David Eaves
by David Eaves
Thu Aug 27th 2009 at 1:30am UTC

How to Engage Citizens on a Municipal Website…

Sometimes, it’s nice to be small. The City of Nanaimo has been pushing the envelope on open data and open government for a number of years now.

Recently, I was directed to their new Council Agendas and Minutes webpage. I recommend you check it out.

Here’s why.

At first blush the site seems normal. There is the standard video of the council meeting (queue cheesy local cable access public service announcement), but the meeting minutes underneath are actually broken down by the second and by clicking on them you can jump straight to that moment in the meeting.

As anyone who’s ever attended a City Council meeting (or the legislature, or parliament) knows, the 80/20 rule is basically always in effect. About 80 percent of the time the proceedings are either dead boring and about 20 percent (often much less) of the time the proceedings are exciting, or more importantly, pertinent to you. One challenge with getting citizens engaged on the local level is that they often encounter a noise to signal problem. The ratio of “noise” (issues a given citizen doesn’t care about) drowns out the “signal” (the relatively fewer issues they do care about).

The City of Nanaimo’s website helps address this problem. It enables citizens to find what matters to them without having to watch or scroll through a long and dry council meeting. Better still, they are given a number of options by which to share that relevant moment with friends, neighbors, allies, or colleagues via Twitter, Facebook, Delicious, or any other number of social media tools.

One might be wondering: Can my city afford such a wiz-bang setup?

Excellent question.

Given Nanaimo’s modest size (it has¬†78,692 citizens) suggests they have a modest IT budget. So I asked Chris McLuckie, a City of Nanaimo public servant who worked on the project. He informed me that the system was built in-house by him and another city staff member; it uses off-the-shelf hardware and software and so cost under $2,000 and it took two weeks to code up.

Two weeks?

No million dollar contract? No eight-month timeline? No expensive new software?

No, if you’re smart, a couple of creative hackers can put something together in no time at all.

You know what’s more – because Chris and the City of Nanaimo want to help more cities learn how to think like the web, I bet if the IT director from any city (or legislative body) asked nicely, they would just give them the code.

So how Open is your city? And if not, do they have $2,000 lying around to change that?

4 Responses to “How to Engage Citizens on a Municipal Website…”

  1. Jarie Bolander Says:

    Hats off to the City of Namaino for hiring these guys and letting them be successful. This is the power of open source and innovative people who want to make a difference. Great job!

  2. How to Engage Citizens on a Municipal Website « Social Government Says:

    [...] How to Engage Citizens on a Municipal Website (and here).   [...]

  3. Open Cities | Todd BenDor Says:

    [...] The entire process of getting information to citizens can be streamlined.    Check out the Creative Class blog for more info! February 5th, 2010 | Category: [...]

  4. thug Says:

    I live in the harbour city (Namaino) and am still trying to get hired into the city. The only problem is jobs but yes, our IT skills here are legendary.