html xmlns="http://www.w3.org/1999/xhtml" xml:lang="en" lang="en"> From the archives: Yeah. Really.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Yeah. Really.

Public meetings are held to satisfy two incompatible purposes. There is the explicit purpose, which is to make an informed decision about the complicated items on the agenda. There is also the implicit purpose, which is sometimes stated but mostly not, which is to include and consider the opinions of every interested citizen. If every interested citizen were prepared to give thoughtful comments on the complicated items, those wouldn’t be cross-purposes. But not every citizen can do that. Some don’t know enough context to give relevant comments; some want to address items that aren’t on the agenda; some have relevant comments they can’t express clearly.

The way we run meetings now (agenda, presentation, discussion of agenda items, public comment) doesn’t meet both purposes. In fact, doing them both simultaneously damages each purpose. When you are trying to get through technical material, and you are paying some specialists and imposing on others to donate their time to the public, and you need to pay enough attention to each advocate’s analysis to find their biases, you don’t want laypeople coming in with the observations and objections that you dealt with four meetings ago, much less stuff that is outside your jurisdiction or plain crazytalk.

But giving laypeople three minutes for public comment doesn’t work for them either. They get frustrated that bureaucrats are addressing abstract technical stuff when they have an actual real problem. They feel dismissed, which they often are. They get strident to bring attention to their issues. They think public meetings are about pointless technicalities and bureaucrats are snotty and that civic participation doesn’t work.

The insidiously tempting option is to hold separate meetings for technical and laypeople. Or just, you know, hope that uneducated private citizens won’t show up for technical meetings. We could get so much work done that way. But you can’t shut out the people, not the clueless ones, nor the ones who never get to the point, nor the ones who make analogies that make your head hurt, nor the ones who abuse your agency and the government, nor the ones who repeat their off-topic, exaggerated rhetoric at every meeting.

You can’t shut them out for a bunch of reasons. One good reason is that they might be right. In the 60’s and 70’s, city planners went on a freeway building rampage that gutted neighborhoods. I’m sure that patronizing transportation engineers could have explained exactly why each of them was necessary, if the people would only understand. And I’m sure people stood up during the comment period saying “I see your graphs, but it just can’t be right to rip out our homes and stores and parks for a freeway.” They were right. We’re re-integrating those freeways now. Another reason is that strident people can bring your project to a halt. A dedicated activist, misguided or correct, can take your EIR to court, can force you to do another study, can convince the legislature to postpone funding your project for just another year. The person you edge out at your public meeting can turn personyears of work into a fading report no one reads.

The real reason that you can’t shut people out of your meetings, even off-topic annoying people, is more abstract. The implicit purpose, to include and consider the opinions of every interested citizen, comes from our ideal of a participatory democracy. If we want to uphold our beliefs that all voices have equal value in our country and that citizens guide the governance of our cities and states and country, then we have to be willing to practice those beliefs all the time. When meetings about the public’s business exclude some voices, we have done a small hurt to participatory democracy. It doesn’t matter if it is through poor meeting design or though understandable human impatience, if the result diminishes someone’s voice, everyone’s civic life is slightly damaged. When it happens all the time, incrementally excluding types of views and voices becomes the exclusion of types of people. Even though it would be so much easier to only deal with the clear thinkers at public meetings, in the end, ease is not what we are after. Because we are representatives of the state, because we are truly civil servants, participatory democracy requires that we shape our public dealings to make everyone heard.

12 Comments:

Blogger Spungen said...

Like demurring to a pro per prisoner's handwritten complaint, only live. God love ya. Glad it's not me.

5:41 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

Well, that's what we get paid the big dollars for.

7:05 PM  
Anonymous Wesley said...

A lot of current traffic problems in Southern California are exaggerated by the cancellation of many planned freeways in the 1960s and 70s. Keeping neighborhoods intact was too high a price for our miserable traffic.

I'm no Robert Moses, but here was an example of the uninformed and passionate public cancelling necessary infrastructure improvements.

1:38 AM  
Blogger Christopher said...

If we want to uphold our beliefs that all voices have equal value in our country and that citizens guide the governance of our cities and states and country, then we have to be willing to practice those beliefs all the time.

This is the core of the problem (or the solution). We have moved away from a culture of participatory democracy where public debate was not only expected, but was a vital part of everyday life to a model where public engagement only takes place around particular projects and moments of crisis. Historical accounts of 19th century America are filled with stories of public citizens actually enjoying debates over public decisions affecting their livelihoods. And sometimes, there were fisticuffs.

Without the ongoing engagement that elicits the input of moderate, thoughtful everyday folks, the voices of Joe Crankypants will predominate (thus discouraging others from wanting to engage in a discussion with the mouth-frother) and reasonable people continue to be repelled by public life. Also, public officials will further attempt to keep the unwashed public at arm's length.

Basically, I think that the solution doesn't lie with the format of the public meetings, but in how we deal with the public on an ongoing basis. Which is, of course, what you already said.

6:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I thought you went to the public meetings to ogle the construction workers in their sleeveless tank tops while they straddled chairs and discussed creative uses of concrete.

I don't know if this reference is too esoteric, so here's the link.

--mith

6:39 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"A lot of current traffic problems in Southern California are exaggerated by the cancellation of many planned freeways in the 1960s and 70s. Keeping neighborhoods intact was too high a price for our miserable traffic."

No place in the world has the highway density of southern California. No place in the world has the traffic problems of southern California. This is not a coincidence. Why do you think that more highways would solve the problem?

Two observations:

1) Southern California's population has grown so fast and spread so far that no transportation plan could have kept up--the traffic problems are a function of too much growth in too little time. If population growth were to slow down for a decade or three, it would give infrastructure investment time to catch up.

2) Southern California has suffered by unbalanced investment in transportation. Balanced investment in highways and mass transit would have resulted in a far better traffic situation. LA is only now starting to rectify this. The problem is that citizen activists didn't kill enough of the highways.

6:54 AM  
Blogger Ben said...

Granted you can't keep the public out of the technical meetings, but couldn't you still have separate, open agenda meetings for the people who are just looking for a forum, any forum?

Of course, if you didn't then actually listen at the open agenda meetings, and follow up, and take action if appropriate and at least try to explain why not if not, then no one would go--they'd just go back to the technical meetings where the important stuff happens.

6:54 AM  
Anonymous Thelonious_Nick said...

Umm, the above comment was Thelonious_Nick. I didn't really mean to be anonymous.

6:54 AM  
Blogger Megan said...

Look, Ben. I've had enough of you guys begging me to explain bureaucratic policy making. I am not just some object of titillation, and I won't be provoked into talking dirty to you anymore.

Seriously, though. That solution is so, so tempting. And I do think there would be real value in having an open forum/ombudsperson type venue. I like that. But the idea that laypeople don't belong in technical meetings (which is something I struggle against myself) is flawed. These are the people's decisions. Rather than hope they stay away, we need to do the work so they can be fully included. Which is the post I've put off writing. And you can't make me write it today, no matter how you beg.

9:30 AM  
Anonymous mith said...

It seems to me that part of the problem with the format of the meetings is the way data is presented. We can't all be experts on everything, except for those of us that are politicians, but I'd like to think the majority of us are at least capable of researching a given topic and educating ourselves just a little bit on the pros and cons of various solutions. By both presenting all of the information and then requesting comments in the same meeting, it already alienates the average layperson, one that might have something insightful to say if only he had an opportunity to research the topic a little on his own.

This is why I liked the idea of conducting a meeting through some sort of blog interface. While it might be inefficient for the initial proposal, it would provide laypeople an opportunity to research before wasting time with questions that were answered 4 meetings previous.

How about this for a sort of hybrid idea: conduct a meatspace meeting in the traditional sense, allowing those involved to present their proposal and reasoning behind the solution. Have the meeting recorder then publish this to the city's website as a blog entry, where citizens may login and ask questions or post comments on the proposed solution. Perhaps even allow the city officials or those involved in the project to moderate comments, so that good questions or previously unconsidered alternatives are easier to filter out of the noise.

This allows everyone a voice, while lowering the signal:noise ratio. It doesn't involve the problem of alienating the people that are comfortable with the current system of meetings, while also including those that may be more comfortable with a less formal atmosphere on the Internet, or those that are unable to come to physical meetings, or just want an opportunity to do a little research before asking dumb questions.

--mith

12:46 PM  
Anonymous Francis said...

on traffic: there's a growing body of evidence that suggests that people will live up to an hour away from work. I've seen some mapping of traffic flows in So.Cal. which pretty strongly suggests that new job centers arise as commutes start to exceed the 1 hour mark (or am i thinking of Rim Cities?).

build 20-lane freeways from Riverside to downtown LA? people will start commuting from Palm Springs.

there's a bunch of undeveloped land not far, as a crow flies, from downtown LA. (it's called the Mojave Desert). but the Angeles Natl Forest happens to be in the way. oddly enough, major developers happen to be looking into tunneling under the forest.

3:03 PM  
Anonymous Roxie said...

Well said Megan!!
I agree with you on the frustrations of public participation AND also agree with the necessity of public participation.

I think the most successful meetings are those held with apt facilitators that keep people focused and on topic. Also preparedness of what to expect from the public is necessary to be ensure that the participants of the meeting have and are being included in the process.

Public outreach from the onset of a process/project can also offset problems later down the road when a project is presented and the public is like "where the f** did this come from?" i.e. Eldorado-Elk Grove connector study!! When the public is excluded there will be price to pay!! :)

1:24 PM  

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