The twitterstorm that has been created around the City of Hamilton’s public engagement project, managed by the Ottawa consulting firm Dialogue Partners was successful in derailing the project, and getting the consultant fired, but it has also exposed what some observers view as a form of cyber bullying or cyber vandalism. The project, Our Voice Our Hamilton seemed like a great idea. The City of Hamilton, confronted with a $200 Million annual infrastructure deficit and a host of other financial headaches, decided to engage the taxpaying public to find out what municipal services are the most valued, and which services might be reduced or eliminated to save money. Residents would also be asked which services for which they might be prepared to pay extra in order to continue to receive them. Anybody who has attended a public consultation meeting in Hamilton will know how poorly attended they typically are, and of the handful of people who do show up, how frequently one sees the same faces at these types of meetings. Wanting to reach the broadest possible audience the city issued a request for proposals last year to find a firm that would engage public opinion as extensively as possible. After a selection process that weeded out a number of proposals that did not meet the project’s minimum qualifications, Dialogue Partners was awarded the contract valued at $376,000. While the project had been underway for several months, what started the firestorm was the launch of the Our Voice Our Hamilton website on January 7th. On the website was a Twitter page inviting residents to talk about the services provided by the city that were most important. What follows is an account of some of the Twitter traffic that took place on January 7th and 8.th In some cases we have inserted punctuation for clarity.
It all started innocently enough at 5:41 PM. Tweeter Eric Gillis came across the OurVoice OurHamilton site and posted. “Noticed the project hasn’t officially launched yet—but still (responding to one of the questions on the Our Hamilton website asking what municipal services were important, replied) “the continuation of voluntary pay for disabled on the HSR.”
OurVoice Our Hamilton replied, “Thks for the comment- what is “HSR” just so we can accurately capture your comment, Thanks!”
Next, Tweeter Andrea Castillo joins the conversation chiding OurVoice OurHamilton, saying, “If you Google HSR, the first response would let you know its public transit in Hamilton.”
Shortly, “Cyn Searly” joins the conversation tweeting, “ What is HSR…I’m speechless.” Cyn Searly copies Hamilton blogger Joey Coleman.
In its defence about the HSR question, OurVoice OurHamilton explains, “(We) had to ask. We can’t assume anything.”
On the basis of that exchange, Michael Pett, self described “experiential educator and indie film producer” decides, based on the brief tweet exchange thus far, that punishment is in order. He joins the discussion with an idea to jam the OurVoice OurHamilton site with tweets. It’s based on Tell Vic Everything–a tweet- based protest that targeted Public Safety Minister Vic Toews last year. In that case, a group of Twitterers opposed to a potential loss of privacy due to a bill in the House of Commons decided to go the opposite route and tell Public Safety Minister Vic Toews everything about their lives, flooding his Twitter feed. Tweeted Pett, “Anyone remember #TellVicEverything? Let’s try (the same) strategy with @OurHamilton. Maybe #TellOHEverything?” Again Joey Coleman is copied.
The next day Coleman exhorts the group, “ Okay EVERYONE to Twitter and join the #TellOHeverything hashtag – we’re providing Hamilton facts for our new City consultants from Ottawa. Let’s trend this.” And later that day– success. “We did it #HamOnt – #2 Canadian Trend right now is#TellOHEverything! Let’s make it #1.”Before it was over, 600 people had contributed over 2,800 tweets. Also on the same day Hamilton cable TV host and blogger Laura Babcock joins the discussion; “ I am enraged by this—will discuss on OShow (her cable 14 program) tonight.” Babcock, a frequent tweeter ( who in a recent week tweeted or re-tweeted an average of about 100 messages a day) became a regular contributor to the discussion, both in criticizing Dialogue Partners as well as offering communications advice for the beleaguered firm. Another frequent participant in the discussion was Coun. Sam Merulla who urged that the company should be fired.
In addition to the firestorm of Tweets, on January 7th and 8th, a hacker had installed some malware on the newly launched website. People clicking on the banners were redirected to a payday loan site. Finally, the next night, after some commentary described as ‘inappropriate’ was posted; the website was taken down at the request of City Management. A week later the Spectator opened a Storify account titled “our Voice—Our Ridicule” to collect and store all the Dialogue Partner tweets in one place. Many of the tweets critical of Dialogue Partners continued to cite as fact, allegations that had been proven untrue or which were denied by the consultant. Some tweeters continued to ridicule a picture of people on bikes, including the Mayor of Hamilton as being an Ottawa picture, when it clearly was not.
The Bay Observer conducted a lengthy interview with Stephani Roy McCallum, managing partner of Dialogue Partners to try to find out what went wrong and what the controversy can teach us. On its website the company notes, that it works with clients “to help them better manage emotion and public outrage.” Surprisingly Roy McCallum evidenced little or no outrage of her own at the campaign to discredit her firm. “Here’s the thing,” she said, “citizen engagement is risky business; if you ask the question, you have to live with the answer” “But,” she continued “You have to listen to all the citizens—not just the loudest, not just the best organized.”
She explained the project was never intended to be strictly a Twitter or Facebook-based consultation. The key piece of the web strategy was to get taxpayers to complete an-on line survey that contained several open-ended questions about citizen attitudes towards city services and how to pay for them. But the project would also involve identifying and contacting a diverse group of community opinion leaders and citizen groups for face to face consultation. “We called hundreds of individuals and organizations and offered to give them the tools to have a facilitated discussion within their own group. That was a huge part of the design of the process.” The Twitter account was intended largely to increase awareness of the project and to get respondents to participate in a more meaningful manner either by taking part in the questionnaire or by attending a public meeting or both. “Social media has a huge value in gauging how people connect to issue,” Ms. Roy McCallum noted, “but it also removes the need for civil discourse on important issues. You cannot have a meaningful discussion about complex issues in 140 characters.”
Of all of the missteps of which Dialogue Partners was accused, the only one that Ms Roy McCallum clearly accepts is the initial tweet question asking Eric Gillis “what is HSR just so we can accurately capture your comment, Thanks!” “Our purpose was to confirm that the respondent was referring to the transit service, but it came through as suggesting we didn’t know what the HSR was,” admits Ms Roy McCallum. “We should have found a better way of asking that question.” The company was blamed for a picture of Hamilton Ohio appearing on a Pinterest web page, but Roy McCallum says nobody remembers posting these pictures, and besides the entire website was vetted by city staff before it went live. She doesn’t think the pictures were on the site when it was getting final approval, but has found Pinterest uncooperative in assisting in getting to the source of the pictures. On Laura Babcock’s cable show, Dialogue Partners staff were accused of “hiding out in a hotel room in Toronto, a charge that was subsequently withdrawn. Blogger Mahesh Butani, a former candidate for mayor, who has been critical of the attack on Dialogue Partners, calling it a “lynching” has posted comments from other Pinterest users who complain that their pages have been hacked.
So what are we to take away from the debacle? If the only misstep by Dialogue Partners turns out to be an out of-the-gate minor stumble over a question seeking clarification about a comment on the HSR, one can ask if the organized campaign against the company been an injustice? We asked Joey Coleman, who took a lead role in organizing the avalanche of negative tweets whether he had considered the possibility that the Twitter campaign, and his role in it, had the consequence of wasting $367,000 of taxpayer dollars. He was unapologetic, “I have long standing concerns about the City’s overuse of consultants. This was a $376,000 project in which the consultant did not put the effort forth to earn that amount. The objective was to call attention to misspending of our tax dollars and waste. My goal was solely to call attention to fiscal mismanagement. Our City claims it does not have funds to provide services, yet has no shortage of millions of dollars for consultants.”
Butani refers to the Twitter group as “A very small group of narcissists that are not representative of the community. What has coalesced around the hash tag HamOnt are jingoists and self promoters chatting and patting each other on the back.” Stephani Roy McCallum says we shouldn’t lose sight of the original intent of the project, which was to involve taxpayers in important decisions about how the city should deliver and pay for services. “Municipalities cannot afford to maintain services in the current manner. My real sadness was for the people. It’s a courageous act for a city to open itself to this kind of input.” While she says the authors of the Twitter attack had a right to do so, she added, “in launching their campaign, they silenced the voice of others.”