Politics 2.0 - Mayor Nenshi and the power of social engagement

Post Date: Saturday, June 09, 2012
Reader's Digest - May 2012

In May 2012, the editors of Readers' Digest Canada called Mayor Nenshi one of the most trusted people in Canada. This amazing distinction came with a full story about Mayor Nenshi's ideas on politics and citizen engagement, where he's been, and where he's going. Below is an excerpt from the story by Calgary writer Marcello Di Cintio; you can read the full story here.

... As Take Our Kids to Work Day draws to a close, the teens scramble to get their photos taken with Nenshi. His election has given him exposure enjoyed by few Canadian mayors. He was one of CNN’s Intriguing People, and was interviewed by The New York Times and Al-Jazeera. The attention was heady, even if the reporting sometimes rankled. Many of the international stories focused on how Calgary, famous for its conservatism, elected a member of a visible minority for the city’s top political office. The Indo-Asian News Service declared that “Naheed Nenshi, a Harvard-educated Ismaili Muslim, defeated two white candidates to become the mayor of Calgary Monday night.”

Nenshi argues that the real story about his election isn’t about his race or religion—which, he’s quick to remind reporters, hardly came up during the campaign—but about Calgary’s colour-blindness. “It’s about what Calgary does right in a world desperate for role models on making multiculturalism work.”

The media attention has also sharpened Nenshi’s skills at staying on message. He answers questions before reporters have finished asking them—answers that rarely vary. Nenshi is renowned for giving speeches without notes, yet those who’ve watched him know his interviews follow a familiar script.

In other areas, though, Nenshi exhibits an impulsiveness that has drawn criticism. Last November, in the midst of budget negotiations, he lost a series of votes that resulted in a higher than expected property tax hike; frustrated, he informed CBC Radio that some of Calgary’s aldermen think “that we can treat the taxpayer like an ATM.” The comment earned Nenshi public rebukes from fellow council members and a dressing-down in council chambers by alderman Diane Colley-Urquhart. Nenshi reminded Colley-Urquhart that she had tweeted he was “petulant” the week before. If Nenshi’s shine has dulled at all, it’s partly due to his grumpiness when things don’t go his way.

Yet Nenshi continues to engender goodwill elsewhere. Recently a series of new campaign-style buttons were spotted on coats downtown. The mayor’s office claims it didn’t commission them—they appeared spontaneously. For Ward 9 alderman Gian-Carlo Carra, such signs point to the fact that there is still enthusiasm in Calgary for Nenshi. “He’s doing a really great job,” says Carra, an urban designer who left his practice in 2010 to run for city council. “I’d be less happy to have entered public service if Nenshi wasn’t at the helm leading a culture shift away from politics-as-usual.”

Nenshi believes the excitement will stay as long as he shows himself to be more than a politician. “If people see you trying to do good things for their community, they will trust you.” For him, that includes engaging directly with Calgarians. “I’m trying to establish a culture of risk-taking. That means we’re going to try a lot of stuff. That also means we’re going to fail at stuff,” he says. “But citizens see we’re trying to make this city a better place, and I think they have responded to that.”

The recent budget put that risk-taking strategy to the test. Most city halls, including Calgary’s previous councils, impose budgets on their citizens, with little debate or public input. “This year we turned the process on its head,” Nenshi says. Months before the budget was tabled, the city kicked off an outreach program called “Our City. Our Budget. Our Future” that solicited Calgarians’ input through surveys, online interactive programs and open houses. “We asked what the city should do more of—what are you willing to pay for?” says Nenshi. The creation of a comprehensive cycling strategy, aimed at getting more Calgarians to ride bikes, turned out to be one of the priorities. As a direct result of citizen feedback, the city opted to fully fund the three-year $27-million plan—one of the largest single additions to the budget. “It sounds straightforward,” says Nenshi, “but it was a new way of thinking.”

Carra welcomed the budget consultations, but is lukewarm about a process that cost taxpayers $800,000 and drew the participation of only two percent of the population. “I think the results weren’t as helpful as they could have been,” he says. “But most innovative ideas will always have a rough start.”

For his part, Nenshi thinks the nuts and bolts of the budget process can be tweaked and its costs lowered. Sparking the public’s interest in civic participation, however, isn’t something he wants to give up on. “What’s important,” he says, “is to shed the bias that there is only one way of doing things.” ...

You can read the full article in Readers' Digest.