Last month, Montreal’s Commission du conseil municipal sur les services aux citoyens, in collaboration with Montreal’s Youth Council, planned a series of public consultations about youth and communication. I attended two of the four meetings, and ended up with some interesting reflections on how the City perceives communication, not just with youth but with all its citizens.
I have a lot of critiques, but it is important to say that some of the members of the Conseil municipal sur les services aux citoyens, particularly the president of the Commission, Jean-Marc Gibeau of Montréal-Nord, were gracious hosts who engaged in an honest exchange and seemed sincerely interested in what young people had to say.
…and listen so kids will talk?
During the first session, I began to suspect that the City’s concept of communication just didn’t cut it. They seemed primarily interested in how best to broadcast information about services and events to youth. But, to use a well-warn cliché, communication is a two-way street. At one point the city councilors proposed buying ads in the Metro newspaper in order to communicate “good news” about the City, or inventing an app that would send selected City news capsules to our cellphones daily. Non, merci!
This prompted me to include the following comment in my memoire:
Dans ma vision de la communication entre la Ville et les jeunes, le rôle de la Ville n’est pas de se faire connaitre, mais plutôt de se conscientiser au sujet des besoins et souhaits des jeunes, et de les traduire autant que possible dans les lieux et les activités qui font le tissu de la ville.
I have the sense that the City people forget that their organization is not an end in and of itself but an intermediate between the citizens and the city – no capital – that we commune with daily, like it or not.
Speaking of communication
I have already expressed my disappointment about the way that this youth event was publicized with small-print ads in the newspaper and a PDF buried on the City’s website. I hoped that a consultation aimed at 12-30 year olds would be adapted to this target audience, so I was disappointed (although not surprised) to find myself in a typical town-hall meeting situation: rows of chairs facing a bunch of guys in ties at the front of the room.
Unsurprisingly, there were very few youth at the meeting – during the two sessions I attended, only one teenager spoke. The rest of the folks who showed up were representatives of youth groups, or adults like me who slipped under the age limit.
To fill a room with dynamic, like-minded people, and then stifle dialogue is a sad waste of an opportunity. As the meeting wore on, audience members began to discreetly switch seats in order to swap business cards or scrawl email addresses into each-other’s notebooks.
As frustrating as it can be for an adult, this format is even more inappropriate for young people because many of us (and yes, I include myself) don’t feel like we have the expertise to take the mic and state a fully-formed opinion. In a different context, such as a design charette or a round-table discussion, I believe that youth (and probably most people for that matter) would feel more comfortable asking questions, sharing their experience and point of view, and proposing ideas.
The consultation about communications seemed like a perfect opportunity to critique the ubiquitous format, which I did (at the second session I attended, another person raised the same point). I’m sad to say that this fundamental criticism about how the city communicates with citizens did not make it into the recommendations.
There, I Facebooked it
It was pretty clear that the City officials were expecting to be told that in order to reach youth, they needed to be on Facebook and Twitter.
But the elected officials discussed these media as if they wanted a fresh place to plop their press releases. I’ve already raised the point about two-way communication- well, if the City isn’t ready to cut through it’s politics and bureaucracy to engage in an actual dialogue with citizens, then Facebook and Twitter aren’t the right tools for the job…
Interestingly, neither of the sessions I attended dwelled much on the use of social media. On the contrary, the theme that was raised again and again was that to reach youth one has to go where they are: schools, CEGEPs, Universities, youth centres, parks. As one youth worker pointed out, only once you have developed this initial contact can you use Facebook and co. to keep in touch. Volunteer opportunities, student jobs, small arts grants, and university projects with real-world applications were proposed as ways to engage young people (the latter two made it into the recommendations).
If the Commission was hoping to come out of this consultation with a prescription to revamp their website, they wound up with more than they expected. A few of the more innovative ideas did make it into the recommendations, which were adopted November 11th; many others did not.