That’s the message the Hastings District Council is attempting to communicate with its new online initiatives aimed at engaging the public around district issues. In the closing days of October, HDC launched a new website and complementary Facebook page, both seeking greater public participation in the Council’s planning and decision-making.

In turn, these new digital tools are part of a broader initiative – called My Voice, My Choice – designed to make communicating with the Council more citizen-friendly. The Council’s communications and marketing manager Paul Evans says, “The whole point is to give people the opportunity to have their say in the way that’s most convenient to them … Whether you’re a texter, a typer or a talker, we want to make it easier to make your views known.”

It might be as easy as giving a ‘thumbs up’ or ‘thumbs down’ to a set of options on the Facebook page, spurring your friends to do likewise. Evans hopes the Facebook page will have 2,000 friends within twelve months.

The new website at: www.myvoicemychoice.co.nz is purpose-built to be inviting and easy-touse. It’s cleanly designed, offering ongoing feedback on various topics, a running update on all comments, and a regular polling capability. Its sole purpose is to stimulate and capture citizen response on the ‘hot topics’ currently in the Council’s planning and decision-making pipeline.

As such, it is separate from the Council’s main information website, which currently attracts about 12,000 unique visitors per month, and its new marketing site aimed at attracting visitors to the Hastings District.

Evans points out that this investment in digital engagement has not required new funding. The work has been done mostly in-house, mainly by HDC’s resident webmaster Chris Webb, with an external cost in the $2,000 range.

www.facebook.com/VoiceChoice

My Voice, My Choice certainly jumps the Hastings Council to ‘Best in Class’ amongst area councils with respect to use of digital media. Hopefully their effort will set off some kind of digital arms race for citizen engagement.

Evans says that My Voice, My Choice will look for additional innovative ways to reach out to the public, as opposed to giving citizens only the traditional choices – interrupt your dinner and drive yourself to an inconvenient 5:30 pm public forum (where you might be disinclined to speak up anyway), or write a laborious formal submission as part of some official consultation. Neither of these options is attractive to many ratepayers.

Evans talks, for example, of having Council interviewers taking citizen surveys ‘on the spot’ using iPads. And of going ‘on location’ to video-record residents around the district on particular issues, producing videos that can then be viewed on the website or Facebook page, perhaps alongside a video brief on the issue, to stimulate further reaction … perhaps even citizen-response videos.

But will they drink?!

The new My Voice, My Choice initiative will get its first ‘pilot test’ in connection with the Council’s early outreach for next year’s Long Term Plan. Council staff have produced a series of fifteen theme booklets – now available online or in hard copy – that “address the key areas the Council feels need strong consideration” when the Long Term Plan is officially prepared next April-May.

Digital tools aside, this ‘preview consultation’ approach represents a bit of a breakthrough regarding Council’s LTP adoption. Many in the community have felt that the ‘die is already cast’ by the time citizens are asked to formally submit.

As HDC staff concede, internal work is already today well-advanced in framing the issues and formulating the plans that will first appear ‘officially’ for public reaction in April in a ‘draft’ Long Term Plan. A lot of momentum builds up behind that ‘draft’ plan by the time the public traditionally gets its first whiff. ‘Draft’ is more like ‘printer’s proof’.

HDC’s new preview consultation is informal, with the theme booklets offering easy-to-digest background and choices in areas like land use, water futures, urban centres, housing options, community safety, job growth and skill development, coastal futures, and more. All are available at: www.myvoicemychoice.co.nz along with supporting documentation for those who wish to dig deeper.

My Voice, My Choice deserves high marks for inviting Hastings citizens into serious issue dialogue at a timely stage. Other councils in the region should be doing the same, but they’re not. So the Council is doing its bit to ‘bring the people to the water’. But will they drink?! Paul Evans says: “We can’t make them drink, but we want them to know there’s some water there.”

He’s optimistic. “We put up lots of barriers and this is about pulling those  barriers away.” Evans thinks the Council will tap the clearly growing trend for people to engage online for all sorts of purposes, and claims many in the community have told the Council they do have views that they’d like to communicate, but just don’t find existing options convenient or comfortable.

It’s up to you, reader, to prove him right or wrong.

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