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  • Writer's picturetamera

Toronto Web 2.0 Summit – step in the right direction, epic fail, or a bit of both?

This week the City of Toronto held a Summit to discuss how Web 2.0 (or the social web) can “increase civic engagement, reach all communities, and improve City services”. As the event itself was invite only a lot of participation occurred via the live webcast and in back-channels such as Twitter. I have a lot of thoughts about both the way the event worked, and how it didn’t, and will try and balance the two, while being honest & open in my feedback as I think it’s an important first step in a process that concerns all Torontonians. There have been opinions expressed that should be voiced if the City is serious about community engagement & interaction online.

First, it was a great idea – connect the decision makers, industry, internal government employees, and the public together to figure out how the social web can facilitate a better civic experience. Great idea, yes, but it unfortunately it didn’t live up to its promise, and actually the promise of Web 2.0/ social participation, the very topic of discussion.

There were some excellent speakers and panels that sought to provide some anecdotal as well as concrete examples of how government can use the tools to reach out to citizens, including the luncheon keynote by Mark Surman and the interaction with Mayor Miller, but there were also logistical & planning issues that stifled the potential and made many comment that the day was a “FAIL” (in 2.0 parlance). While 300 people tuning in via webcast is a small proof of concept, and there were passionate discussions online, with only 10 people physically in attendance during at least one session and with images of rows of empty city councillor seats seen via the webcast, the importance to the decision makers within the City seemed absent, or at the very least, under-represented (h/t Adam Froman); another misstep was starting the day with a panel on how the public wants to be engaged online without any representatives from the public on it. Great idea; poorly strategized.

What the City could have done:

  • Make the day into a blend of panels and workshops with concrete examples of issues from constituents and push for mandatory councillor participation and involvement. Bring together facilitators (our city has a ton!) to moderate and brainstorm actionable solutions to real-life problems – both internal and external; tech, procedural, etc.

  • Not make the day invite only. This seems a no-brainer to me, web 2.0 is about collaboration and openness and it feels counter-intuitive to close the gates to true participation at the outset, and it ends up cutting off some of the voices and ideas that are so vital to moving the premise forward.

  • Solicit and prioritize issues/ ideas in advance – for the public at large and for the city – transportation? health care? waste management? events? Focus on more than just the abstract. While Google maps mashups with the TTC are great (and I totally dig them and think they’ll be a great step forward), is that the number one priority for the City or best use of resources? Is web-casting every council meeting? Maybe, but maybe not.

  • Lay off the heavy moderation of the webcast and citizen participation – I asked two questions, once in the morning and once at the end of the day and neither one was released from moderation by whomever was monitoring the channel. Web 2.0 is as open and transparent as possible, not guarded, except for language and threats.

  • Bring in outside voices and expertise from the grassroots level in the city who are already using the social web and to bring together a diverse group of the population to work on local issues and spur action – Toronto has a vibrant community of passionate people to draw on, why not tap into it to shorten some of the learning curve?

  • Some kind of “next steps” to keep moving the discussion and planning forward and encourage participation – there are, as we saw at the event, a lot of talented individuals inside the government who could easily be the point persons to manage something like a wiki (which if the two days had included workshops or similar direct participation could have been frameworked) to solicit ideas and keep the citizens who wanted to engage and share informed of what was on the agenda (and recruit organically from their local circles – build momentum). It’s a challenge of course to coordinate in government, but “idea labs” are something that should be on the radar.

  • Included members of the public who represent different community organizations and looked to other government agencies and groups using the social channels so far & invite them to participate as part of a “lessons learned so far” discussion – Foodland Ontario, City of Markham, Prince Edward County, Ottawa Public Library, etc. etc.

I don’t believe the event qualifies as a FAIL, and I think a lot of good ideas and interest was spurred during a few sessions and hopefully a lot of food for thought and take-aways for the municipal officials who participated. I truly hope the City is committed to this and will take this first event as a baby step, incorporate and learn from the feedback available to them (blog posts, twitter updates, webcast questions, etc.) and keep moving forward. It can be a big or a small challenge depending on how we all deploy our resources – as a community!

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