A recent story in the Hamilton Spectator describes Hamilton as one of the latest in a growing line of municipalities to jump on board the “active resident engagement” train with the launch of OurVoice.OurHamilton.
Some recognize Hamilton’s efforts as important steps towards implementing a participatory budgeting process while others doubt its ability to meaningfully engaging residents in municipal matters. This fear has been fuelled by a series of recent public gaffes of newly recruited engagement consultants, Dialogue Partners*, known for undertaking a similar project in Calgary under Mayor Naheed Nenshi. Public backlash from residents and City Council has led to the unfortunate suspension of the engagement project as local officials and activists invested in the promised outcome of the campaign scramble to manage the fallout from this debacle.
Though many might write the backlash off as unwarranted and harsh criticism, it shows the challenges embedded in revamping our urban governance structures. It’s not enough for municipalities to hire and handsomely reward consultants to fix systemic issues that have plagued our cities for decades, residents need to be assured that initiatives like OurVoice.OurHamilton. are not just a PR stunt without any real impact. It is incumbent on all participants to approach an endeavour of this magnitude with equal enthusiasm and thoughtfulness, acknowledging the value of what is at stake.
Despite polarized perception of Hamilton’s engagement initiative, it is fair to say that the intentions behind this project align with the underlying values of participatory budgeting – deliberation, collaboration and empowerment, all of which are outlined in a Wellesley Institute report entitled A Better Budget for a Better City.
Our research showed participatory budgeting to be an innovative tool capable of supplementing both formal governance mechanisms and grassroots community-building initiatives. Administrators stated that OurVoice.OurHamilton. was intended to provide an outlet for residents to express opinions about the value and prioritization of city services in order to restructure the allocation of resources. Further, City of Hamilton employees were set to receive training from the engagement consultants in order to develop a corporate citizen engagement policy and database. Public input would have been solicited through a number of avenues (ranging from the traditional town hall meeting to the newly-embraced twittersphere), in an effort to recover feedback from a diverse sample and enrich the pool of perspectives used to inform prospective budget decisions.
In the face of uncertainty brought on by the halting of OurVoice.OurHamilton., it is important that residents look past their outrage and recognize this foiled attempt as the inevitable growing pains accompanying change. This seemingly disappointing endeavour is an opportunity for Hamiltonians to make a long-term investment in a healthy budget process, underscored by active citizenship, leadership development and improved communication between residents and City Hall.
Though this initiative represents just one in a long line of steps toward healthy budgeting, it is a declaration of mistakes made and a commitment to improving the health and well-being of all Hamiltonians. So, it is with great pride and a bit of jealousy that I watch Hamilton take this step toward redefining its urban identity through an official reworking of its budget and engagement processes. One can only hope that Toronto councillors will follow suit by adopting the recommendations outlined in Wellesley Institute’s A Better Budget for a Better City report, thus changing the dialogue from simply “who will be Toronto’s next mayor” to “who will be Toronto’s next pioneer and how will they advocate for and implement a healthy budget process.”
* This blog originally stated that Dialogue Partners have been dismissed – this was incorrect. A decision about the future of the campaign will be made by councillors on Monday.