I think essentially our Village offices and Councils are doing a good job. But they are not doing a very good job of communicating.
One of Valemount Council’s strategic priorities is developing a communication strategy, and part of that has been switching to iCompas for Council agendas. The next phase is updating the Village website using CivicWeb, which I see a lot of other municipalities are already using. iCompas’s own website says “a government’s ability to deliver information to the public is vital to any strong community.” I think that is true, and I think using software and systems designed for municipalities, and used by many, is a good idea.
But that is not the end of a communication strategy. Communicating cannot be just a strategy, it is a daily choice. It takes effort on each person’s part, and it often requires thought and planning about how to do it.
For example, a bylaw can be written in a way that records the reasons for the bylaw, and the decisions made in the process. Valemount’s new Council Remuneration bylaw does not do that. It might be easy to point fingers and say who should have done it, who did something wrong, but anyone could have had an impact on that. If anyone had asked any of the councillors why they were changing the bylaw, someone might have thought to include more information. I have heard council members, including Mayor McCracken, on a number of occasions ask for more information about the reasoning behind certain sections of bylaws, or how certain dollar amounts were arrived at. But that information has not been recorded in many situations in the past. And in many cases, it’s still not being recorded now, so future Councils won’t have it any easier.
Because I am now a member of the press, I have to follow certain channels in certain situations. It has been an odd thing for me to wrap my head around – that because I will be telling the public, I sometimes am not allowed to talk to certain people about certain things. It seems ridiculous, because I am still a resident and an interested and concerned member of the public. I am still being served by the government I am asking questions of, and I think I have a right to ask questions. But sometimes there are technicalities, or things that can be miss-construed – all of those things that can cause rumors and chatter in the coffee shops and on social media. Someone along the way decided those things shouldn’t be spoken to media, and it somehow made sense to make sure official word only comes from certain sources. I may not like it, but I accept it, at least for now, because we all still need to get work done.
Someone suggested on social media recently that the Village should have a discussion board where people can officially voice their concerns and questions. There was some interesting discussion about the value of discussions on Facebook and similar sites, and whether or not council members and municipal staff should be “allowed” to read and post, whether they were getting paid to do so, and what it means to be public or private on the internet. But Facebook is not real life. There are many members of our communities that are not on Facebook, or the internet, and for many, some recent discussions highlight some good reason to not live your life on-line.
We need to remember that things like Facebook and communication strategies and online data repositories are tools. They work as well or as poorly as you use them. And especially with social media, it is up to us to sort through the knee-jerk reactions and emotional outbursts to understand the root of the issue, and find the calm thoughtful sharing of ideas. It’s all there, and without those physical cues about the person’s intentions, it can be difficult to know – is this a joke? Satire? Sarcasm? Anger? Complaint? A request for more information?
Yes, I think our Councils should want to know what we think, they should be engaged with us, whether that is at the coffee shop, online, or in a Council meeting. But placing too much importance on any one of those options runs the risk of missing out on what a whole other chunk of the community thinks and knows.
A communication strategy should not just be about how to convey information to the public. It should include how information is recorded for an organization’s own future use, and it needs to consider how information is gathered from the public. That should include online options as well as real-life options, because we all have different ways we communicate best.