Necessary boundaries

Our moment is very much tied to our technological advances.

Indeed, these advances often seem to be outpacing our ability to evaluate them for how they may shape us, our identities, altering how we think of ourselves, how we relate to each other and our political systems.

And if that is true for the citizen, it is true as well for that organization we know as the City of Guelph.

That fantastic human enterprise we call social media — today’s version of the old phone party line — creates opportunities for engaging citizens.

But with those gaps in thought about what it can mean for us, it has also brought the normalizing of good ole’ fashioned eavesdropping. And the opportunity to intercept, err, engage folks when they’re saying something that doesn’t match up with the official line from City Hall.

There is a clear line from this not-so-new phenomenon, if you know your History, to a citizen’s ability to give informed political consent at election time.

That’s big stuff. It’s about boundaries.

It’s the stuff that also goes to whether or not a citizen is able to evaluate their government, to be able to evaluate important questions at budget time.

With gratitude to George P. Grant.

The following is the text from my presentation to City Council last night; forgive the form, which is about making it easier to read… check presentation against copy… if you’re so inclined.

Madam Mayor, councillors, friends in the public gallery;

Recently, a project called Media Analysis was mentioned in a story published in the Guelph Mercury.

To quote from it;

The city is currently compiling data gathered from all points across the media spectrum

[ in a project called Media Analysis. From stories published in traditional news sources, such as newspapers, to articles written in blogs, to snarky comments made on Twitter —

the city is gathering up everything that happened between July 1, 2011 and June 30, 2012 …]

The information gathered will be analyzed and then used in the creation of a media relations strategy for the city.

Madam Mayor, as you will recall from your 2009 State of the City address, you provided an account of what various interactions a citizen typically has in a day with city services.

You mentioned showering and what-not, you mentioned our morning coffee.

I am concerned that your narrative of a typical day should today also include us posting comments to a social media forum, and having it monitored and analysed by staff and used in designing messaging back to us.

It’s not unlike eavesdropping in on a “public” conversation among citizens at their neighbourhood coffee shop.

And so, Madam Mayor, tonight I want to talk about appropriate boundaries.

This issue goes to not only how we spend public money and of how we use staff resources,

It goes to a citizen’s ability to evaluate budgets, and value for services, which goes to the foundation of our democratic system.

There are ways where the internet has been helpful to citizens in accessing information from our various levels of government. But it’s not without its potential for abuse.

That media monitoring can be done relatively inexpensively is also a point of concern in that it can happen very much under the financial radar.

Indeed, the power to influence public discourse that can come from monitoring and analyzing social media far exceeds the resources necessary to do it.

That’s big stuff.

I am here tonight to ask that Council make an intentional statement that the City of Guelph does not eavesdrop on the public, that going forward it will not allocate another penny to this activity, not one more minute of staff time to it.

Indeed, it is something that the City should choose to get ahead of now, instead of becoming by degrees increasingly mired in it.

I suggest the city’s core business doesn’t need, or at least, shouldn’t include searching around the internet for opinions that stray from the official line.

On this I think the City of Guelph has crossed a boundary with citizens in monitoring comments posted on social media sites.

With respect, when it comes to on-line data-mining, there is a difference between figuring out how to get someone to buy a box of cereal, and influencing public discourse.

I submit to you that soliciting feedback through the City’s forums, including online forums now and possibly in the future, is acceptable, and quite different from extracting data from sites that an organization such as this City is monitoring.

Which as your experts know, big picture now, these narratives can be ultimately translated into support for particular elected officials.

So, this is also about the further politicization of City Hall. And it’s contrary to true transparency and accountability.

At best, the optics are horrible, and it is not conducive to building trust.

Madam Mayor, as we would all agree, we are a smart and caring community.

Your recent reference to the City as a vending machine of services captures that particular dysfunction that has been observed about this City’s direction of trying to be “everything to everyone”;

But it also captures that internal dysfuction of how the City as an organization — with its own objectives, with its own interests in managing its message and the power it has to do that with public dollars –

Is looking inward to its own budgetary needs, seeing its purpose in its own growth-

We have observed the City accumulating staff to serve… more staff.

And to add to that now, suggestions that local government is becoming too complicated for most us to understand…

We do in fact know what we want. That assessment, Madam Mayor, we can make without the City’s help through revamped messaging. But at any rate, the city can determine the story it wants to tell without trolling.

And there are any number of legitimate routes for the City in knowing what we want from that corporation.

Beginning with the voice of the lowly city councillor. Whom we elected.

Madam Mayor, the bottom line is, most of us would say, yes, we are proud of our city. And we want the best for it.

But Madam Mayor, there are boundaries.

Even in the name of civic pride, even in the name of “wellness” or “engagement”.

And to repeat, that’s big stuff.

Thank you.

About Craig Chamberlain

Ward 3 Guelph resident, dad and step-dad.
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