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Home > English > Alternatives International Journal > 2013 > March 2013 > Open North: New Civic Engagement Tool Opens Up City Hall to (...)

Open North: New Civic Engagement Tool Opens Up City Hall to Residents

Friday 1 March 2013, by Tamkinat Mirza

Open North, a Montreal-based nonprofit that works to promote government transparency and citizen engagement at government level, is working to provide Canadian citizens with online tools to interact directly with municipal leaders.

“Open North’s mission is to increase opportunities for citizens to engage in the decision making processes of government, so what this means is that we’re interested in creating more access to information and also to make participation more fun and meaningful,” said Ellie Marshall, Open North’s Communications Manager.

Since its conception in May 2011, Open North has worked on open standards nationally, but is now looking to reel in the focus toward municipal politics, working on the idea that the latter can be more crucial in terms of impact on individuals’ daily lives.

“We’ve particularly become interested in the municipal level, because municipalities are responsible for the majority of the services that citizens use on a daily basis, like roads, schools, parks, waste management; but citizens don’t have access to tools that provide direct input to the decision making processes around those services. So, even more so than federal or regional politics, it’s the decisions at the city level that are going to change how you live in that city, how you interact with your neighbors. We believe that when citizens participate in decisions at City Hall, leaders make better decisions to make cities safer, healthier, and smarter,” said Marshall.

Another reason Open North is promoting reeling in the focus is the greater degree of room for interaction with municipal leaders rather than federal politicians; at times, getting issues notices at the municipal level may prove more effective than lobbying solely at the federal level.

“Municipal politics is smaller scale in terms of media coverage; there’s also an opportunity to have a bigger impact. Each citizen has a bigger opportunity of interacting with a leader, than say, interacting with Steven Harper. So we really want mycityhall.ca or mamairiequebec to be a free online solution for accessing decisions and that process,” said Marshall.

The project is still in its infancy, with versions of the site in progress for Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa, but the group hopes to expand rapidly, extending its focus to other cities and also the tools the site offers.

The website draws on a similar concept in operation in Germany, which provides citizens with a platform to interact with their politicians. “We’re adding the ability to ask a question to your councilors. And this is a system that’s based off of Parliament Watch, which is a program in Germany [that] has been really successful… Over a hundred thousand questions to the German parliament have been answered by elected representatives. This will allow you to see what your councilor has said to your neighbors, and come election season you’ll be able to see which ones have interacted. We think this is creating a shared memory for voters. On that same theme, it’ll allow you to track and share motions before council and engage with your existing social networks when important issues arise. When you know what happens in city hall, you know when to speak up,” said Marshall.

Perhaps most important of all, the website functions as a tool to hold councilors accountable for their extended activity—not just their visible augmented activity during election seasons.

MyCityHall.ca (or in Quebec, MaMairie.ca) will allow you to monitor your councilors’ activity. When you enter your postal code, it will show you who your councillor is, what their attendance at City Hall is, their voting records and how to contact them,” said Marshall.

Open North also aims for the website to function as an educational tool, to promote a greater understanding of democratic functions and to encourage citizen involvement in ensuring government transparency.

“We want it to be used in high schools, in civic classes. The cool thing about this tool is that it’ll give a teacher in Toronto the opportunity to create a lesson plan… That lesson plan can be shared with a teacher in Montreal or Ottawa. It’s the idea that it’ll be a tool many different school boards can use and really help students understand that democracy doesn’t stop on voting day,” said Marshall.

Working over a range of levels, Open North’s website will function to increase the ease and convenience of citizen engagement in municipal politics, but it will also allow councilors to engage constituents, activists and nonprofits to track issues and mobilize supporters, teacher to help students understand how democracy functions, and average citizens to make sure their elected officials are representing them.

While the project is a result of its partnership with the Participatory Politics Foundation (PPF) in the United States, it requires external funds at this time. Open North needs to raise $10,000 per city, and will be starting with Toronto on Feb 19th on indiegogo.

Tamkinat Mirza currently works as a Communications and Outreach Volunteer at Open North.