This ad is vacant

Three years ago, I launched The Fourth Wall exhibit containing 36 practical ways to make our local democracy more inclusive, inviting and participatory.

Recommendation #22 was simple:  “The city should pro-actively promote the nomination process and encourage nominations”.

We have this wonderful thing called “Democracy”, where anyone is allowed to put their name on a ballot and ask the public to support their vision and their ideas.  But it only works if people actually know when and how to participate!

In the exhibit, I pointed out that the city does know to produce good outreach materials, when they are seeking nominations for OTHER things …like the ‘Green Toronto Awards’:


Note the effective use of colour, images, pretty fonts, and attractive layout/design.  There’s even an exclamation mark. (!)

As part of the exhibit, I created a fictitious “Call for Nominations” for City Council:


But this ad shouldn’t be fictitious.  We know the City has the capacity to design effective marketing materials.  So I was disappointed to see this ad in today’s newspaper:


The ad is promoting a really important democratic process.  On October 10th, City Council will choose one citizen to serve as a one-year interim City Councillor for Ward #3 in Etobicoke.  Anyone is allowed to apply for the job.

If the city wanted to ensure that all citizens were aware of this opportunity, they would need an ad with colour, images, good design, and a catchy headline like:

“Seeking: Applications for City Council”

“Wanted: One citizen to act as City Councillor for one year”

“Position available: Toronto City Council”

“Who wants to be a City Councillor?”

Instead, the main title is:


No colour.  No images.  No creative text.  No exclamation marks.  Nothing to catch the eye.  Most people will simple pass over it, without reading a single word.

So, as usual, we’ll end up with a bunch of political insiders and a handful of oddballs as nominess.  The average person won’t know about the opportunity, nor how to apply.  Sure, you can argue that people should take it upon themselves to be informed, and to call 311 for information.  But why wouldn’t we want to make an effort, to make sure that as many people as possible knew about the opportunity?

Out of curiosity, I did a very quick google image search for “Call for Nominations”.  What I found is that organisations – of every size – are using good design to attract good candidates. And they are using lots of exclamation marks.  Here’s hoping we can fix this problem in time for the 2014 municipal election. (!)












9 responses to “This ad is vacant

  1. well, there are two issues here. I have only a brief experience working for “government” about 8 months in FY2010. It was very illuminating. Before that as an advocate, I used to admonish-hector people working for govt. (mostly executive branch employees) that they should do X or Y.

    When I worked as a planner for the Executive Branch of a county government, my boss was very clear that govt. employees like us “didn’t lead” but “followed.” While that might not be fully true, she was emphatic that the policy agenda was set by the elected officials, who were of course influenced by citizens and residents, who the elected officials represent.

    Now, frankly, my job was to project manage the creation of a bike and ped plan and the plan was innovative, not fully because the citizens demanded it, but because it was guided by me, my knowledge, and my expertise..

    That being said it was very clear to me that the “agency” afforded to me (and it might have been a bit different for “community planners” assigned to specific geographical districts, in which they worked for some time, and developed standing relationships with community groups, elected officials, other agency employees, etc.) was somewhat limited. I had more ability to do stuff because I was a temporary employee, but at the end of the day my boss reported to the director who was allowed to operate only within the parameters given to him by the County Executive and the CE’s management employees, like the chief of staff, the budget officer, etc.

    (Similarly, people who work for the legislative branch work for the elected official, not for themselves. In many places these are “at will” jobs. They can be fired at any time.)

    2. In short, while the agency overseeing elections in Toronto definitely could and should develop more exciting materials, it isn’t appropriate for an executive branch or legislative branch agency to “recruit” candidates for elected positions. Facilitate yes.

    (Note that DC’s equivalent agency is equally dull with their materials.)

    3. I would say this is another example of why it probably would be a good idea for Toronto, like Vancouver and Montreal, to have local parties, platforms, and systems for engaging interested citizens into local civic affairs, including running for office.

    • Thanks for this informative response!!

      Ok, devil’s advocate: Why isn’t it ‘appropriate’ for a government agency to recruit candidates for elected positions?

      Hand-picking candidates (ie: head-hunting), yes – that would be inappropriate. But actively encouraging everyone to participate? I think that is entirely appropriate – and much needed.

      We do it for voting. The government spends lots of money on campaigns that say “don’t forget to vote”. “This is your chance to participate”. “Make sure your voice is heard”.

      Well, why not ALSO encourage people to run? Voting and running are simply two different ways to participate in an election – and equally important.

      I see no reason why encouraging one type of engagement is appropriate, while the other is not.

      • I don’t necessarily disagree with you. But an agency’s activities on this dimension are likely always to be called in question. HOWEVER, if the agency is a so called independent commission, not subject to the sway and suasion of elected officials it would be reasonable for it do not only try to get people to vote, but also to get people to run for office. Additionally, it could focus on civic engagement.

        After I wrote the other response, I thought about my writings about what I call “action planning”, which has five elements:

        – using the design method instead of rational planning
        – the use of social marketing methods
        – packaged and developed with comprehensive branding and identity systems
        – all integrated into a program delivery system (in business, they’d call it a product-service system)
        – built on a foundation of and commitment to participatory democracy and civic engagement.

        Anyway, design and branding are key. (In fact, I am in the process of preparing a blog entry on how to reposition DC’s failing EMS system through a branding-design method based rebuilding initiative.)

        I argue in other writings that branding should be an element of comprehensive-master plans. This is what I wrote in a couple of commercial district revitalization framework plans that I did:

        Just as the study team believes that “we are all destination managers now,” elected and appointed officials in particular and in association with other community stakeholders serve as a community’s “brand managers”—whether or not they choose to think of their roles in this manner.

        That means that decision-making on land use and zoning, business issues, infrastructure development (roads, sewers, water, utilities, transit), technology (broadband Internet, etc.) and quality of place factors (arts, culture, historic preservation and heritage, education, public schools and libraries, etc.) must be consistent and focused on making the right decisions, the decisions that collectively achieve and support the realization of the community’s desired vision and positioning.

        Etc. And of course, fwiw, I agree with you about the quality of marketing, govt. agency marketing, etc. See

  2. Dave I am having problems with the concept that a person who would need a flashy advertisement to run for an appointment would be qualified to represent 52,000 people on important issues.

    • The point isn’t that they “need a flashy ad”. The point is that they need to be informed, and flashy ads are great way to catch people’s attention. Simple as that.

      People have busy lives, and can’t possibly consume all the information coming at them. Good design allows the user to quickly digest the purpose of a notice and absorb the core content.

      Design also reflects the motivations of the content creator. When we want to attract more people to something, we use good design. When we don’t want to attract people, we use bad design.

  3. Pingback: Morning Brew: Toronto heading for surplus and budget cuts, the Scarborough RT is out, Bill Blair under fire, east end Beer Store goes rogue, and a Blue Jays post mortem | theCiv

  4. As a long standing bureaucrat just over 30 years of age…I am glad Dave is writing about this issue. We make excuses…like doing a half ass attempt at engagement (As seen with this call for nominations). The bureaucrat has a job to put it out there…why take the simple, boring and least engaging means to do it?

    We need to remove our govt brains from the proverbial box/trap that we have created for ourselves. This is an administrative task and by no means a political or policy matter.

    It is fair game to call out a poor effort and that is exactly what is being done here! Kudos for that!

  5. Andrew Brouwer, Director of Legislative Services/Town Clerk, Newmarket

    As a GTA municipal clerk, I agree – municipalities need to do a better job of creating simple, plain language notices with visuals. Often, we are stretched for time and resources and we resort to “boiler plate” notices. We spend a lot of our time reading and writing about legislation, so that language style carries through in our communications. We need to partner with our communications professionals to help simplify our messages. Great suggestions – I’m very much on the same page. You may want to check out Markham’s efforts to be more engaging from the 2010 election:

  6. Pingback: Morning Brew: Toronto heading for surplus and budget cuts, the Scarborough RT is out, Bill Blair under fire, east end Beer Store goes rogue, and a…

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