“I strongly encourage citizen participation in all of the decisions that affect our lives. It is one of the vital privileges and responsibilities of citizenship in a democracy. Yet, I discourage the charade of citizen participation as a means of creating the false impression that citizens are making inputs if they are not.”
There are many ways this ‘charade’ of participation takes place. One is the typical “public hearing”, poorly attended or attended by a vociferous few, each person limited to one or three minutes at the mic, then closed with a peremptory “thank you for your input” as the decision-makers move on, with little or no acknowledgement of what was said. As the National League of Cities observed in its 2006 report “Changing the Way We Govern,”
Citizens tend to stay away from public hearings, school board meetings, city council proceedings, and zoning board meetings, mainly because they function in ways that are out of step with the larger changes in the citizen-government relationship.”
Next are workshops, scheduled to get public input, that are not well-linked with decision-making processes. So citizens give input which is listened to at some level, but is disregarded or displaced by later input when decisions are made. Recently we attended a commission hearing where a commissioner asked a staff member about what consensus had emerged from a series of public meetings that had been held. Although there had been a consensus that emerged during those meetings, the staff member simply said – “That was the group that showed up then. You have a different group here tonight, and it’s your decision.” Although the workshop process is often a more comfortable forum for citizens, if it is not linked to, or valued in, the actual decision-making process, the input provided is lost.
Another example comes from boards, commissions, and task forces that are organized to focus on a specific problem or issue. In one example we have experience with, a task force was created to address a need for citizen engagement around a planning issue. Instead of seeking out a diverse group of people with relevant experience or skills, the city council placed all of the very limited number of people who had applied voluntarily on the task force. As it turned out, many of those who applied were generally hostile toward city government, and not very interested in building dialogue with a broader group. The task force made little progress and even if it had, its recommendations would not have been very reflective of what “citizens” more generally were thinking. A similar dynamic occurs when citizens are handpicked for their support of a predetermined outcome — the full voice of “the citizens” is not heard.
None of these approaches assures the public that its input is valuable, or that is is worthwhile to “be engaged”. Real engagement takes commitment and perseverance on all sides. It is the responsibility of those in government to plan for and provide opportunities for meaningful input, and to consider what is said. It is the responsibility of citizens to be informed, to participate, and to hold their elected officials accountable for creating real dialogue.