Recently, the City of Hamilton spent far too much money on an attempt to engage the public, and for once they succeeded. Monday, Dialogue Partners Inc., an Ottawa-based firm, began their new $376 000 “public engagement” campaign, “Our Voice, Our Hamilton” with a website and Twitter account, soliciting public input. By the next morning, their hashtag, “#TellOHeverything” became one of the most popular in Canada, though probably not in the way they intended. After asking what “HSR” meant from their Twitter account, people began to look more closely at the website, discovering that many of the pictures were in fact from places like Hamilton, Ohio or Hamilton, Washington, and started wondering if anybody from the campaign had ever even been to our city. As of Thursday, the website was “temporarily” taken down for “inaccurate and offensive content”.

It isn’t hard to see what inflamed people so quickly about this attempt at “engagement”. The website looks like something put together for a tenth-grade computer project (rectangles with rounded corners!). The name is painfully unoriginal (“Our City, Our Future”, “This is Our Hamilton” etc). There was virtually no local knowledge or content, and a well-demonstrated ignorance about Hamilton (Ontario) itself. From local volunteers, students, or even city staffers this might have been forgiveable. From a “professional” consulting firm, it came off like a sick joke.

$376 000 for this!?!

What’s really infuriating, though, is that an out-of-town consultants hired in the first place. Civic engagement is not a product which we can buy or a franchise we can set set up. It’s a process which must grow, first and foremost, from those who are being engaged. Having the whole thing run by a bunch of bureaucrats from Ottawa (for an exorbitant price) doesn’t exactly inspire grassroots credibility.

There ARE efforts going on, organized at various grassroots levels, to foster “civic engagement”, and there have been for years. I’ve been a part of some, and know members of many more. There’s the Civic League, attempts at setting up Town Halls, there’s an explosion of interest into Neighbourhood Associations, the new Change By Us initiative and more social media efforts than I can count. Add in the explosion of activism and independent media, and it shouldn’t have been hard to find somebody who could at least give some advice…

It’s obvious, though, why the City didn’t. All of these groups have been known to take positions very critical of city policy, and that isn’t the kind of “engagement” that they want. This problem has plagued municipal “public consultations” for years – citizens have an awful habit of thinking for themselves. Bureaucrats, in turn, don’t take kindly to people walking in off the street and questioning their hard-wrought rules. This problem arises with nearly ever major municipal issue – from school closures, neighbourhood-level planing or Aerotropolis, few come away from these “consultations” feeling particularly consulted.

Criticism isn’t always easy to take, but it rarely gets nicer when people feel they’re being ignored. Years of frustrated attempts have bred an atmosphere of animosity which has left many on both sides reluctant to get involved. Building a true culture of engagement with the City means breaking this cycle. I’m sure “Our Voice, Our Hamilton” was meant to help by introducing an experienced and neutral third party. Unfortunately, they came off a lot more like disinterested middlemen, which felt entirely too much like dis-engagement on the part of the city.

Every organization, no matter how autocratic, needs information from its lowliest members to function. The modern world offers many models of complex and convoluted strategies for communicating that information without opening a meaningful dialogue. We’re bombarded with countless polls and surveys (some in disguise), but none seem interested in relating to us as any more than a statistic. Nowhere is found a human face who is responsible or accountable for their statements, just spokespeople who’re almost as replacable as we are. It’s true of “market research”, political pollsters and suggestion boxes everywhere. The data they gather may be notoriously unreliable, but accuracy has never been the main intention. Every act of communication between individuals and institutions is also a mediation of power between them. It doesn’t really matter whether we walk away feeling satisfied, frustrated or totally ignored as long as we’re reminded who’s in charge.

Real dialogue isn’t so hard – it’s something most of us do every day, with nearly everybody we meet. What makes “civic engagement” so difficult isn’t finding a way to communicate, it’s the implicitly political nature of the conversation. Direct, honest and open communications with the citizens of Hamilton would require treating us like equals. It would set a precedent, limiting their use of indirect, dishonest and opaque answers in the future. It would make it far harder to dismiss the complaints of concerned citizens or to operate out of the public view. Simply put, such engagement would limit the real-world power of the City of Hamilton over its citizens, which is exactly why we’re demanding it. For the City, that’s likely a terrifying thought, but one they’ll have to grapple with sooner or later.

If this whole ordeal has shown one thing, it’s that while social media alone can’t create meaningful engagement, it’s more than capable of making ya a national embarassment by this time tomorrow morning.