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City of Victoria lays groundwork for deeper citizen engagement

Rain or shine, the City of Victoria’s new manager, Jason Johnson, likes to walk downtown with his lanyard on, anticipating conversations with people he meets along the way.

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His actions embody a new commitment at the city hall of the B.C. jurisdiction of 78,000 to “make sure we’re talking to people and make sure they’re aware that we’re open at city hall.”

“It’s most importantly about being real, and showing that the City is open, accountable and understandable,” Jason says.

Given the sweeping changes municipalities face, triggered in part by the transition from less hierarchical to more networked structures as well as citizens’ unprecedented access to information, Victoria is heading in an important direction.

Big institutions are losing influence and communities and movements are setting agendas and leading actions more than ever.

With its focus on being more open and accessible, the City of Victoria is laying the groundwork for ever deeper and more authentic citizen engagement – an integral need in this new era.

Most of this is about cultivating a certain cultural mindset amongst City staff, Jason says.

For example, a customer service ambassador and doorman has recently joined the ranks of the Victoria City staff for the first time. Responsible for city hall’s customer service experience from start to finish, this staff member is taking customer engagement at the City to a whole new level.

The City is also in the process of reviewing its financial planning approach. It wants to be more transparent about the allocation of the current and projected budget. There are also plans for increased public participation in the budget process as early as next year.

As another example of the City’s attempts to be more open, it invited people to engage via twitter during the discussion of its financial plan this past year.

Jason, who subscribes to the notion that “better is always possible,” adds he’s very excited about these and related changes in the works.

“I think what we’re doing is a bit unique and I’m really interested to see how well it works, see if it’s the right approach.”

He’s quick to add the City is taking a lessons learned approach with these attempts and is willing to redirect if need be. He and his team are actively reviewing best practices worldwide for civic engagement – including those “outside the box” — to continue to help shape Victoria’s approach.

Looking ahead, Jason says the best he foresees happening through these efforts is that the feedback from the community is that they’re engaged in what the City of Victoria does. He’d also like to see that council is happy with the process and has multiple opportunities to engage.

Victoria is one example of a city heading in the direction of increased permeability with its community. It’s beginning with a commitment to more positive relationships with citizens and garnering their feedback. Additional possibilities include engaging in authentic conversations as a community and ultimately even co-creating projects together.

This story is part seven of a series focused on placemaking and other citizen led initiatives. Read other entries in this series here:
1) Citizens stepping up to reshape public spaces
2) Team sparks renewal of Kelowna’s unlikely places
3) Designing and making choices as a community – that’s placemaking
4) Animating public spaces can inspire, rather than drive, sustainability
5) New convening role for municipalities
6) Local history enriches an Edmonton park design
8) Growing shift among communities focuses on stronger resident engagement and reducing the “role” of local government

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