Open Government

 The citizens of HRM—in their businesses, their community organizations, their neighbourhoods—are stepping up to make things happen. They deserve a government that is open, transparent, and encourages engagement. 

On February 6, I said I wanted to speak with the citizens of HRM about the issues that interest and concern them. Since then, I’ve spoken with many people throughout the municipality. Over and over, I hear that citizens in every community and from every walk of life want their government to be more open, to provide better access for their ideas and their issues, and to be more effective. 

A government can earn trust only when it trusts citizens to evaluate information and make good decisions for the future of their families and their community. 

With the election of a new, smaller Council in October, 2012, HRM has an opportunity to take a fresh look at the way we are governed, how council works together and to explore ways that citizens can be more involved. The months leading up to the election provide us with the occasion for the exchange of ideas and suggestions for a better community. 

Citizens have told me they want Council to have a shared vision to move HRM forward, but a vision that respects each community within the municipality. 

As Mayor, my first step would be to bring together the new Council to establish a collective vision of our community’s goals, and an understanding of the work required to achieve them. That vision will be most effective if it is informed by the thoughts and aspirations of citizens from all parts of HRM. 

I’m sharing some of my ideas on ways we can achieve an open, transparent, and truly accountable municipal government. I’ve discussed them with people I’ve met over the past several months, and those conversations have informed and improved my own thinking. 

I hope you’ll join the conversation. Do you have additional thoughts? Can you suggest improvements? Do you agree or disagree with these ideas, and why? 

As I meet more of you in the months ahead, I hope we can discuss these and other ideas about making HRM the most livable, entrepreneurial, and inclusive community in Canada.

I look forward to hearing from you! 

Open and Responsive Government

Citizens bring a wealth of knowledge, experience and common sense to public issues. HRM will be stronger if government works openly with citizens, shares information, measures performance and connects directly and meaningfully with the communities where people live, work and play. 

Some ideas for achieving this are:

Promoting a culture of openness 

  • All meetings of Council and committees will be open to citizens, unless a clear need has been demonstrated to protect the privacy of an individual, or the legal position of the municipality
  • Ensure that recorded votes are publicly and easily available, so citizens can see how their elected representatives have voted
  • Timely publication of meeting agendas, supporting information, and minutes to ensure citizens and Councillors have opportunity to review information and provide input to the decision
  • Examine the benefits of establishing a municipal lobbyist registry.

Fair Municipal Campaign Financing

Over the past several years, there have been significant changes to how Provincial and Federal elections are financed. The current rules that govern municipal campaign finance do not adequately reflect the principles of openness and transparency. There is no limit on donations or total expenditures. Fundraising can take place between elections with no reporting required. Some ways in which this can be improved include:

  • Review municipal campaign finance reform for all municipally elected officials. The scope of this review should include but not be limited to:
    • Spending  limits
    • Eliminating fundraising outside of  election years
    • Donation limits
    • Disclosure of campaign spending.

Demonstrating performance

Are we getting good value for the taxpayers’ money spent on our programs and services? Are we achieving the goals we set in our strategic planning efforts?

HRM currently measures performance in various areas, like the Economic Strategy and the Corporate Plan. Best practices indicate that these measures should be easily accessible, easy to understand and released at regular intervals. Clear and objective measurement of performance against stated targets allow staff and citizens to understand what is working well, and where we need to improve. It will also tell us how we’re measuring up against other municipalities and against our own record.

  • Based on experience in other jurisdictions, such as the Ontario Municipal Benchmarking Initiative and the Municipal Performance Measurement Program, enhance current performance measures, with a plan to expand to a more comprehensive performance management system.
  • This information will be part of an Annual Mayor’s Progress report to citizens.

Making Government Work

With the reduction from 23 to 16 members, Council will have to restructure to work effectively with and for the citizens of HRM. Community Councils, where local Councillors meet and hear from citizens on local issues, should provide vital links to Regional Council. If they have the authority, the responsibility and some resources to act on local issues, Community Councils can handle many things that currently debated by the Regional Council. By delegating more local matters to Community Councils, Regional Council can focus on broad and strategic issues that affect the whole municipality.

Some measures that would allow Regional and Community Councils to work more effectively could include:

  • Providing Community Councils greater authority to act on local matters such as zoning, building/demolition permits, basic service delivery , and local capital projects within the context of the municipal planning strategy
  • Examining  mechanisms to provide appropriate budget to Community Councils to fund their expanded activities
  • Balancing the work of Councillors and ensuring due diligence by moving Regional Council meetings to every two weeks, with Community Council meetings on alternate weeks.
  • Establishing a committee of Mayor and Chairs of the Community Councils, along with senior staff, to support and guide deliberations of Regional Council.

Citizen Centred Government

Good governments are finding new ways to engage citizens at every step of public policy development and program delivery. This is an important measure of the health of the relationship between government and the community it serves.

Some ways that HRM can inspire authentic, consistent public engagement are:

Inviting participation

In addition to face to face public conversations, technology allows for direct democratic participation by citizens from all parts of the municipality. HRM’s online presence is an essential tool in serving citizens on a range of programs and services.  Citizen- centred technology should offer a one-stop shop for customer service on permits, registrations, and other municipal services. The website and social media tools, as well as online forums, can act as an interactive platform for citizen engagement and participation.  Other service enhancements such as increased live streaming of Council and committee meetings, and allowing citizens to participate in meetings from anywhere in HRM through a videoconferencing service should be investigated.

Informing Citizens

Citizens with informed opinions and positions can participate wisely in discussions and debates about issues in their neighbourhoods, and in issues that help us move forward as a region. Many municipalities, such as Edmonton, are publishing data that the City collects routinely, such as election results, community surveys, street construction maps, catalogued and easily identified by users.

HRM should consider the following: 

  • Establishing an HRM Open Data Initiative to allow citizens free and user-friendly access to data that is routinely collected but not routinely published
  • Supporting this initiative with a series of workshops for citizens to participate in the design and the content of the Open Data Initiative
  • Establishing a protocol to ensure the timely release of reports commissioned by HRM.

 

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