Two weeks ago, while most Canadians with an interest in politics were following the Paul Calandra debacle, I was thinking about municipal government. I’d been doing some research for a Gnowit project on government relations, digging through recent surveys and notes, when a particular trend grabbed my attention. As it turns out, one of the recurring items on the wish lists of government relations professionals is a reliable method of monitoring municipal government.
My first reaction was surprise. It’s true that some industries – such as construction, real estate, and city transportation – are directly affected by municipal decisions. But the larger relevance of these decisions is not immediately clear. Canadian municipalities, sometimes referred to as “creatures of the provinces”, are not known for their high levels of autonomy. Forced amalgamations and sudden shifts in financial responsibility are examples of the level of control the provinces exercise over our cities and towns. So why, given this apparent lack of power, is the desire to track municipalities growing? As it turns out, there are a whole host of reasons.
1) Municipal officials don’t (necessarily) have to toe the party line.
As a general rule, municipal candidates are not compelled to vote along party lines. In the case of some municipalities – like Toronto – the reason for this is obvious: there are no parties. The Ontario Municipal Elections Act effectively bans them at the municipal level. As a result, councilors vote independently, which means they are in a better position to listen to issues raised by outside voices. In Toronto, this point was clearly illustrated between 2010 and 2012, when lobbying activity increased threefold based on the perception that city council did not have a fixed voting pattern.
In many municipalities that do subscribe to a party system, officials still exercise greater independence than their federal and provincial counterparts. This is because the party discipline that persuades MPs and MPPs (or MLAs, MNAs, or MHAs) to vote as a group either doesn’t exist or is not particularly rigorous in municipal politics. One need only look to the difficulties encountered by former Vancouver mayor Larry Campbell to see one of the primary differences between provincial and municipal politics (Campbell left his party, COPE, over infighting and a frequent lack of consensus).
Notably, this point does not apply to Montreal, where political parties hold a great deal of power.
2) Municipalities are becoming more powerful.
For decades, the federal government has faced criticism for favouring a “rural lens”. Critics contend that urban perspectives are undervalued. While it is true that (because of the way the electoral map is divided) rural votes hold more power than urban votes, the voices of Canadian city dwellers are increasing in volume. Rapid urbanization and the merging of municipalities have lead to sprawling metropolitan areas, the inhabitants of which are becoming harder and harder to ignore.
Identifying issues that affect large segments of the population can be helpful to those who hope to impact government policy. Monitoring can be an effective way of doing this. Unfortunately, when it comes to sparsely-populated regions, unmanageable travel distances and inconsistent record-keeping on the part of municipalities can make manual and automated monitoring impossible. This is where focusing on Canada’s largest cities can be useful.
There are currently upwards of 2.7 million people in Toronto. Montreal has 1.7. Vancouver and Calgary are growing fast. Those looking to make predictions about provincial and federal policy might want to start by looking at these cities.
3) Due to online and social media, municipalities are receiving greater exposure.
Social media has changed the way news stories break. Perhaps the best-known example comes from the Arab Spring uprisings. Before mainstream media was aware of these events, front-line reporting surfaced on Facebook and Twitter. Of course, this was not the first illustration of the power of these tools, nor the last. Again and again, information that may never have seen the light of day during the reign of traditional media is disseminated to the public.
A February 2014 issue of Municipal World notes that, due to the popularity of social media, “neighbourhood issue[s] can quickly escalate to a whole ward, city-wide, and, in some instances, provincially”. Real-time monitoring of government and local media can help politically-savvy professionals catch future news stories before they come out in social media.
4) You’ll hear voices that often go unheard.
An article published in Municipal World (referenced above) describes the Canadian public’s growing desire for involvement in municipal government. This desire is increasing in a time of “declining voter turnout, growing mistrust of elected officials, and demands for increased transparency and openness in decision making.” Because municipal governments are smaller and generally more accessible than their provincial and federal counterparts, municipal proceedings can be good places to hear about issues affecting less powerful and disenfranchised groups – many of which will wind up having an impact on policy down the line.
Manitoba Hydro is one provincial organization that has changed the way it operates in response to the issues of a historically-oppressed group of citizens. After a long history of violating treaty rights, the crown corporation has made public attempts to change its reputation. In the last decade, its relations with some First Nations communities have improved due to partnership efforts. These efforts have included seeking greater input from members of some communities affected by hydro projects. Whether this move constitutes progress depends on who you ask. One thing is certain: the public looks favourably on organizations that engage in corporate social responsibility. Monitoring local government in order to address past grievances (or predict grievances that may arise in the future) isn’t just the right thing to do; it could be a very smart move.
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Though the benefits are vast and varied, the options for municipal monitoring are somewhat limited. Monitoring manually is the most obvious solution. This entails attending town or city council meetings and – when possible – reviewing materials that capture these events. Most major cities post audio or video recordings on their official websites; many even livestream proceedings. Unfortunately, these forms do not lend themselves to automated monitoring, for which textual documents are required. Though some cities make committee minutes available, nothing beats the quality and consistency of verbatim Hansard transcripts.
Currently, we at Gnowit are excited about the possibilities of speech-to-text transcription software, which will be immensely useful for municipal monitoring. Among other things, speech-to-text will enable the creation of government transcripts in real time. We believe this feature will revolutionize municipal government monitoring. If this interests you, watch for future posts about the developing technology that will make this software possible.
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