Yellowknife e-democracy tool IserveU, promising councillor control, launches at last

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An e-democracy website promising Yellowknife residents the ability to influence city councillors' votes has finally launched.

IserveU has officially opened version one of its website, allowing residents to register, vote on motions and policies, or suggest their own — though for now, no councillors are required to act on the results.

The concept proved a significant and controversial issue in the city's 2015 municipal election.

One of the city's eight councillors, Rommel Silverio, was duly elected on an IserveU platform — pledging to vote in council meetings according to the collective will of residents debating each issue online.

However, IserveU's developers spent half of Silverio's subsequent three-year term refining their product and responding to feedback.

"What we promised, we are delivering. I know it took a while, but we want to make sure we have a system that will work," said Silverio.

"I still have the opportunity to use this tool until the end of my term. This will reach a lot more people than whatever I used in the past. With IserveU it will be more and diverse."

Verified voters

Eventually, the results of votes on IserveU's website will be binding, compelling Silverio or any councillor using the system to follow through on the majority's views at council meetings

However, votes will not be binding until IserveU's team has verified that its users are, in fact, Yellowknife residents.

Developers expect installing a verification system, while manually verifying some users by checking their details, to take a further six months or more.

Until verification is complete and online votes becoming binding, Silverio says he will still take the views of IserveU users into account. In particular, he hopes the system will help him to gather feedback regarding the city's next budget.

During the 2015 municipal election campaign, several candidates stood on an IserveU-backed platform. They urged residents to embrace what was termed the chance to launch a historic e-democracy experiment in the city.

However, other candidates — and some voters — expressed reservations.

Linda Bussey, who successfully stood for re-election in 2015, felt at the time that IserveU's campaign was dismissive of her role and responsibilities as a councillor — in effect, she argued, reducing councillors to unthinking mouthpieces for online voters.

On Monday, while welcoming IserveU's drive to involve residents in local politics, Bussey reiterated her wary stance and questioned the need for the system.

"The engagement process at the city has evolved and social media brings that forward. We have opened doors," said Bussey.

"Residents use email to talk to us and people are not shy about reaching out. When there's an issue that residents are concerned about, the chambers are full.

"I'm elected because people trust me. If Rommel has to vote based on what comes out of an IserveU survey, what's his role at the end of the day?"

'A free system'

IserveU supporters say the system improves on social media feedback by removing some of the limitations of other platforms and providing, they hope, a more positive environment in which residents can safely share views on policy.

Silverio and Dane Mason, IserveU's political director, both used a current debate on lengthening councillors' terms to four years as an example of where the system can contribute.

"For that, you want to know where a lot of people stand," said Mason.

"With IServeU you can see how many are against, how many are for, how many are abstaining or don't feel it's a big deal, and see ranked comments in all of those categories.

"You don't want to go and spend the money to bring out a plebiscite without knowing where your public opinion is at."

Paige Saunders, IserveU's developer, added that the city is "basically getting a free public consultation system" and predicted "thousands of residents" will take part. Saunders estimated the work involved in creating the system would ordinarily cost "hundreds of thousands of dollars."

"For ages we've been sitting on something that worked, and were kind of scared of putting it out there," said Saunders.

"Now I'm getting the sense that maybe we were a little bit too fastidious. Maybe we should have just put out a good-enough product six months ago. At the same time, I don't regret making sure that the thing that we made was good.

"During the election campaign, people got a little overexcited perhaps, or threatened by it, but it's supposed to be a feedback tool. It's supposed to be a part of good governance, a way to factor in citizens into decision-making."

The delays, and the ongoing work to verify Yellowknifers, are likely to see the system only reach its originally promised potential in 2018 — and remain a contentious issue for that year's municipal election.