The concept of transparency in government isn’t a new thing, but theory is always easier than practice. Just think of how the term “public consultation” strikes fear into the hearts of many a consulting engineer, urban planner, and senior policy advisor.
Part of the challenge is simply getting people there—the traditional newspaper notice doesn’t cut it. These days, some of these public meeting rooms sit near-empty. “The numbers are pitifully low—it’s a real challenge getting people to come out to public meetings,” lamented Ted Yuzyk of the International Joint Commission at Water Canada’s recent industry roundtable on Great Lakes management reform (see “Finding Balance,” March/April 2011).
“The reality is that voters feel a disconnect with their government,” said Christy Clark in a January 2011 Globe and Mail article. Clark, Premier of British Columbia since March, is a proponent of open government, a concept that places value on transparency and public oversight. Of course, you have to be able to reach the public in order to be open with them. And, as Yuzyk said, it’s not necessarily going to be in town hall meetings.
Enter Government 2.0
According to Citizens @ The Centre, a plan released by the B.C. government, a growing number of people conduct a significant portion of their lives online in open networks that allow them access to information on their own terms. “The rise of collaborative social media is changing the way citizens interact with one another, with organizations, and with information,” it states. The plan details how it will make data more accessible to the public, modernize services for citizens, and enable the use of social media to connect with and engage the public.
In the digital age, open government incorporates social media. In fact, British Columbia even has a ministry—the ministry of labour, citizens’ services and open government—devoted to the concept. The B.C. government’s main page also links to a list of its social media outlets (Flickr, blogs, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and RSS feeds) for various ministries.
Starting with water policy
“Water policy is pretty far-reaching,” says Lynn Kriwoken, director of water protection and sustainability for British Columbia’s ministry of environment and currently involved in the province’s Water Act modernization (WAM) process. “One of the key parts of the plan and our vision is that government can’t do it all alone—British Columbians have to help sustain our water resources.”
In order to get the public involved, says Kriwoken, the MOE needed to build an engagement process that opened the doors on public policy making and did something different.
While incorporating online tools is important, government 2.0 doesn’t imply putting all of the eggs into one big social media basket. For its ongoing WAM public consultation process, the MOE combined new and traditional approaches.
From December 2009 to May 2010, the first period of public engagement included a discussion paper, a submission process, 12 regional workshops, and a frequently updated website (livingwatersmart.ca). The Living Water Smart team also launched a blog (blog.gov.bc.ca/livingwatersmart) inviting visitors to leave their comments.
In response to repeated requests for continued involvement in the Water Act modernization, the MOE conducted a second period of public engagement from December 2010 to March 2011. To help frame the conversation, the Ministry released the Policy Proposal on British Columbia’s New Water Sustainability Act and used a suite of social media tools, including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, to capture comments and provide additional details about the proposed policies.
Entering the blogosphere
The Living Water Smart blog was a major component of the MOE’s social media strategy. On the one hand, Kriwoken says the blog helped the ministry to cut down on government rhetoric. “Online, what everybody is saying is up there. Transparency holds people to account,” she says.
But running a blog can be tricky. Online forums can become virtual soapboxes—and they don’t always lead to more accountability. In fact, the web can provide anonymity, bolstering visitors and leading to less-than-constructive feedback.
Parliamentary procedure or Robert’s Rules of Order are commonly used to govern meetings, but these codes of conduct are not easily transferred to the web. British Columbia’s social media team employed a moderator and enacted a moderation policy to encourage polite, constructive discourse.
“We established a policy to ensure we wouldn’t [accept/post] inappropriate comments,” Kriwoken explains. “It wasn’t our job to edit comments—they either met the policy or they didn’t.” Sometimes, she says, the blog team would return submissions for editing if it included inappropriate language or commentary. Surprisingly, posts would often return edited. If they fit the policy criteria, they would be accepted.
Participating in the blogosphere often requires more than just maintaining your own space. The MOE’s social media team also monitored other blogs, commenting on posts to clarify misinterpretations.
Riffing on the popular TED Talks (ted.com) lecture series, the Living Water Smart team also developed its own series of videos featuring Ted White, manager of water strategies and conservation, who is leading the Water Act modernization initiative. In these short spots, White narrates various aspects of the Water Act policy proposals, usually with the aid of a whiteboard illustration.
The MOE also used the videos to clarify proposals. “If things were getting misinterpreted or derailed, we could manage it in real time,” says Kriwoken. “It was a way of keeping the conversation alive.”
“What we really found with blog and, more importantly, the video and Ted Talks, is that they’re so much more powerful than simple text on a page,” says Kriwoken. “They really helped personalize the conversation and humanize the bureaucracy. When Ted walks into a meeting now, he’s already broken the ice.” Kriwoken says people recognize White from his appearances in the videos and, at public meetings, they felt comfortable talking with him.
Overall, the response was impressive. Living Water Smart received over 50,000 blog and website visits. The Ministry received over 2,250 written submissions or blog comments. Face-to-face public workshops saw more than 600 participants. Throughout the process, the MOE also conducted sector-level meetings and/or conference calls with representatives from various sectors including agriculture, power, oil and gas, mining, real estate, local government, business, and environmental organizations.
Social media, it seems, helped garner significant participation. But there’s a financial benefit, too. In comparing the cost and reach of social media to the cost per participant per workshop, the team saw some interesting results. “For 12 workshops, when you factor in facilitating and other logistics, we calculate spending about $150 per participant. With social media, including the WordPress blog, Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook, we spend about $5,000. That’s about $0.25 per visit. We saw a broader reach, some cost savings, and a smaller environmental footprint,” says Kriwoken.
“Social media is just one tool—it’s not for everybody,” says Kriwoken. “The younger demographic is more social media-savvy, but it’s not the preferred approach for First Nations, and there’s still reluctance in business and industry.”
Some of the key stakeholders took the more traditional route of formal submissions and attending workshops, she adds. “We have to be mindful that there are a range of tools in the toolkit and we have to pick them appropriately.”
Implementation requires involvement and action from everyone, says Kriwoken. While this is the first time British Columbia’s government has taken a social media approach to public policy, the team found that the tools have helped move them closer to meeting the goals of opening the doors on policy making and building public trust. “The more we can demonstrate transparency, the more we can help British Columbians take ownership,” she adds.
With social media added to the consultation toolkit, policy makers can get a deeper sense of public preferences. Kriwoken says, “As a result, we get a stronger policy.” WC
Kerry Freek is the editor of Water Canada.