A decision to change up how St. Albertans are consulted on the city’s annual budget appears to be working wonders this year.
Every year up until now, the city held an open house where residents could come to hear a presentation of the budget, ask questions of city staff and offer their thoughts, fears and advice to council. The number of residents who take this opportunity to weigh in has traditionally fluctuated over the years, but recently it tapered off so severely it raised the question of whether these open houses had value at all. In 2017, the number of participants dropped to just over a dozen; and last year, the Gazette counted only six St. Albertans who came out to engage council on what is arguably the most important annual document the city produces.
It’s a problem that has been recognized and discussed in the past by councillors: how do you effectively engage people and reach as many St. Albertans as possible to offer them a chance to provide input?
This year, the seeds of those discussions are finally bearing fruit as the city scrapped its usual open house in favour of a website where residents can post opinions and discuss ideas with each other. The website asks residents to answer a simple question: what do you believe St. Albert’s priorities should be over the next budget year?
And residents certainly seem to be embracing this new tool, which has already garnered a response far beyond the paltry handful of people who offered opinions in-person last year. In the past week, scores of people have responded. Responses are public and the tool allows residents to engage with each other on the pros and cons of their ideas.
Of course, with any online engagement tool comes the potential for abuse – even for moderated tools like this one. Yet so far, comments are respectful and many are insightful.
So what are residents saying? Nothing unexpected – some want the city to save money; others want the city to spend more money on certain services. Some want the city to hold the line on taxes. Many want Ray Gibbon Drive twinned. Some want capital spending to be delayed, while others want new amenities to be built or more investment flowing into St. Albert’s parks and trails.
By approaching residents in a new way, the city has received a diversity of opinions councillors need to hear as they weigh their options this month and next. This new tool is an important one for residents to have the ear of council, it's an example of democracy in action and it’s a step in the right direction for councillors to be able to represent the people who elected them. There is still time to add your thoughts to the mix, as well – the website is open for answers up until Nov. 10.
There are undoubtedly tough decisions ahead, but with open and fruitful discussion, St. Albertans will have a better understanding of which decisions are made and why.