html xmlns="http://www.w3.org/1999/xhtml" xml:lang="en" lang="en"> From the archives: ...until the break of dawn

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

...until the break of dawn

I am always disappointed by public meetings. We hold public meetings for people to give us comment, and we never get the kind of comment I hope for. I keep hoping some guy will stop in and say “Why, that problem looks like one we solved for a tricky transportation issue! You might not think so, but I think the underlying structure is the same. Have you thought about this algorithm, which worked for us?” And then I would say, “That just might work! Maybe you could show me how you derived it over dinner tonight.” And he would say “Only if I can take you out for dessert after, so we can talk about other potential applications. But it will have to be in Midtown, because I rode my bike here.” And then I would start blushing and fanning myself, because I would be thinking impure thoughts.

But that isn’t what we get. We get professionals who are there on behalf of an organization to protect an economic interest. Those folks give sophisticated, one-sided comments, which is probably fine. As long as we get professionals from all sides, we can hope an advocacy system will flush out the major points; it is our job as experts to balance them. And then we get private citizens.

I go to Parks Advisory Commission meetings as a member of the public from time to time. They’ll move through their agenda, on the ratios of playing fields to naturscaping for new parks and proposed parks fees for new developments. At the end, they’ll ask for comment. Someone will invariably stand up and tell us that his house is right across from that basketball court and the vibration from the constant dribbling is shaking the mortar loose from his house walls, and is the City going to fix that or is it going to let his house fall down on him? ‘Cause his neighbor is a lawyer, and they know what is happening, and how would you feel if your house were about to fall on you? Well?!? Well?!?

When you’re up in front of those meetings, you can spot ‘em. Your heart just sinks as they approach the microphone. There is so much wrong, and you don’t even know where to start. This meeting is expensive to hold, what with the consultants and staff on overtime, and you can’t spend people’s time discussing this guy’s problems. You don’t even know how to have this conversation with this guy, ‘cause you’re a park planner but you vaguely know the rangers from park enforcement, who might tell the basketball players to cut it out after 8pm. You think you remember that park, but it was designed thirty years ago when the fad was to put amenities on the periphery but that caused exactly these problems, and what the hell are you thinking, ‘cause the basketball court is not making this guy’s house fall over! So you look at this guy, who found a meeting with the word “Parks” in it and made his problem your problem, and you think to yourself, for the hundredth time, that the people are freaks and should never ever ever be allowed near an important decision.

And this is how I know our meetings are broken. Our system is broken when the people it was created for can’t figure out where to bring their problems. Our meetings are broken when a snide bureaucrat sits in front of the room wishing the people away. The meeting format itself is part of the problem. People come to the meeting with a problem that has bothered them for ages (noisy basketball!), and they sit there, not understanding the abstract and technical agenda items. When they get up to speak, they have three precious minutes to make their problem seem important enough to get attention, so of course they’re going to stretch it. Then, as they are finally talking about whatever thing was important enough to get them out of the house, they can see all the people up in front checking out, so they have to talk louder and wilder. Three minutes later they sit down, hating bureaucrats even more. It is broken.

I honestly don’t know what to offer. Ombudspeople for City Hall and state agencies? They probably already have some. More education for citizens? Dude, the system is for them. It should be designed for the users' constraints. A different style of meetings? Well, since you begged, I’ll talk about that next post.

27 Comments:

Blogger Mark said...

This honestly is interesting, getting your point of view and insider info on these topics.

But it's hard to believe I specifically requested 6 solid months of this.

5:22 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

I was surprised that all the other readers designated you as their spokesperson and unanimously agreed. But it says so in black and white, right there on the page. Must be true.

6:16 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

Also, you guys know that I am making up these examples, right? They're variations on things I've seen, but I don't really know anything about fads in park design. I was just guessing at a plausible train of thought for people who run park meetings.

6:27 PM  
Blogger Spungen said...

When you’re up in front of those meetings, you can spot ‘em.

When you're in the back, too. I used to cover these things! I had to get a story out of them. I had to worry about these nuts calling my editor and complaining that I completely missed the story because I said nothing about how the project will make his house fall in on him, and the editor, who is busy and isn't paying much attention, schedules an in-person meeting between me and the nut to discuss this great angle I missed.

I know, you've got it way worse. But I feel your pain.

A coherent, concise gadfly can liven things up, but usually listening to them is like orbiting the event horizon of a black hole. I don't think meetings are broken -- I think people are broken. There are always going to be those folks who don't want to solve their problems, don't want to be efficient, don't want to take no for an answer, don't want to take yes for an answer. Chalk them up to an inevitable cost of doing business.

7:26 PM  
Blogger Spungen said...

P.S. Honestly, I always figured those public comments sessions were done only because they had to be, on autopilot. And here you are, actually caring! Listening! Worrying!

7:29 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

I don't know that we've got it worse. We don't have to make an interesting story out of public meetings. We just need results.

And here you are, actually caring! Listening! Worrying!

The good ones do, and that's probably a higher percentage than you think.

8:43 PM  
Anonymous Mitch said...

Meetings are sort of a blessing and a curse, but in this case I'd say more of a curse.

The thing is (and I'm sure this is no revelation to anyone here) you no longer have to have a meeting in order to have a discussion. Meetings are synchronous: everybody has to be in the same place at the same time listening to the same thing. But an online discussion is asynchronous: people can read whichever parts interest them at whatever time is convenient for them. How many times have you wished you could skim over the nut's rambling? Or skip it entirely and spend more time on a more substantive comment?

One of the reasons I never go to these kinds of meetings is because it's inconvenient to actually be there and because I certainly don't want to have to sit there through all of the rambling. And much of the time I may be only interested in one small aspect of the meeting but I'd have to sit through the whole thing just to get that part.

Of course, given that many of your constituents are old farts, or poor, you can't abandon meatspace entirely. But the barrier to internet access continues to fall (becoming both simpler and cheaper), and sometime soon it won't be exclusionary to make online discussions the main focus. Of course, many bureaucrats are old farts, so realizing this will take longer than it should. But someday it'll happen.

That day, I'll be so much happier, and also more likely to participate.

9:44 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

Mitch, you're a genius. I'd honestly never thought of conducting one of our meetings as a blog post. I'm going to have to think on that one for a while, 'cause I'm sure there are pros and cons. But I can see how it would be very useful in some applications.

(Off the top of my head though, I can already see that the format won't be comfortable for everyone. It seems so natural for us, but I can't even get my friends to use it to talk about me. They just don't respond to it. That doesn't mean that professionals wouldn't prefer it.)

10:00 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

The fact that many bureaucrats are aging may bring the changes sooner. Did you know that a third of the state workforce is eligible to retire within five years? It is going to be a shocking realignment when they go.

10:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not sure about where everyone else is, but around here, they replay the city council meetings on one of the local TV channels. I try to attend fairly regularly, as time allows between family, work, and school. If there were more women like Megan attending, I'd probably make it more of a priority. :)

However, I find my trifling experience with software development as not entirely necessary to whatever the city council is proposing. Yeah, I'd like to provide some insight into how the city should implement its water treatment system, or comment on the best method for redoing the roads, but I don't have much experience in those sorts of things, which is what you're commenting on here. If they were proposing something respect to the city's IT department, or their police database, maybe I might have something more to add.

Living in a small community, it's a little easier to control the direction of the community. One of the board members is our family doctor, and I know a couple of the others because they run local businesses that I visit frequently. So my experience is probably not quite the same as those of you living in bigger cities. Personally knowing half of the members of the city board and patronizing their private businesses probably gives one a little more weight when it comes to discussing city ordinances and whatnot.

--mith

10:03 PM  
Blogger Spungen said...

Did you know that a third of the state workforce is eligible to retire within five years?

Wow, I had no idea! How did that happen?

Sounds like there'll be a lot of jobs opening up ...

10:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Also, I can't help but feel like I'm one of those nuts whose posts everyone skips over.

If the city council were to conduct a meeting as a blog post, I'd expect that person that always tries to make a case where there's none would just spam the thread with his own concerns without providing respect for those with actual concerns that the council can do something about.

Kinda like my replies.

--mith

10:27 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

Dunno how that happened - baby boomers and a growth in state agencies in the 70's? When the environmental agencies came into being?

This may or may not be a report on the aging of the state workforce, if their server comes back. Otherwise you can check out the Google cached version here.

10:32 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

Mith, I read your comments. You're a solid part of the conversation here. Do I not respond to them much?

10:34 PM  
Anonymous Mitch said...

Off the top of my head though, I can already see that the format won't be comfortable for everyone.

This is a real concern, and I don't want to brush it off. However, I think it's important to consider that while online discussions might exclude some people, they also include other people: everyone who has internet access but not the time to go to the meeting. And even when you take your show on the road, you still won't be able to go to everyone's town. So some people are inevitably geographically excluded from an in-person meeting.

When you were reading the Los Osos forum at that one newspaper's website, what fraction of the interested people from the live meetings were also participating in the forum?

11:11 PM  
Anonymous Mitch said...

If the city council were to conduct a meeting as a blog post, I'd expect that person that always tries to make a case where there's none would just spam the thread with his own concerns without providing respect for those with actual concerns that the council can do something about.

But in person it's harder to interrupt someone. With text, you can just skip the crazy talk. And if it gets really bad there are always moderation systems, where people vote on how worthwhile each comment is.

I've also found your comments interesting and worthwhile, mith, for what it's worth.

11:16 PM  
Anonymous bill said...

All very fascinating -- now how about a post about the astronaut love triangle? Just to calm things down a little.

6:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Off the top of my head though, I can already see that the format won't be comfortable for everyone.

That's the tricky part: while a new system may not be comfortable for the people that currently participate, we also need to take into account the people that don't currently participate because they're uncomfortable with the existing system.

--mith

7:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

great name for those nuts: NIMBYs
(Not In My BackYard).

I've seen online forums for discussing local issues get very ugly. People post nasty things anonymously, and they invent user names to create a groundswell of like-minded folk. It only takes one or 2 people like this to commandeer the discussion. A lot of trouble is averted when the system requires that participants are willing to stand up in front of a group to say what they believe. Not that it's perfect...

-dithers

8:19 AM  
Blogger matt said...

I can't wait to see your solution, Megan.

I'm curious to see what sorts of realignments will take place as policy shifts generational hands, so to speak. I think Mitch is likely on to something with greater use of blog-style internet mediums to do business.

8:36 AM  
Blogger Megan said...

-dithers,
My Dad came home from a conference with a list of citizen groups. My two favorites were:

Not In My Front Yard, Either

and

CAVE. Citizens Against Virtually Everything.

I've been calling my neighborhood association (of which I am a current member) CAVE ever since.

8:48 AM  
Blogger Spungen said...

Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything.

9:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

mmmmmm, BANANA.

--mith

12:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'd like to take up some time and space here to talk about how NOISY the trains are near my house, when they blow their HORNS in the MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT so I can't SLEEP! This makes me irritated and tired, and eventually I might kill somebody. Also, AIRPLANES are too noisy, and they are EVERYWHERE, even over our precious natural parks and wilderness areas, 24 hours a day.

These things actually do bug me, especially the airplanes, which should absolutely not be permitted to overfly mountainous wilderness areas. This does not require any complicated, bureaucratic fix, but simply the collective will to say, AIRPLANES, DO NOT FLY OVER MARCUS WHEN HE IS ENJOYING THE PEACEFUL WILDERNESS! Megan has promised me her father will solve all these things, but has he? No.

I would also like to talk a little about CONSTRUCTION SITES, which are EVERYWHERE IN SACRAMENTO, and also dirty and noisy and dusty. They are a contributor to the HORRIBLE, almost POISONOUS levels of smog that exist here, which make my throat RASP AND BURN when I am outside exercising! And exercising is supposed to make you HEALTHY! What kind of world are we living in when exercise in the GREAT OUTDOORS makes your throat hurt and can make you feel almost SICK? A TERRIBLE world, that's what kind of world! A world that needs to be FIXED, right away!

I'm sure I'll think of more irritating things that require collective action later.

Marcus

1:16 PM  
Blogger Per Kurowski said...

Just looked in at the debate, after it was held, and noticed the idea of structuring town hall meetings as a blogspot… to blogspotize it, which of course does not necessarily mean that those not present should have the right to participate at their leisure, but instead that those present could come prepared with their memory sticks, sit under the wired umbrella and have it all duly recorded for a couple of brief after session discussion runs and for future references. That could clearly help the members of the worldwide User’s Unite movement to have their voices heard and also hopefully to shut some of the noise out.

11:29 AM  
Blogger Paul Gowder said...

Maybe I'm a little too populist, but it seems to me that if the guy with the basketball court problem had a way to get through to the bureaucracy, he wouldn't need to crash a public meeting.

1:56 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

Paul, I'm totally with you. More and easier access, especially for local agencies. That's why I thought an ombudsperson could help.

9:32 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home