your own organization is built on the foundations of participatory democracy. As such you become more representative of the needs of the community.

(6) Encourage your membership to act. O'Donaghue notes that one of the biggest things the GCL has done since its inception is to give their membership the tools to speak up and participate, without necessarily trying to define all the issues. Rather than being partisan, the GCL has helped to arm electors with key issue-related questions and information about the various groups working on civic issues in Guelph. The need for civic engagement cuts across the entire political spectrum. The very best thing for democratic health is to encourage people to question and to act, regardless of whether they are left-wing, right-wing or centrist.