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City of Alexandria, VA City of Alexandria, VA
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Civic Engagement Handbook Comment Board

From June 25-July 30, members of the community are invited to provide comments on the Preliminary Outline of the Draft Civic Engagement Handbook, now posted online. Comments received during this period will inform the Complete Draft Handbook, anticipated for release in late August. Comments will be categorized and addressed by subject area and addressed in that format. Responses demonstrating how the comments were incorporated will be posted with release of the Complete Draft Handbook, which will also be posted for community review and comment through September.

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6 Comments

City Seal

Thank you for your time and consideration in providing the preceding comments. As noted above, your feedback will become part of the public record and will inform the complete draft of the civic engagement handbook. It is anticipated that the complete draft will be posted in mid-late August for public comment through September. Responses demonstrating how the comments were incorporated will be posted with release of the complete draft.

Questions can be directed to Carrie Beach at carrie.beach @ alexandriava.gov or 703.746.3853.

Carrie Beach (35) | City Staff | July 31, 2013 - 9:38 AM


I appreciate and understand the efforts that lay behind the draft. However, I encourage the work group to looking into making two changes. The handbook would benefit from simplification and succinctness. A crisper and shorter handbook will make for an easier read and make it accessible to a wider audience.

The second suggestion is more fundamental and starts with why did the City Council embark on this project? The handbook focuses so intensely on expected behavior and "what to expect", it reads more as a normative rather than positive process (Descriptive, factual statements about the world are referred to as positive statements). A departure from the suggestions in the White Paper titled "Connected Communities".

"While there may be many goals and reasons for engaging citizens in governance, most of these can be categorized as being either normative--based on the idea that building citizenship and community is important for its own sake--, or instrumental--aimed at the approval or implementation of a particular policy or project (King). Or, as Catlaw and Rawlings express it, citizen engagement can be considered to be the "right" thing to do as a part of the democratic ideal or the "smart thing" to do to gain the information and involvement needed for effective, legitimate government. "Connected Communities", page 6 of the white paper.

Although emphasizing, the benefits of citizen involvement, the White Paper does so only in the context of them being treated as an equal partner.

“ On the other hand, from an instrumental or "smart" perspective, we should work to increase citizen involvement because local governments cannot solve community problems alone. In other words, involvement is a means to an end. Effective governance at the local level increasingly requires active and ongoing citizen participation in planning, policymaking, implementation, and service delivery. The complexity of the problems facing local government demands citizen involvement and acceptance, if not cooperation. Citizens often have information that officials need in order to design a sound program.” Page 7 of the White Paper.

The draft City Draft Handbook is relative silent on how the City Staff is expected to inculcate a behavior and attitude paradigm that would further such a mindset. Something that is necessary for the handbook to be viewed as a credible policy tool.

Finally, I encourage the City to adopt a policy of sharing staff correspondence on presented papers by citizens. If Citizens have made the effort, they deserve to be notified of the existence and content of such in house correspondence. This would be very helpful if the goal is to encourage sharing of ideas with confidence.

Sincerely
Poul Hertel

Poul Hertel (368) | User | July 30, 2013 - 5:02 PM

Concur that the plan seems to be more about the process of engagement and measurement of engagement. This is analogous to the series of wine and cheese meetings that the developers had about Potomac Yard, and then the developers did what they wanted to anyway. Did they engage with the public? Yes, in every sense of the word, but the outcome was as if they had never met with the public. The International Association for Public Participation (IAPE) Spectrum of Public Participation is at http://www.dpcd.vic.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0019/43183/Engagement_Guide.pdf, It show five levels of engagement: Inform, Consult, Involve, Collaborate, and Empower.
Under "Inform", the promise to the public is "we will keep you informed." For "Consult," the promise to the public is "We will keep you informed, listen to and
acknowledge concerns and aspirations, and provide feedback on how public input influenced
the decision." For "Involve" the promise to the public is "We will work with you to ensure that your concerns and aspirations are directly reflected in the
alternatives developed and provide feedback on how public input
influenced the decision." For "collaborate," the promise to the public is "We will look to you for advice and innovation in
formulating solutions and incorporate your advice and recommendations into the decisions to the maximum extent possible." The most responsive option on the spectrum of engagement is "empower" and the promise to the public is "We will implement what you decide." My best sense of past and current engagement practices in Alexandria is that they operate at "Inform," while they say they will "consult." There is no guarantee that apparent public opinion (as evidenced by many speakers and filling the City Hall Chambers)is a reflection of the wishes and needs of constituents. I remember one packed City Hall meeting about the location of the Carpenter's Shelter where the majority of supporters were non-resident "ringer" do-gooders that used a •Argumentum ad Consequentiam " logic about supporting the shelter's exsistence, when the real issue was the location of the shelter, which was opposed by the residents due to concerns about drugs and the location near a park.

Connie Graham (367) | User | July 30, 2013 - 4:09 PM

Although I understand the frustration of the other two commenters – who are seeking more ACTION or IMPLEMENTATION of the civic engagement framework – the community conversations were critically important in making a culture shift that is captured in the Handbook:
“Engagement involves conversations, deliberation, and active feedback. It means creating new relationships with neighbors and actively listening to different points of view. … That kind of engagement is more effective than citizens communicating ideas one-by-one to City staff and considerably more effective than City staff working alone.” (p. 3)
Sometimes we give input individually, without realizing there are other citizens providing completely different solutions to the same problem. By understanding the various perspectives, we are better able to find win/win solutions.
Through my involvement in the process, I have been impressed by the work that City staff and citizens have done together. For me, What’s Next Alexandria? has especially demonstrated City
Responsiveness, Transparency and Inclusiveness
RESPONSIVENESS of City staff to community input. For example, during the first community dialogue, participants reacted negatively to having City staff facilitate the conversations at tables. There was overwhelming support for citizen-led dialogue, with less time dedicated to formal presentations by elected officials and expert consultants. AS A RESULT, City staff incorporated citizen feedback and sent a public request for volunteer facilitators from the community. They also reached out to groups (e.g., Parent Leadership Training Institute of Alexandria) to recruit volunteer facilitators who are bilingual or who could reach out to under-represented groups who were missing from the first dialogue. In addition to taking time to meet and train volunteer facilitators, the City staff and elected officials lowered their profile a bit, joining tables to listen more and allowing extra time for interaction among participants.
TRANSPARENCY was improved and modeled throughout the process. The description on page 6 of the Handbook gives an overview but the notes, pictures of participant notes during table activities, polls and opportunities to comment (such as this one), are all additional evidence of the efforts made to provide transparency to the public … and offer multiple ways to provide input in the process for people who could/could not join the meetings in person.
INCLUSIVENESS was a theme that came up throughout the series of dialogues. Reaching out to under-represented groups and involving everyone in meaningful ways is often a challenge. When we recognized that young people were missing from the conversations, special effort was made to recruit student leaders from Alexandria City Public Schools and other civic groups (Optimist club? I think). When a point was made that everyone doesn’t have access to email, posters were translated and I personally saw City staff putting them up in predominantly Spanish-speaking neighborhoods, etc. [Also see note about recruiting facilitators who can speak other languages in addition to English above in the responsiveness example].
Although there are some items that we’ll have to work together to clarify as we implement the civic engagement framework – e.g., How will we know when, “Trust in the citizen engagement process increases” or that “outreach occurs well before the project begins”? – the Community Dialogues and resulting Handbook are a good start.
SUSTAINED COLLABORATION will be up to all of us. I encourage everyone to read pages 12 and 13 and consider ways to support the next steps, especially as the process is tried out and refined through upcoming projects
-Public Art Master Plan
-Eisenhower West Transportation Study and Small Area Plan
-Stormwater Management Plan
-Bicycle Master Plan
I urge everyone who live and works in Alexandria residents to get involved in the projects that interest them. I’m looking forward to implementing the Handbook recommendations and seeing improvements in civic engagement and collective action.

Patrice Cunniff Linehan (350) | User | July 30, 2013 - 1:11 PM

I agree with Dave Cavanaugh – this is a disappointing product given all the time and effort that has been devoted to it. The Beauregard Plan was supposedly one major catalyst for “What’s Next” but so far the City appears to have missed the message it offered. Whatever its flaws, it came about because the community was unhappy with consultants from out-of-state showing up once a month and telling us what they (and the City administration) were going to do and how much we were going to like it. The initial lack of citizen involvement precipitated what became a very different process.

Despite that history it appears the City did not learn from it. The composition of the What’s Next team “spanned multiple departments” (there’s a lengthy list) and “a resident” - a resident! And the inevitable consultants. Yet again this fuels the perception that the City believes they know best with the implication that 10 or so from City Hall and one resident is about the right balance – to determine and address residents’ concerns!

For now the focus was/is apparently to center around “planning”. It would be interesting to see the What’s Next attendance figures from meeting to meeting, broken down by the various constituencies (elected officials, City Administration officials, Planning staff, co-opted City staff, consultants, general public, etc.). One might note that members of City boards and commissions are expected to attend at least 75% of their meetings or risk being removed. There is a clear perception that some groups did not “walk their talk”.

To some people the “Handbook” reads very much like a broad, generic project management checklist that could equally apply to most any city of size in this country. There appears to be little, if anything, that is specific to Alexandria. One senses there are a myriad of very similar documents and guidebooks in libraries and cities across the country which inevitably begs the question – what has this cost us?

Aspirational checklists may be nice but these are not breakthrough concepts; the problem is that we don’t implement them. For sake of example: despite What’s Next having been underway for 11 months, little appears to have changed in the SUP approval process. The community still sees the staff report – which may exceed 100 pages and contain major decisions the public was not previously aware of – roughly a week before it is to be voted upon. Take away the weekend and there are 5 days for civic associations to meet, residents to meet with the Planning Department, Planning Commissioners, elected representatives, property owners, etc. Then members of the public can have 3 minutes apiece to speak and shortly if not immediately thereafter the SUP is voted upon. Seldom does a public comment get a response, much less have an impact on the vote which generally appears to have been pre-determined well in advance of the meeting. I would suggest that many residents do not view that as adequate or timely “civic engagement”.

We need to start walking our talk.

Don Buch (174) | User | July 29, 2013 - 12:06 PM

Thanks for the opportunity to comment on the June 2013 Preliminary Draft of “What’s Next Alexandria Civic Engagement Handbook.
I originally welcomed the opportunity to participate in a series of meetings. The “What’s Next Alexandria” initiative was billed as a conversation on civic engagement, how Alexandrians can best participate in public decisions that shape the City and reach agreement on principles that will guide civic engagement. This was a blatant attempt by City officials to quell the divisive debates surrounding the Waterfront Plan and the Beauregard Small Area Plan.
I was hoping for more given the length of time, City support and funding for the initiative. I was hoping the series of meetings would outline a process that would fundamentally improve public outreach, civic involvement, and collaboration. Instead, after nearly a year, the Preliminary Draft Handbook contains general guidelines and principles that are nice but do little to improve the current process. The Handbook advocates principles of behavior, City staff monitoring of the civic engagement process and reporting or recommending improvements, recruiting community members to play supportive roles and providing facilitation training, all of this pales in contrast to what could have been.
The City currently engages the community at times not in a constructive manner. Consequently, citizens feel decisions have already been made and commenting is futile. Citizens are not actively engaged in identifying issues, considering and understanding options, working with staff to resolve issues. Instead hard and fast timetables are set by City staff with limited or no consultation with the community; a variety of meetings (uncoordinated) are scheduled; often with short notices, in rapid succession, with no agendas, and limited public input. Meetings with the citizens are often dominated by staff presentation and they evolve into meetings informing the community of progress being made by staff and actions taken by various commissions.
I suggest the City not waste any more time or money on the Handbook. Staff was given an impossible task given the very limited scope of the public initiative started in September 2012. The Handbook is disappointing and not a major achievement.
Time and money would be better spent taking the information gathered at the meetings, recognize major dissatisfaction with current process. I suggest “What’s Next” include a recommendation creating a taskforce to evaluate the current process, consider alternatives for improvement and make recommendations on reasonable steps to reduce costs, confusion, delays and improve participation and the quality of citizen involvement. After several years of contentious debates on land use and planning issues that divided the community, a more serious effort is needed to improve public participation making Alexandria a more attractive and livable community.
Harnessing public involvement and support on issues important to the community is a difficult task. It is not easy. But it should not be so easily set aside with a handbook espousing platitudes that have little impact on improving civic involvement and participation.

Dave Cavanaugh (71) | User | July 24, 2013 - 3:47 PM