Ontario city clicks with e-Democracy

Frank Scarpitti is the only mayor in Canada to be elected, in part, by votes cast over the Web, so perhaps it’s no surprise he wanted to find more ways to engage citizens of his town through the Internet.

Since being elected mayor of Markham, Ont. in 2006, Scarpitti wasn’t satisfied with the old process used by city council to formulate town policies.

For Scarpitti, the conventional practice of holding a meeting or two to put together a plan, and then sharing it with a couple hundred people in the town with a population of 300,000 just didn’t cut it.

“If we get a couple hundred people out to a meeting, we consider that a huge success,” he says. “It’s been difficult to get out information to our community. We hear from residents all the time that they don’t know what is going on.”

Scarpitti looked to take Town Hall concept digital as a way to engage more residents.

To do it, he looked to the same company that helped arrange the Internet voting elections that Markham used in 2003 and in 2006.

So Toronto-based Delvinia Interactive was tasked with creating a Web site that would offer town residents an opportunity to make their opinions count during Council’s planning process.

Delvinia set about the job and the result was a multi-media, interactive portal dubbed Click with Markham, which was live from Nov 8 – 30, 2007.

Visitors to the Web site were greeted by the mayor walking out on to the page and introducing the plan.

Markham residents were invited to give feedback on six different strategy areas.

From there, users could choose from six areas the city had chosen to focus on for its plan.

Categories included growth management and transportation. Each section featured a video with Scarpitti outlining a plan of action, and after viewing it, users are given the option to fill out a survey.

Click with Markham had two objectives, according to Adam Froman, president and CEO of Delvinia. The first was to educate residents about the plans, and once they saw the videos, to offer them an opportunity to provide feedback.

So the survey included closed as well as open-ended questions. Citizens could rate the initiatives on a scale and then type in longer responses to the plan.

This process gave participants control over their experience, Froman says.

Over the weeks it was active around 7,200 residents visited the Web site, and more than half of them also left feedback on at least one topic. Though it is only about seven per cent of the households in the city north-east of Toronto, the mayor considers it a success.

It’s a triumph for a public outreach plan, Scarpitti says. “I really wanted to reach out to the community and it was good to get their endorsement and validation of key initiatives.”

Much of the feedback was favourable towards the council’s plan, he adds, and some topics were more popular than others.

Growth and development proved to be the most crucial issue, with many residents advising the city to keep all growth within the urban area. Transportation was another vital issue, with residents calling for improved transit before growth occurred.

“We adjusted our timing for going out to the public for more consultation on transit,” Scarpitti says. Markham, he says, also slowed down its growth process in response to comments made on the Web site.

An open-ended area of the site enabled residents to submit comments on whatever they wanted to.

Some people felt we had missed key priorities, Scarpitti said. As these residents registered on the Web site and left contact information, city staffers could  get in touch with them and discuss plans already in place.

City staff could see the results as they poured in through a tool supplied by Delvinia.

Using Confirm It, which Froman describes as “the Cadillac of survey technologies”, Web analytics and the user-entered feedback was collected instantly and stored.

Percentages were displayed in tables to represent answers given for the rating scales and a running list of responses displayed the written feedback.

“It almost becomes a big of a drug,” Froman says. “Once city staff knew they could check out this reporting portal, they’d always be going on to check out what people were saying.”

The Click with Markham project has been awarded the 2008 Willis Innovation Award from the Canadian Association of Municipal Administrators.

Markham has the highest proportion of “visible “minorities” in Canada at 63 per cent of the population. In Canada “visible minorities” are defined as persons, other than Aboriginal peoples, who are non-Caucasian in race or non-white in colour.

Markham’s diversity is reflected in the Web site with information offered in several different languages.

“I haven’t seen a municipality more progressive in terms of engaging residents,” the Delvinia co-founder says.  

Click with Markham also spurred another interactive project dubbed Green Print.

With the environment highlighted as a major concern by town residents, the city decided to create a project to engage Markham’s youth (11-18 year-olds).

“It’s geared for elements they want to see [present in] a future Markham,” Scarpitti says. “Whether it’s the skateboard park or the other recreational facilities we provide.”

With the youth audience the focus of the project, Delvinia is involving more social networks in the outreach.

“The big push for engagement into this is using Facebook,” Froman says. “There are thousands of Markham kids using Facebook.”

The Green Print Web site launched Oct. 25.

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