Despite the occasional ministerial tweet and public banter about the federal government’s imminent (always imminent) plans to expand the usage of social media, caution remains the order of the day. And so it shall be until at least the next federal election, a focal point of partisan spin and “war room” tactics that ensures online tools and channels are first and foremost about branding, fundraising and messaging.
What happened to Web 2.0 as a new movement of “mass collaboration” and a generator of forms of democratic engagement? While we certainly see dramatic evidence of social networking leading to political action in such far off places as Tunisia and Egypt, what about here at home in our more established if somewhat lethargic democratic polity? And what about administratively, where Web 2.0 is said to be the basis for service innovation and more flexible models of policy and decision making?
In cities and small communities across the country, it is indeed possible to witness some emerging contours of new forms of governing driven in large part by the online universe and the expansion and wider acceptance of new social media.
Take, for example, Berwick, Nova Scotia, the province’s self-proclaimed apple capital and also its fastest growing community in recent years. With a local population of approximately 2,500, the town’s Facebook page has more than 1,700 friends following and contributing to the local community (most are locals but a smattering of expats keep in touch as well). During recent storms, Facebook has provided an invaluable platform for not only updates by town authorities but also residents themselves, informing and mobilizing accordingly.
In the fall of 2008, in part through Facebook cajoling the town’s voters, the turnout rate surpassed 50 percent despite an acclaimed mayoral candidate (himself a user of Skype to connect with family). Berwick’s Chief Administrative Officer, Bob Ashley, sees great potential ahead in terms of integrating online discussions and input with the more formalized council meetings to widen deliberation and learning. He acknowledges, however, that most councillors remain trepid in their own social networking usage and the implications for how best to interact with constituents.
One concern shared by many in the community is the invariable venting by a disgruntled few and the potential for what the University of Toronto’s Mark Kingwell terms the “shouting doctrine” to take hold. Yet, despite the occasional rant, Ashley notes that local proximity actually nurtures civility since people know they are interacting virtually with their real world neighbours (and on a few occasions people have been called out to tone down their remarks).
Ashley is also a proponent of cloud computing solutions and is anxious to see municipalities across the province explore such creative avenues in both individual and collective pursuits. Berwick is currently negotiating an agreement with its neighbours, the larger County of Kings, to share many aspects of their IT infrastructure; it is hoped that such collaboration, combined with the potential of the cloud, can yield more cost-effective and innovative solutions.
Such interest and innovation are mirrored elsewhere in Canada where the makings of a local renaissance may be taking hold. Perhaps the most high profile political example is that of recently elected Calgary Mayor, Naheed Nenshi, whose leveraging of social media played a large role in his come-from-behind victory. Mayor Nenshi is now promising to deploy such digital connectedness and creativity in mobilizing the public to better address the city’s challenges going forward.
To the north, Calgary’s perennial rival on and off the ice, the City of Edmonton was the first in Canada to host an “apps for Edmonton” campaign that leveraged open data sources and public ingenuity as a basis for new online tools that bring closer to reality the promise of “smarter communities” (a term originating in California during the late 1990s). A bit more west, Vancouver is widely regarded as a leader in open data experimentation, and across the country municipalities are experimenting with a range of new social media capacities to better align virtual and physical identities and engagement.
With respect to public sector reform, both politically and administratively, the greatest impediment to this bottom-up approach to governance renewal may well be the structures and culture of Canadian federalism that centralize both fiscal resources and media visibility of provincial and federal authorities at the expense of local government.
One recent poll in January tellingly reported that only 15 percent of Canadians were actively paying attention to federal politics (despite the appearance on television of partisan attack ads). As television diminishes and new social media expands, perhaps local awareness and engagement will continue to rise accordingly.
Jeffrey Roy is Associate Professor in the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University (firstname.lastname@example.org).