“Team Saint John” Is a Lot Bigger Than We Think
Saint John’s online community can no longer be seen by City Hall as a curiosity, a distraction, a fad, or a problem to be managed. Instead, City Hall needs to take advantage of this incredible opportunity to mobilize a huge, talented, engaged group of investors in our community to make smart decisions, solve big problems and set priorities that benefit our people the most.
The recent election that concluded last week with an almost entirely new City Council demonstrated two important new realities: 1. our people care about our city and want our future to be about greatness, not merely survival, and 2. most of us are eager to get online to collaborate, share, partner, and push the things we feel are important.
5 Mayors is a Great Start
5 regional Mayors coming together to get True Growth started for greater Saint John a few years back (pictured above) is a great example and a positive partnership. But because of social media and a relatively high participation rate here, “Team Saint John” can and should be a lot bigger and more powerful to move us forward as a community – fast!
For example, consider the hundreds of people who gave their heart and soul to support the long list of candidates for election over the past month. Whether their candidates won or lost, those people cared enough about our city and our future to invest themselves in one or more people that they believed could make a positive difference. Bringing these people on board to help rebuild our city is a logical first step toward repair and reignition of a renaissance here.
One of the key messages I share with my clients is that businesses need to build communities around their brands and that community needs to start with their own employees as the core. If staff are connected as a community for outsiders to see, the brand becomes much more attractive and engaging and is able to bring people in to help the brand grow. Without it, they face an uphill climb to advertise their way into people’s consciousness at great expense.
Our city is no different. In fact, we are a community already and our online conversations enhance and extend the real connections we share here.
Saint John Needs a Director of Community Engagement
What City Hall needs is a person with a true understanding of community building, culture change, and online engagement who can effectively use modern tools to pull people together for a few important purposes:
- Collect data from our people online on a daily basis to inform and direct city hall decisions and gather sentiment around various issues to determine what is important to citizens.
- Set policy and guidelines for use of social media and online tools within City Hall.
- Schedule the removal of restrictions on social media use in City Hall in coordination with staff education and privacy policies.
- Educate City Staff on responsible, constructive use of social media and online research to do their jobs more effectively and to partner with the people in our community who care most about what each of them does.
- Make online data and sentiment required reporting on issues to City Council. City staff should know how to gather this, interpret it, and share it to provide current feedback for the decisions our representatives make.
- Identify, listen to, nurture, and help city staff participate in the various community groups online.
This role needs teeth. This Director needs to report to Council and to the public and requires the support and authority of the highest ranks of city staff. Success in this role will result in a more informed and empowered workforce in city hall that is better connected to the people of Saint John as collaborators and partners.
Us vs. Them Must End
For many years now I have appreciated the obvious challenge it must be, as a city hall employee, to be scrutinized and criticized by their own neighbours for the jobs they do each day. Their jobs effect our lives from the moment we turn on our shower in the morning until we turn off our lights at night, and often we have opinions on how well those jobs are done. It’s our right as citizens and as investors. But it can wear on someone doing their job to be so publicly scrutinized, even if not directly.
Social media presents us with the opportunity to make partners and collaborators out of each other, whether we are civil servants or citizens. The us vs. them mentality needs to go away and we are all responsible for making it go away. We do this by sharing solutions instead of just problems and by being thankful and appreciative of the things that are done right in Saint John and not just critical of shortcomings. And as a group we need to insist on attitudes and behaviours in our public discourse that will lead to progress.
PlanSJ is a Great Example
No business would survive with a disrespect or disregard for its customer. Neither will our city. The people of Saint John need to be brought inside City Hall as partners and participants in service delivery, planning, and growth or we will not prosper. And we have a great model with PlanSJ as city staff reached out to the community using a variety of methods to hear what was important in the Saint John of OUR future.
To participate in PlanSJ I just needed to show up. A few times I even brought my kids with me. I wasn’t required to submit my name to a city hall list as a potential volunteer. I didn’t need a special appointment by the Mayor to join in and I didn’t need to respond to an RFP. I just showed up, shared my views, and learned from my neighbours what was also important to them.
It was, and continues to be, a positive experience. I attended several PlanSJ events where our input was invited, collected and then reflected back to us in the municipal plan that was produced. The plan was submitted to Council, debated and approved.
The Next Step…
While several hundred of us attended the Plan SJ sessions, there are thousands of us online now (and growing rapidly) that can provide a much bigger focus group than PlanSJ’s methods ever could. This is an amazing opportunity to make online citizen engagement a permanent, powerful tool for a great and rapidly growing city.
Nothing suggested here is exceptional or even unprecedented as fast growth businesses everywhere are overhauling their corporate cultures so they can bring their customers inside as partners and advocates for their own needs. Why else would a business exist if not to meet the needs of its customers?
Let’s make the changes needed to realize the great advances of the internet age now instead of being reluctantly forced to keep up with other communities later.
Saint John’s people are leaders in online involvement, engagement and even innovation. City Hall should catch up by getting out in front and leading a big, productive ongoing discussion that builds a peoplecity.