Canadians & local governments: A relationship opportunity

Most Canadians satisfied with their local governments – but don’t believe we can influence them

Public engagement is about giving people a voice in the decisions that affect them – but what if we don’t believe our voices will be heard?

That’s the question my colleagues and I set out to answer in the 2019 Argyle Public Relationships Index™, our annual study with Leger Research, which examines the quality of relationships between organizations and the public.

In the last three years, we’ve examined Canadians’ relationships with airlines, banks, telcos, grocery retailers, and sports teams. This year, we look at one of the most essential relationships of all: the way citizens engage with those who govern our cities and towns.

Good news, bad news for local governments

For municipalities, there’s good news and bad news.

The good news: Canadians have a strong attachment to the places where we live, and give their local governments passing grades. Two-thirds of respondents think highly of their city or town, and a narrow majority are satisfied with their local government. The majority also agrees that their municipal governments take care of people who live there.

The not-so-good news: Canadians aren’t sure their local governments are really listening – or at least that they’re not heeding what we say. Only one-third of respondents believe they can influence their local government’s decisions or direction. More troubling still, fewer than half agree that local governments are concerned about ordinary people. Among demographic groups, renters are the least likely to have a positive opinion of their local governments.

In other words, there’s a sense that local governments care for us, but could care more about us – and give citizens and communities a much stronger voice in the decisions that affect them.

Edmonton leads the way, followed by Toronto

When it comes to building relationships with the public, some cities are doing better than others.

In Edmonton, 72 percent of residents surveyed had a good opinion of the city, compared with 16 percent with a bad opinion. Edmonton also led the way in perceptions of its local government, with 54 percent holding a good opinion and 23 per cent holding a bad opinion. The runner-up is Toronto, where 50 percent of respondents have a good opinion of their local government, compared with 21 per cent with a bad opinion.

At the regional level, including all municipalities, Atlantic Canadians and Quebecers have the most positive overall opinions of their local governments.

A clarion call for public engagement

This study is a clarion call for more public engagement – particularly from new Canadians.

A clear majority (58%) of Canadians are interested in having a relationship with their local government. This interest soars to more than two-thirds (68%) among people born outside Canada.

The opportunity is compelling. Survey respondents indicate that having a relationship with local government makes them more likely to vote (73%), feel a sense of belonging (67%), comply with by-laws (63%), support government decisions (61%) and participate in civic engagement (59%). These are outcomes worth pursuing.

Canadian municipalities need to listen to and respond to the public desire for a relationship with their local governments. If they can build on the moderate satisfaction they enjoy today, and show people they genuinely have a voice in local decisions, our democracy will be stronger – and so will our communities.

About the study
The 2019 Argyle Public Relationships Index™ is based on a survey of 1,564 Canadians, completed between July 19-22, 2019, using Leger’s online panel, LegerWeb. The margin of error for the study was +/-2.5%, 19 times out of 20. Leger’s online panel has approximately 400,000 members nationally and has a retention rate of 90%.

Public relations research suggests there are six dimensions of relationships between brands and their publics: trust; satisfaction; perceived commitment to meet expectations; caring for customers (“exchange relationship”); concern for people like me (“communal relationship”); and people’s perception of their ability to influence the brand. Argyle expresses its appreciation to Dr. Alex Sevigny of McMaster University for his counsel in the development of the model for the study.

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