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What the heck is CivicCamp?

By DJ Kelly October 15, 2013

Who’s behind these pencils? Where do pencils get their funding from? Pencils are nothing but a left-wing propaganda machine. One pencil wrote in cursive once so all pencils obviously can only be used the same way!

I’m sorry, but I can’t help but play this game whenever I hear some folks talk about CivicCamp in an accusatorial way. Basically you replace the word “CivicCamp” with the word “pencil”. You see, in some circles there is a mis-understanding about what CivicCamp is, which that it is simply a tool. Like a pencil.

It’s not the fault of these folks that they don’t know what CivicCamp actually is. I don’t think CivicCampers – those who use the tool – have done a very good job explaining how it works. Certainly on the CivicCamp website you can read the values and even the operating manual for CivicCamp, but this info doesn’t always provide context needed for everyone to understand. I often think CivicCamp is a “you have to be part of it to understand it” or “those who get it, get it.” But that’s not fair to those who don’t or haven’t. So I thought I’d pen this to help give some more detailed information to those who might find it useful.

Who he heck are you?

I’m DJ. Just an average guy, I think. A citizen of Calgary. I don’t belong to any political party. I, like most everyone, want to live in the best place possible for my family and I. I happen to think CivicCamp is a good tool to help Calgarians have conversations about what we each mean by “best” and to organize some efforts to help achieve that.

I attended the first CivicCamp event and then got involved with the “Governance Cabin”, which was a group talking about how City Hall worked and improvements that could be made – transparency, accountability, citizen engagement, etc. Under the CivicCamp banner I’ve worked on organizing forums for the 2010 and 2013 municipal elections, helping create ‘CivicCamp in a box’ (literally a box with supplies and instructions on how any group can use the methods of CivicCamp to have a conversation with a large group of people and then get the stuff done the group wants to do), leading #yycdata Camp which was done under the banner of CivicCamp and sponsored by The City of Calgary, and two large CivicCamp events (CivicCamp 2.0 and CivicCamp 3D). I’m about as “in” as a CivicCamp insider can be.

A little history

It’s important to note that CivicCamp started in April 2009 not as an “organization” but as an event. (The term “camp” comes from the grassroots tech sector’s usage – i.e. DemoCamp, etc.) The idea for the camp was the brainchild of a few of Calgary’s more active community advocates who realized they could be more effective if they worked together. But how to determine what project they should work on together? After inviting a few more friends to the discussion table they decided why not invite everyone in their networks to an event and ask them what they’d like to see happen in Calgary? And wouldn’t it be even better if all those folks were given a chance to not just talk, but to plan how they wanted to work together? So they did.

At that event, known as “CivicCamp”, 150 or so Calgarians showed up and had a BIG conversation following the Open Spaces or “unconference” conversation model – which basically means there was no agenda for the day other than the morning was about figuring out what to talk about, then lunch, then the afternoon was about talking and planning what should happen around that issue. There were activists, politicians, community members, people just curious, etc. Everyone was asked to put aside whatever hat they normally wear and just participate as a citizen; everyone being equal. Ten topics were picked by the group in the morning and off they went in the afternoon to plan. Then everyone got back together at the end of the day and shared what they talked about. That was CivicCamp. Done.

However as you might expect the event energized the attendees and they wanted to keep the dialogue going after they went home. They said they needed help to action the plans they started making that day. A new group of volunteers – comprised mainly of attendees and volunteers who helped facilitate the original Camp – stepped up to help do that and the organizers of the original event basically said “here’s the CivicCamp name, logo and mailing list; have at it.” (Some of the original organizers – often now called “the founders” – did stay involved at this stage, but not all.)

Most of the individual groups had in person meetings to continue the talking about what “a great city for everyone” meant to them. To use the Camp metaphor, these groups became known as the “cabins” – i.e. the Public Spaces Cabin, Sustainable Environment Cabin, etc.

Who is CivicCamp?

This is the point in the story that is the beginning of CivicCamp as most know it now. Ten “cabins”, each self organizing and working on the issue that interested them most, kept the conversations going, but how to keep track of the chaos of ten independent, BIG picture, conversations?

Another small group of volunteers saw the potential of all these discussions, as well as all the new people showing up, and knew someone was going to have to put some structure around everything to keep it workable in the future. Those volunteers created a website and an online discussion forum, which the event attendees – and others who began to show an interest – started using to keep themselves organized. Another group drafted a charter (based on the topics of discussion at the original event and finalized at the CivicCamp 2.0 event then voted on by everyone) and an operating manual to help explain how this democratic, non-traditional, everyone is in charge, format works. These groups/volunteers eventually got together and called themselves the “Logistics Tent” (the metaphor being a tent is smaller and less important than a cabin, where the real work was happening). Basically this was the group who checked the email account and had the password to the website so you knew who to contact if you needed something posted or sent out.

An email list was built and eventually everyone who was working on any project in one of the Cabins just became known as a CivicCamper. People came to meetings (or didn’t), people participated in discussions (or didn’t) and people volunteered to work on projects that were of interest to them (or didn’t). It’s all very unofficial – in a vote with your feet kind of way. The people coming and going from each one of the cabins was not controlled. It didn’t need to be. New cabins popped up once enough people wanted to work on something together and old cabins disappeared when the volunteers no longer did work.

So, WHO is CivicCamp? The short answer is: I don’t know and no one does. The official answer is: whomever shows up or works on something under the CivicCamp banner. The most practical answer probably is: whomever is signed up on the e-newsletter list.

Who’s in charge?

The website says no one is in charge. This is of course hard to believe for anyone who’s ever tried to do any advocacy, but it actually is true. Or I guess you could say everyone is in charge.

I myself have pushed VERY hard at every opportunity to ensure CivicCamp does not become a registered entity because the moment you do this means that someone has to be listed as a board of directors and having a small group of people steering the ship, even if elected, is NOT how CivicCamp should work in my opinion. We have enough groups in Calgary doing that. I think CivicCamp should be a tool anyone can use provided you have enough support from other Campers to make it happen. No person, or persons, should have the ability to tell them their idea or work is not worth-while. If they think it is, then it is. (The charter of values is as far as CivicCamp has gone to define its boundaries. And, yes, I was against doing that, but I didn’t sway enough people to my thinking and that group did. That’s democracy. That’s how an open organization works. And I now follow the charter as best I can because those are the rules people have chosen to govern themselves by. I have to – and do – respect that.)

I guess some people could consider the Logistics Tent as the people who are “in charge”, but all they really do is update the website, Facebook and Twitter with info from the Cabins; reply to emails, tweets and Facebook posts; and pose questions to the larger group when they arise. I’m a member of this group and I sure don’t feel “in charge” of anything. If anything I feel like I serve the greater group. What they need I try to help provide.

There’s also currently another group called the “Upgrade Project” who are examining the future organization of CivicCamp. They’ll be making recommendations to the larger group, so I guess you could consider them “in charge” too if steering the organization to prepare for the future is more your definition of “in charge”.

But you do STUFF. Someone has to be in charge of that!

From time to time when an issue arises a group of volunteers step up to organize others to their cause. As they go about their work that group probably has people who are “in charge”. For example right now the Elections Group is very active and myself, Jeremy Zhao and Peter Rishaug would probably be the ones considered “in charge”, but that’s only because we’re doing the lion’s share of the big picture organizing. At the forums themselves the logistics lead or the moderator would be the person “in charge” depending on what function you are talking about. They’re making all the decisions.

The other thing that’s important to remember is that the membership of each of these groups is fluid and constantly changing. I may be partially “in charge” of the Elections Group, but I can’t really tell you who’s working on the forums. I can tell you who’s come to meetings and who’s signed up for shifts, but once you’ve done your forum shifts does that mean you are still a member of the group? I guess so, but it really doesn’t matter because the work you volunteered to get done you got done. What good does the label of “group member” serve beyond that? Usually these labels are only useful for keeping track of who’s who in your organization, but with the CivicCamp organizational model it just doesn’t matter. You’re a member of the group if you’re working on something, not because your name is on a list somewhere.

What has CivicCamp done?

Different cabins have done different things. One group organized citizens to attend a Council Public Hearing to speak in favour of Plan It. One group organized citizens to attend another Public Hearing to speak in favour of the City’s Bike Strategy. Groups could have just as easily been organized to speak against these documents, but either no one tried to organize a group to their cause or they weren’t successful in rallying enough people. (In this way, different people are part of different initiatives. Personally I participated in the Plan It group’s activities, but could have cared less about the work of the group advocating for the Bike Strategy. I wasn’t against it, but it didn’t interest me enough to participate.)

One group organized election forums to give Calgarians a chance to hear from their candidates because they didn’t think it was right that several wards didn’t even have one forum in 2007 and they didn’t like that the questions for forums were selected by the organizers with no input from the public.

One group spun off and began using the camp model to hold further conversations about transit related issues.

The first thing “CivicCamp” ever did was born right at the first event. One attendee stood up in front of the room and asked for help in voicing support the Bow River Flow festival. His argument was there were people complaining about the road closure and the only way to counteract that was to have people praising the road closure for the event. Enough people must have agreed with him because – in my recollection – the next week the media stories began to change a bit and the event went forward. Was this the best use of the new tool? I don’t know, but I’ll defend their right to use it that way. (And, yes, the festival happened for a couple years before the organizers of it decided to end it.)

Currently a group of people who believe municipal election campaign finance rules are not stringent enough are actively asking 2013 candidates to release their donors prior to election day – and prior to the legally mandated deadline. They’ve created a website for candidates to disclose their donors via to boot. Many of the same members of that group earlier created an online tool to help crowdsource the data entry of 2010 campaign donations and then crowdsource information about each of those donors (individual, organization, industry, etc). Just recently they released an online tool to visualize high level summaries of that information.

Basically, people used the CivicCamp name and tool set to help further whatever cause they rallied enough people to help pursue.

There have also been a few other big gatherings similar to the original CivicCamp event to help bring people together again and see if they chart different paths or kindle a passion for something after being in the same room together.

Who pays for all this?

Perhaps the biggest myth out there is that CivicCamp has money. They don’t. They don’t even have a bank account. (You can’t get one if you’re not even a registered organization.) But then again, none of this really costs anything if you can rally people to help.

Most funding for CivicCamp is for a specific project. At the same time CivicCamp is a master at keeping costs to a bare minimum. Not to mention if you’re rallying people to a specific cause you’d be amazed how many hours volunteers will donate or services other organizations will donate.

For example the 2013 Elections Group is hosting 18 forums. One is at MRU’s Wyckham House, two are in UofC’s MacHall Ballroom, two are in malls and the rest are at community associations or churches. Pretty much all the venues were donated because those organizations agree it’s important for citizens to have a chance to listen to candidates answers to questions. A lectern, sound system, display banner, time keeping clock and even advertisements are all needed. Most of these are donated or have had their cost reduced by the supplier because they also believe in forums are useful. A forum needs to be designed, a script written, publicity, ads designed, candidates contacted, etc. Volunteers have done all of this. Then someone needs to set everything up, keep track of time, move all the equipment from venue to venue, and moderate the forums. Again, volunteers have done all this. In all the forums are budgeted to cost about $2,000. In this case the funding for those bills we couldn’t avoid are coming from a Calgary Foundation Neighbour Grant – a grant that can be applied for by non-charitable organizations.

The day to day operations of CivicCamp don’t cost much. The website hosting and domain registration cost maybe $200 per year. I think this is paid for by being under budget on the projects, but we’ve also had volunteers step up and say, “I’ll pay for it.” It’s such a small amount, really. Other than that it’s about being financially wise in your spending. CivicCamp uses lots of open source tools that don’t cost anything. It’s the most cost efficient organization I’ve ever been a part of.

CivicCamp is biased

There’s no getting around this one: yes it is, but not in the way you might think. I wish it wasn’t, but it’s impossible to eliminate anyone’s bias, which is based on your experiences. If you eliminate your experiences you’re left with nothing. For example, good journalists can’t eliminate their own biases entirely so they try to at least be aware of their biases and counterbalance them. I often say CivicCampers are not asked to eliminate their own biases – whatever they may be – instead they are asked to consider the totality of everyone participating over just their own opinion. In this way CivicCamp becomes the collective bias of everyone participating. And in my opinion, on many issues, that totality appears to be more “left leaning”.

However because the membership in any group or on any project is so fluid that could change on any issue or over the course of time. CivicCamp is a tool and so far it’s just been those individuals who have wielded the tool. I look forward to a future CivicCamp project where there are two groups – both aligned with the CivicCamp values; just with different solutions for achieving them – who are working in opposite directions on the same issue. This is after all democracy and CivicCamp’s format is the most democratic one I’ve seen for deciding what to work on.

For example, one of the values is great public spaces. I’m confident even the most strident libertarian and communist will agree public spaces should be places people enjoy being in. I’m also confident they’ll have entirely different suggestions for how to create those spaces. Both are valid arguments and, just like any democracy, if you can rally enough people to your way of thinking, then you’re probably going to get your way. And that’s how CivicCamp works.

The one myth I’d like to dispel about CivicCamp and it’s “bias” – or the best example I can give of this “bias averaging” I’m talking about – is around the election forums. I’ve heard the odd person say the questions are biased etc. In reality the questions are sourced online from anyone with a question they think should be asked. Then anyone can vote on the questions they prefer be asked at the forums. In the end the questions that get the top votes are asked. No one edits them and no one “selects” them beyond how many of the top voting getting questions can be asked given event time constraints. If the questions lean one way or another then that’s because that’s what the people who took the time to submit and vote on them thought. If you don’t agree with the questions being asked then the solution is simple (no, it’s not whining about it on Twitter), just go and ask your question and see if people vote for it. A great example of this is in 2010 the top vote getting question was about Race City – a topic I had never once heard mentioned at a CivicCamp meeting. Someone found the site, submitted a question and rallied their friends to vote it up. Yes, a “special interest” hijacked the process, but that’s democracy. If you didn’t like the Race City question you should have rallied more people to vote for your question instead. We are all special interest groups. Sometimes you’re even a group of one.

CivicCamp is the opposite side of the spectrum from the Manning Centre/UDI/etc

I suppose at a tertiary glance you could think that because of some of the projects Campers have chosen to work on, but given everything I’ve mentioned above hopefully you can see why that’s not always the case.

Personally, I’ve attended Manning Centre events and look forward to doing so again in the future. I really enjoyed their report about Council voting patterns and was dismayed by the bias shown in others. I saw their email invitation to participate in their campaign school events too late to sign up, because I would have! (One of those times that email filters hindered instead of helped.) None of this has anything to do with CivicCamp though.

Another note that might surprise some people is that Jeremy and I had a couple meetings with staff from the Urban Development Institute’s Vote Calgary program to see if we could find ways of working together during the 2013 election. Some CivicCampers may have found themselves disagreeing with UDI’s position on Plan It, but that doesn’t mean we can’t agree on wanting to inform voters of facts during an election. (Or that some CivicCampers didn’t agree with their Plan It position to begin with.)

Even when people disagree on some things they should still be able to live with one another after the discussion has ended. Maybe I’m naive but I just don’t see the world in that black and white, left versus right, winner take all way. We’re all Calgarians and we all want what’s best for Calgary. We just sometimes disagree on what that is.

Honestly, it’s kind of a badge of honour that a rag-tag group of loosely affiliated volunteers with little organizing skills on their own – most are just what I would call average Calgarians – are considered on equal scale to groups with offices and staff and hundreds of thousands or millions of dollar budgets. I’ve got an iPhone, some friends, and a little bit of free time after the kids go to bed.

CivicCamp is running a slate of candidates

This is about the only rumour I’ve heard about CivicCamp that irks me. They’re not and I have no idea where this crazy notion even comes from. Yes, CivicCamp is political, but it tries VERY hard to be non-partisan.

The groups working on elections in 2010 and 2013 both actually even decided, in order to eliminate any potential advantage to any candidate, that any volunteer working on any candidate’s campaign would not be allowed to work on the forums. That would not be fair. Everyone was asked to self identify and in both years we’ve had a couple volunteers step away because of it. (Man, it sucks losing volunteers, but it’s the right thing to do.)  In 2010 we actually had two people do so because they decided they were going to run for mayor instead.

There is only one moment I can remember where the idea of CivicCamp working with candidates was brought up. Someone at an event last fall suggested CivicCamp should endorse candidates. Then someone pointed out that would be against the charter; everyone nodded and that was the end of that.

CivicCamp is Nenshi’s puppet – it’s just a disguise for the “Purple Army”

Calgary’s current mayor, Naheed Nenshi, was one of the organizers of the original CivicCamp event. Following that event in April 2009 he participated in several “Governance Cabin” discussions as an volunteer, just like me and many others; however in the spring of 2010 he stepped away when he began his mayoral campaign.

The only involvement I have witnessed from Mayor Nenshi, aside from praising CivicCamp whenever the opportunity arises for it’s ability to get citizens involved in issues that affect them, is: 1) Shortly after he was first elected he created a “Mayor’s Civic Engagement Committee” and populated it’s membership with representatives from groups he believed were doing a good job at engaging Calgarians. CivicCamp was offered a spot and Cheri Macauley, CivicCamp’s most active volunteer, was selected, I believe by the mayor. 2) At the fourth anniversary party of CivicCamp the mayor was invited as a guest speaker. Other than those two occurrences I can’t remember him being directly involved.

I’ve heard some critics say that CivicCamp was given a seat at the civic planning table after the Plan It discussion, but I don’t know anything about this, other than metaphorically speaking as the group created it’s own relevancy in regards to mobilizing citizens in response to planning issues.

Again as I mentioned above it any volunteer who wanted to work on a campaign was asked to step away from CivicCamp so I’m confident there was no influence during from Nenshi’s campaign workers on CivicCamp’s activities. I’m sure some members voted for him, but odds are some members voted for other people too.

I know Naheed from before the election, consider him a friend even, but I really don’t care what he thinks about CivicCamp other than if he wants to show up and volunteer on an initiative just like dozens, even hundreds, of others who would have equal say in what gets done. It’s just plain false to say he controls CivicCamp’s activities in any way.

Did I miss anything?

I hope you found this useful. Sorry it was so long. It would have been easier to say, “CivicCamp is a group representing registered members and governed by a board of directors”, but it’s not. There’s little traditional about it’s structure. I’ve often joked it’s not an organization is a dis-organization. Is CivicCamp the future? Well, the internet has democratized communication to the point that CivicCamp is possible. It wouldn’t have been a few years ago. However I won’t pretend staying this loose and nimble isn’t hard. Running any organization is, but one that is in many ways nothing more than an act of will on behalf of it’s participants has got be be more so. But that is what keeps it as fair as possible and as useful as possible.

I’m sure CivicCamp will morph and change in the future, but this represents my knowledge of the organization as it currently stands.

I hope if you made it this far into the post you’ll have a bit of a sense as to why no one “from” CivicCamp has ever really responded to the criticism lobed at it. There was no one in charge and no project existed to address this criticism. I do get a sense now that some CivicCampers are starting to volunteer to do this. Heck, I wrote this post. A post went up on the CivicCamp website today providing transparency on who’s funding CivicCamp’s election initiatives and what the money is being spent on too.

In that interest of as much transparency as can possibly be offered, if you have any additional questions, please feel free to post them in the comments and I’ll do my best answer them for you. In between work, forums and putting the kids to bed of course.

Thanks for reading.

  • picolina

    Great article DJ (although, yes, quite long!) I attended a couple of Civic Camp events, joined the Great Public Spaces cabin, then went off to co-create the Bow to Bluff citizen-led engagement project. Civic Camp’s GPS group was recognized as a “partner” on this award-winning project simply because myself and a couple of other Civic Camp attendees volunteered to help organize Bow to Bluff. That’s it. I think of Civic Camp as an occasional event in my life where I can show up, meet interesting people, and figure out how to make Calgary a better place to live–because, hey, we all live here after all.