By Kevin Werner, News Staff
What Hamiltonofficials are calling a comprehensive public engagement about the future of the city’s services got off to a rocky start this week on social media when some residents accused the consultants overseeing the project of being ignorant of the city’s services.
The project, called Our Voice, Our Hamilton, launched by the city Jan. 7, is a 15-month long attempt to listen to the public’s views on how the city should meet the needs of its residents, how to provide services, while keeping an eye to the bottom line. But it was quickly being criticized on the Our Voice Our Hamilton twitter account, @ourhamilton, for hiring an Ottawa-based public relations firm for not knowing what the city’s public transit system is called. During one exchange, an employee for the consultant, Dialogue Partners, stated “Thks for the comment – what is ‘HSR’ just so we can accurately capture your comment Thanks!”
The response from residents was immediate, with some people arguing the city should get rid of the consultant, and a head line created was called “our voice our ridicule.”
Paul Johnston, director of Neighbourhood Development Strategies for the city, called the incident a “mistake” but it shouldn’t overshadow the many community voices that will be heard over the next year in what will be a continuing city dialogue about services.
The city remains committed to the consultant, and its ability to complete the project for the betterment of the community, he said.
“A lot of work has gone into this,” said Johnson. “(Dialogue Partners) are very knowledgeable. They are here to help facilitate (the engagement). It was an unfortunate situation. We are not pleased with what happened.”
The cost of the project is about $400,000, with the consultant also providing training to about 25 city staff to improve their abilities to engage the public. The consultant monitors the Our Voice, Our Hamilton Facebook page and twitter account.
The public relations company has been involved in a similar community engagement process in Calgary over its budget, and with city of Edmonton over its airport lands.
This is the first time city officials are asking Hamilton residents to participate on Facebook and twitter about issues that are important for the city’s future, said Johnson.
The project will be engaging residents through public meetings, online surveys, the website, ourvoice.hamilton.ca, which includes an interactive game called Cityscape, a mobile application that can be downloaded, and through the immediacy of social media.
“We have different channels to encourage participation,” he said. “Social media is more about a quick response on an issue. We are not fixated on one venue. We don’t want to stifle the conversation. It defeats the purpose of what we are trying to do.”
There is some concern that a limited number of voices will dominate the social media landscape, but there are other avenues where Hamiltonians can voice their opinions, he said.
“We are taking a more holistic look at our services and the tradeoffs we have to make over the coming years and decades,” he said.
Some people are more comfortable using twitter, others, he said, would rather do the online survey, while still other people will attend public meetings.
Johnson hopes the engagement reaches across all demographic areas of the, from the single mother, to the professional living in the suburbs, to the recent immigrant.
The program kicks off with two public events in January, one at Sackville Seniors Centre at Upper Wentworth from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on the 12th, and another one held Jan. 17 at the YWCA Seniors Centre Auditorium at75 McNabb Street in the downtown from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Future public meetings have been scheduled for February, but times and locations have yet to be decided.
“This is the new normal, to engage people,” said Johnson. “We really want to get a pulse and a sense of where the community is on city services.”
The information collected will be analyzed, and recommendations presented to councillors in March or April 2013.