Communication in Local Government

“Who do I talk to about this?”

“When is that event?”

“Why isn’t this on the website?”

The workings and structure of municipal governments is rarely clear, but it’s not from a lack of trying. I can almost guarantee that your answer is on the municipal website – but so is a lot of other information, and sorting through it can be challenging. Communicating important information on the internet is like planting a needle in the world’s biggest haystack and hoping people will see it.

What are you looking for? SO many things!

Municipalities often struggle to get information out to the public. Part of the problem is that there’s no guaranteed way to get people’s attention. They use big advertisements in the newspaper, but many people no longer read the paper; they use announcements on their website, but it isn’t always easy to navigate; they run social media channels, but working the algorithm to ensure that people actually see your posts is a constantly shifting puzzle. And none of those challenges are visible to us, the intended audience for their messages.

And we have high standards. We’re used to being able to get instant answers from Google, or the hive-mind that is the Brighton Ontario Residents group.

The Brighton Ontario Residents group on Facebook is a microcosm of our community, showing some of the best (and I can say as a former moderator, occasionally the worst) aspects of community. It’s where we might see Des Rodrigues’ latest painted LP, nature photography from Presqu’ile Park, or Daniel Decouvrour’s woodcarvings. It’s where local businesses toot their own horns on Tuesdays, and politicians promote themselves on Municipal Mondays. But all day every day, it’s the hive mind, the place to get instant answers from our neighbours about virtually anything:

What’s a reputable company for ____________?
Who’s hiring in town?
Is anyone else’s hydro/internet down?
Where can I take injured wildlife?
Is the bus running late today?
Who wants to form a club?
Is the 401 closed?
What’s that smell?

It doesn’t matter what time of day you ask, you’ll probably get 40 responses from your neighbours. It doesn’t matter that someone else asked the same question a few days ago and you just can’t find the post. It doesn’t matter if you were vague in your question, or if it’s a super niche thing that you’re after, or anything else: if you have a question, you’ll get answers. Your neighbours have your back!

The “Hive Mind” concept is used to describe how we’re all connected digitally. This image was lifted from a neat essay about the next steps in connectivity here:

Contrast that to an organization like the Municipality, where there’s probably only one person who can answer your specific question or address your issue, and you may not actually know who that is. You might spend a while browsing or searching the municipal website and not find the information you need; you might call in and get transferred to a few different people before you leave a voicemail for someone who’s out of the office; you might send emails and wait days, maybe even weeks, for a response. Compared to your experience in the BOR group, where people line up to answer your questions, it seems unacceptably slow!

Even setting aside the fact that a few people at work can’t possibly compete with thousands of neighbours online for response time, we need to consider a few things about our municipal staff in comparison to the BOR hive-mind:

First, they’re understaffed. We’ve had a lot of turnover in municipal staffing over the last few terms. It was a big election issue in 2018, and it hasn’t improved. There are a lot of reasons for it, but for our purposes here let’s just note that the volume of work our staff have to do is literally impossible for them to do quickly.

Second, while the hive-mind almost always provides a quick response, it isn’t always the right response. Staff can speak authoritatively about complex issues and procedures, but sometimes that means doing research or getting approvals. Facebook groups often end up repeating what someone heard from someone else, and we don’t always hear anything at all about whether or not it’s accurate. Accurately addressing a question or request takes a lot more time than posting a quick response online. (Not that it’s any resident’s job to be accurate! No shade on residents doing their best to help out!)

So how can we improve communication with our local government?

First, it’s important to differentiate between Councillors and Staff. While a Councillor can help direct you to the right place or person, they’re not a substitute for the right Staff member. They’re also not a complaints department, and they can’t speed up service for us. That would be like asking to see the manager’s manager’s manager if you’re dissatisfied with your service! Instead, it’s important that we all take some time to learn about how our municipality is structured so that we know the best person to talk to. Posting to the local group to ask the Mayor a question that would be best answered by Staff seems natural, because we’re used to going there for answers; but it puts our Council members in a tough spot, because it’s publicly asking them to step on the toes of our Staff, and skipping the line of other residents who have asked through the proper channels.

But second, the municipality can do more to help us understand how it’s structured. There’s information available on the website describing the different departments and who serves in them, but it could be made clearer. And on the point of clarity, I want to be very clear that this is not a Brighton problem, this is a problem with governments everywhere, perhaps especially municipal governments. They’re famously difficult to access.

Dave Meslin’s book Teardown is full of excellent advice on how to make local government more accessible and transparent to residents. I once bought a copy for every member of Council, and planned to have a public book club/series of seminars about reforming municipal government; COVID squashed that plan, but we can still use Meslin’s expertise to examine our own systems and perform a “teardown” on our government communications. I highly recommend picking it up from one of our local bookstores, and I plan to use its insights as the basis for a lot of my suggestions for making our processes easier for us all. And maybe we should still have that book club!

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