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Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts stands with a view of the city.

JOHN LEHMANN/GLOBE AND MAIL

As the world has turned to the Internet to have conversations, cities are trying to catch up.

To that end, Surrey decided to leapfrog ahead Wednesday with a new online forum that will be the first of its kind in Western Canada, part of growing efforts by civic governments to talk to their citizens.

Mayor Dianne Watts announced the city is kicking off a partnership with interactive market researcher Vision Critical aimed at getting thousands of Surrey residents and business owners to become part of a group ready to weigh in on everything from off-leash dog parks to new condo developments.

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"We want to make sure the community has another avenue for input and discussion on relevant topics and ideas that are important today," said Ms. Watts, who announced the project during her annual state of the city address. The one-year pilot will cost $50,000.

Later, she added that the issue of how to get public input is particularly crucial for Surrey because it is such a young community, where a lot of people are too busy with families to spend hours at public meetings.

But mayors of both young and old cities are pondering the online world these days.

"These are popping up around the world," said Susanna Haas Lyons, a Vancouver public-engagement specialist. "It's helping to meet the needs of people who don't have a lot of time but do want to participate."

Although Ms. Watts said in her speech that the initiative, which will be called City Speaks: Your Surrey, Your Say, is the first in Canada, Ms. Lyons said the region of Halton in Ontario has tried something similar.

A spokeswoman for Vision Critical said this kind of public dialogue is in a pioneering stage.

"This is about trying to get new people into the conversation," said Shachi Kurl, whose company has tried this with one other city, in Australia.

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Cities have found themselves struggling to talk to the public in recent years, as citizen groups start Facebook campaigns or create their own websites to oppose city initiatives.

Although cities have a much stronger tradition of public consultation than provincial and federal governments, they've relied on public meetings and open houses.

That has evolved into an exercise for various groups in seeing who can get the most supporters out to those meetings, send the most e-mails to the mayor and council or "vote" the most often in online polls.

Experts say an online forum that allows people to participate in a lengthy conversation on their own time, in their own homes, can help mitigate that.

The "long-term, continuing nature of consultation means it's harder for NIMBYs or other motivated interest groups to 'stack' an online consultation," said Ms. Kurl. "It's more than a matter of showing up to a meeting."

She noted that polls show only 31 per cent of people say they're willing to show up to a council meeting to voice their opinion on an issue, but 59 per cent said they'd participate in an online consultation.

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Surrey recently went through a tumultuous debate over a casino. Part of the argument that erupted was whether the number of people at the meetings or the number of names on an "online petition" were really representative of the whole community.

Other cities have used online technology to survey residents about specific issues but have not developed a pool of people who can be surveyed about many things over time, as Surrey is attempting.

Ms. Lyons said that, while an online forum like Surrey's can be a powerful tool for both residents and city staff and politicians, it has its limitations.

"You need to sign up and give information to a government entity. You will have some people with a higher degree of comfort with that and lower privacy thresholds and others that don't have that. There can be some demographic splitting there."

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