We’re known for our work with high emotion, conflict and controversy…but we don’t usually generate it!
Dialogue Partners is known for its good work in public engagement on complex and complicated issues.
We “specialize in civic engagement in situations of high emotion, conflict or controversy”. It says so right on our website – it’s what we at Dialogue Partners are known for and what we do best. We’ve worked on issues such as nuclear waste, inner-city school closures, spending priorities for municipal services and budgets, healing and reconciliation for Inuit people, environmental justice, decades long conflicts with threats of blockades and bombings to hydro stations, community conflict in recovery from massive bush fires and flooding, water as a human right, time deferrals for blood donation by men who have sex with men and more. These kinds of issues typify the work we do – high emotion and high stakes.
We’ve won awards from the Canadian Association for Municipal Administrators in innovation for citizen engagement and a number of awards from the International Association of Public Participation (IAP2) for ethical and integral projects that align with the very best public engagement standards, Core Values and best practices.
We are often brought in to a project when there is already conflict, controversy and emotion. We don’t create it; we help others figure out how to work within it, honour all voices, and help everyone find a path forward.
So imagine our surprise this week when we found ourselves in the middle of an extremely controversial situation…which we played a part in creating.
We are human. Quite human in fact. And we’ve made some mistakes.
We’re currently working in partnership with the City of Hamilton on a project where things have gone really wrong, really fast. Where mistakes have been made, where people have questioned our credibility, our competence and our ability to do meaningful and effective engagement. And where together we’ve sat back with our partner and silently watched the momentum of it all build to the point of having to call a time-out. This all happened from the moment of the project launch, over a very short period of less than 3 days. A lot of negative things have been said about the project, about the City, about those citizens who’ve tried to stand up for the project, and about us directly.
We’ve tried to be true to our values and what we know – that it is possible to talk to anyone about anything, even things that are highly emotional if you do so with calm, caring, respect and generosity. Our team conversations about what to do brought to mind the slogan of “Keep Calm and Carry On”, and the story behind it resonated for us. You can learn more about the story here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FrHkKXFRbCI
We thought we’d start with what we’ve learned, and then share the story of what has happened so far. We welcome your input and suggestions on this journey we’re on.
What lessons have we learned this week?
1. You need ground rules of engagement, even online, especially before you start a conversation. We’ve always been proponents of having people create these rules themselves, and of believing in the very best of people and how they will rise to the challenge of supporting each other in conversation. Turns out sometimes you need to start the conversation with basic rules of engagement like “Everyone has a right to a voice” “It’s OK if we have different opinions” and “Everyone has a right to respect.” We would never allow participants in a room to say some of the things that were said online. Bullying and intimidation are not acceptable, anywhere. We are guardians of the process and there to ensure the voices of all citizens are heard.
2. The loudest voices do not represent everyone. It’s easy to lose sight of those who want to participate when all you hear is negativity, or if there are very loud voices speaking. We know from experience it is harder to give voice to what you do want, and easier to criticize and say what you do not want. Behind those few loud voices are actually hundreds of other people who have asked to be signed up for the newsletter and already participated in the online opportunities, and they are different voices saying very different things than many of those who are most vocal. We want to be clear – it doesn’t mean the loud voices aren’t important and we definitely want to hear from them. We respect the important issues they have raised. But they don’t speak for all Hamiltonians, and the loudness and disrespect of some of them have silenced the voices of others.
3. Silence is not golden. Walking into the conversation is the only way to have a full discussion. We agreed with our partner to sit in silence, but silence is not the right response in this situation. We respect the City of Hamilton, and understand their hesitancy to speak, but we think together we’ve seen the harm that silence creates.
4. Balance momentum with speed. In the flurry of a project launch, if there are too many communications and engagement pieces going on at once there is a greater likelihood of errors being made. The project timelines were changed and the timeline was condensed – that means we consolidated multiple opportunities for involvement into a 3-month window. That was not our original plan. We think we’ve learned it’s best to build gradually on momentum and interest generated from events, and allow longer timelines.
5. It’s hard to convey respect, openness, curiosity and trustworthiness in 140 characters or less. We’re still figuring out what this means for the use of Twitter in situations of mistrust and emotion. We know from experience you can’t resolve conflict in short bursts of opinion, and it requires in depth conversation. You also can’t have a full and thoughtful conversation in sound bites, and you can’t solve complex problems that way either.
6. Never underestimate the power of a group. We’ve always known, respected, and advocated for the power of people’s voices. We think Twitter users asked important questions about the project, our role, our payment, and our knowledge. However, somewhere in the tweeting frenzy on Monday and Tuesday the tone became about taking down Dialogue Partners instead of talking about City services, City needs, or building up a community.
7. A meaningful, inclusive process is critical. The process for Our Voice. Our Hamilton. is inclusive, focused on a rich and thoughtful conversation about City services designed to gather input in ways that works for all Hamiltonians. We stand by the process we have designed and believe it is the right one for the City. We know a group has organized over the use of a different online tool – we’re very familiar with this tool but we know that one cool tool doesn’t reach everyone, allow for respectful discourse, take the conversation beyond a surface level, or increase understanding. One online tool isn’t a replacement to a meaningful conversation for all Hamiltonians.
8. Public engagement can be emotional, controversial and doesn’t flow in a straight line. We’ve always known that, and we’ve always expected to have to adapt and be flexible in a process so we can be responsive to what emerges and people’s needs. It takes courage to NOT jump to judgment or conclusion when voices get loud and to allow space for a diversity of views in a full conversation.
9.There are reasons to hire firms from outside the community that don’t have a bias, opinion or stake in the conversation. Having a stated opinion on City services, a view on City Hall, advocating for your own services to be retained, belittling those who have different views than you do – these kinds of things impact the engagement process significantly and would not serve the needs of all Hamiltonians. Hiring someone from outside the community means they need to learn more about the community, but it also means they don’t have a stake in the outcome of the conversation.
10. We are humbled. By the power of people’s voice, their emotion and passion for their City. We’ve always said people can do anything if they come together with intention to make their voices heard. We respect the power and passion of their voices.
So what happened?
It started with Twitter and spread to Facebook, and for the most part stayed within the sphere it started, and the media covered these voices and views.
In the first 24 hours we issued an apology for our misstep in asking a dumb question we should have known the answer to. We thought we were facilitating the conversation by asking for clarification, but really it wasn’t the smartest question we’ve ever asked. This question sparked an outcry that we didn’t know anything about Hamilton, that we were from outside of Hamilton, and ignited questions about the process and our credibility. We apologized first on Twitter within hours of asking the question, then publicly on Facebook within 24 hours of project launch, where we also answered some of the main issues being raised by tweeters.
Many Twitter and Facebook users raised good and important issues that needed answers – where we are based, did we know anything about Hamilton, how much were we being paid and more. These are all good questions that deserved an answer. We answered many of them within 24 hours.
Many tweeters also participated in a campaign with the hashtag of #TellOHeverything – meaning that they needed to tell @OurHamilton (the project Twitter account) all sorts of important information that we would know about Hamilton if we lived there. This brought many Twitter users together and so many tweets were issued that they trended nationally. The tweets included things like:
- Jackson Square is actually not very square
- The McMaster Marauders are a football team, not actually travelling pillagers
- Don’t mention a casino in Hamilton unless you have at least 9 hours to argue
- #TellOHEverything is the hashtag engaged citizens use on Twitter. It is short for Hamilton, Ontario
- The Queen does not, in fact, live on Queen Street. Nor the King for that matter. We don’t have a monarchy
Our team found many of the tweets entertaining, funny and showing passion, pride and connection to the City. If the campaign was not generated as a result of our misstep, we would have been cheering!
What happened then? Many Twitter and Facebook users were unsatisfied with our apology and response and reacted with passion, some of them calling to initiate a campaign “to put us out of business” “let’s get them” and “let’s shut this down”. A campaign was launched. More allegations, issues and challenges were raised, which created even more passion.
Where some Twitter or Facebook users tried to call a halt to the campaign, to question it or to advocate to give the conversation a chance, they were ridiculed, humiliated or bullied by other users.
It became clear that silence is not golden. In discussions with our partner we stood with them in their suggestion we stop talking about the controversy so that we could find answers to what was going on and to understand how this was happening. After a day of this we strongly advised it was time to start talking, but we respected their hesitancy to do so.
On the second day the security on the project website was breached and a virus inserted. Questions were raised about some pictures posted to the project Pinterest page, and we are still trying to get answers about the source of these pictures, including asking Pinterest to investigate.
On the third day some participants used the online tools to promote inappropriate and/or offensive comments. On the night of the third day the City asked us to make the website invisible. That same night we did unpublished the Facebook page, primarily because anyone who was trying to talk about City services or stand up for the conversation was being shouted down or treated disrespectfully by those who had launched the campaign. We didn’t want to silence those who were raising questions or who were talking about City services, but the environment was no longer one of respect.
In between, a few surprising things were said in all the excitement. A local cable TV show host who is a “professional” communicator declared that the Dialogue Partners team was hiding out in a Toronto hotel, afraid to come to Hamilton (we weren’t). Tweeters started a campaign alleging the use of survey monkey was contrary to the provincial privacy standards (it is not) or that we had posted a picture of a bike path in Ottawa on the website (it was a picture of Hamilton with the Mayor and a Councillor on bikes) or that we had made up the story about the hacking of the website (we hadn’t). It was even stated that Dialogue Partners and those we work with were based in New York, not Ottawa (it’s Ottawa). We were even accused of creating this controversy on purpose in order to raise awareness of the process (not true).
Our phone was ringing off the hook for media interviews. A group began organizing to start their own engagement process using an online tool.
In our work we know that the things that hurt you or don’t get resolved are the ones you DON’T talk about, so being silent was the wrong way to deal with this.
What were some things that have not yet been heard?
Over the last week we have been receiving calls and emails from people apologizing to us for how other Hamiltonians were treating us. People contacted us to say this was a conversation Hamilton badly needs to have, and many offered their support to us, to the City, to the conversation. Some tweeted an alternate viewpoint. Some contacted us to report bullying and intimidation by others when they offered a contrary opinion or view. A number of community groups contacted us to ask how they could get involved in the conversation, anxious to have discussions. We heard things like this:
- Somehow, we need to get beyond the “I’m right so I’m right to nuke you” ethics that dominates our time.
- Will the #tellOHeverything mess mean that #hamont backs away from authentic engagement? #oncebitten What next for citizens?
- In its essence, the OH website is a good idea. Lets help them make it better instead of tearing them down #HamOnt
- Is this really how we want #HamOnt to trend Canada-wide? Not really a point of pride.
- c’mon #HamOnt you sound like a bunch of jocks ganging up on a rival high school team. #mobmentality
- Any chance we can stop playing to stereotype? Reaction #HamOnt was pretty much what you’d expect. Not unlike when a substitute teacher showed up in grade school (only the AV Club kids led the revolt). Yes, we all know some of you are smarter than everyone else. But you didn’t win the contract. Get over it. We’ve lost sight of why this exercise is happening – hard choices are coming to Hamilton around programs & services.
- Shame on everyone who participated in the recent, most ugly public lynching of Dialogue Partners. Such behaviour is not representative of the City of Hamilton.
- I will do whatever I can to support this conversation – it is one that really needs to happen in this City. You need to come here with your team and park yourself in this community, talking to everyone about this issue. I will take you around and introduce you to everyone I know.
- If there is a way I can help out with this conversation, or with what is happening online, please let me know.
- I’ve done some training with this company. They are a good and reputable company. Let’s cut them some slack.
- What happened here is more than an overreach of a small town echo chamber. Here is how this ‘trivialization’ got started by an individual with his explicit public call to “swarm” Dialogue Partners via twitter. There was no thought to the legal consequences of inciting such directed public action. Without allowing Dialogue Partners time to offer an explanation, the inciter acted as the arbiter of DP’s website design, and went on to act as the “Judge, Jury and the Executioner” of whom he considered had grossly wronged the entire city of Hamilton. And the mob, maybe 50 or even less, took the bait and started their one-liner public swarming with sarcastic comments, jabs, juvenile comebacks and re-tweets. Does such a juvenile call to swarm in the most brazen manner, represent the beliefs and aspirations of the rest of 500,000+ Hamiltonians? Even the local press along with the three councillors dived right into it, with [deleted] too… all screaming foul. Such juvenile acts bring more ridicule to this city than the much-needed change we all talk off. To me people who promote and support such trivialization of important issues do not represent this city or its people, no matter how many followers they are able to garner on the new media, or how many opportunistic politicians they get to take advantage of such acts of public swarming.
- Just wanted to apologize for the less than warm welcome you got from Hamilton last night. #hamont’s pretty much an echo chamber for folks who are quick to tell you what they’re against but more than a little hazy on what they’re for and how to make it happen. They’re among those who complain the loudest and longest about not being heard or taken seriously but then prove they have little to actually contribute. Also suspect some of the ringleaders bid on the contract. Whatever the city’s paying you, it’s not nearly enough. Hamilton needs some serious help in constructive citizen engagement. The good news is the majority of folks are reasonable, level headed and spend little or no time on #hamont.
- Why is #HamOnt being so rough to this account. The City actually something good. Encourage them. #Disguseted.
- It is not uncommon for cities to go out of town to collect data like this. Relax
- There is outrage. Everything the city does is met with hostility.
- Welcome to #hamont where the motto for some of us sadly seems to be “we’re not happy until you’re not happy!
- Bring a flak jacket to the community consults.
- Good apology. The choices facing our city are too important to let an honest mistake sidetrack this much needed debate
There were blogs written and posted about the controversy, and about the public engagement. A sampling of these include:
- Hamilton’s plans for bold engagement derailed but not diminished - http://www.wellesleyinstitute.com/news/hamiltons-plans-for-bold-engagement-project-derailed-but-not-diminished/#.UPAztzVsYiY.twitter
- Governing by hashtag can have serious consequences - http://www.900chml.com/Blogs/BillKellysBlog/BlogEntry.aspx?BlogEntryID=10487828
- Have a say about how your taxes are spent - http://www.900chml.com/Blogs/BillKellysBlog/Home.aspx
- The silver linings of a PR Fiasco - http://www.daveheidebrecht.com/the-silver-linings-of-a-pr-fiasco/
During those first 3 days, despite or perhaps because of the controversy, hundreds of people actually participated in the substantive (online) conversation about City services, providing thoughtful, considered and respectful input on City services that make a difference in their lives, and the lives and of others. In three days (before the website went silent) we heard amazing, interesting and constructive input from passionate Hamiltonians with real ideas about their City services. Imagine what the conversation could turn into if it lasted more than 3 days!
Sometimes the media reported the allegations or inaccuracies as fact, sometimes they covered the outrage and missteps. Some provided balanced coverage with a diversity of views, and some just covered one side. We weren’t answering questions from the media so we know it was hard to cover our perspective.
So where are we today?
We have no doubt we’ve created awareness about the project. Just not the type of awareness we wanted!
We’ve decided the time for silence is over. Whether we continue with this conversation in partnership with the City of Hamilton or not, we want to speak up and honour the voices of all of those we’ve heard from. We think its time to have a full conversation – in more than 140 characters.
We think the discussion about City services, infrastructure and funding is a really important conversation for all municipalities to have. We think there are hard choices to make about City services and infrastructure and simplistic solutions like asking other levels of government for more funding won’t solve the challenges our cities face.
We want to acknowledge the challenges we’ve experienced so far, and we’d like the chance to earn back the trust of Hamiltonians. We do good work in creating really meaningful engagement processes where all voices are respected and valued.
We stand by our process of engagement. It’s sound, it’s based on years of experience and it’s important work that we really want to be able to do.
We’ve decided to offer our voice into the mix by speaking to Council, by writing a letter to the citizens of Hamilton, by setting some of the record straight.
Learning and reflection is key to the work we do internally as a team at Dialogue Partners.
Capacity building of our clients is something we try and build into every project, even if we’re not asked to. And so, we want to open our doors to you and let you experience our journey through this new conversation. We don’t know where this will end up or what the outcome will be, but we’re curious, thoughtful and hopeful.
We’re going to do the only thing we know how to do – we’re embracing it, and connecting with the people, and walking into this conversation, no matter what the outcome.
Dealing with conflict is what we do best. We didn’t realize we’re actually equally as great at creating it too. Our extensive experience and reputation for ethical practice has allowed us to work on some really important and influential projects. We pride ourselves on the trust that we have with our clients and the trust that we help build between our clients and their public. Participants in our engagement processes often say that while they may not agree with the final decision they feel that they’ve been listened to, valued and heard and that they understand why that decision is being made.
We hope that learning from this will be our last time that we create this for others, and that by sharing this journey others will learn from our lessons.
And we also hope that the citizens of Hamilton will have the opportunity to have this conversation, and we’ll have the privilege of gathering their views.
With humility and hope,
The team at Dialogue Partners
Additional information released today to Council: