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Civic Engagement Handbook Comment Board

From September 6 through October 11, members of the community are invited to provide comments on the City’s Draft Civic Engagement Handbook, now posted online (PDF). Comments received during this period will inform the final draft for public hearing and City Council review, tentatively scheduled for November 2013. Individual comments will not be responded to but will be categorized by subject area and addressed in that format. Responses demonstrating how the comments were incorporated will be provided with the public hearing docket item.

Questions? Contact Carrie Beach at 703.746.3853 or send an email to

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“What’s Next Alexandria” ’s draft Handbook for Civic Engagement is largely unobjectionable. Individuals might differ on some of the details, but the broad “Principles of Engagement” at the core of the undertaking seem sound and appropriate, and are accompanied by a broadly comprehensive “tool box” for implementation.

Standing alone, however, the Handbook and its implementation run the risk of disappointing and discouraging rather than fulfilling public expectations, and thus failing to achieve the eloquently stated goal of “improv[ing] the quality of Alexandria’s public participation process so that members of the community are actively, constructively, and meaningfully involved in the public decisions that affect their lives.”

The principal flaw is not in what the draft Handbook contains—but in what it does not. The principal lack is a clear, concise and credible statement by the City Council itself that its commitment to this objective and these principles is not superficial but substantial, not cursory but compelling, not peripheral but central to its determination as to how the City of Alexandria will conduct its public policy decision-making processes.

Council’s having commissioned the “What’s Next Alexandria” project, and attendance by individual members of the Council and of City management at several of the community meetings, were welcome, but are not alone a sufficient demonstration of the depth of its commitment and the importance it attaches to the goal.

When it adopts the Handbook, the Council should demonstrate that commitment by predicating it on the adoption of a Statement of Policy on Public Participation in the City of Alexandria’s Public Policy Decision-Making Process—a policy which Council is willing to measure the City’s governmental processes against; for the implementation of which Council is willing to be held primarily and ultimately accountable; and which Council is prepared to apply fully to its own proceedings, as a hallmark for the practice of all other governmental bodies and agencies in the City.

A suggested statement of principle proposed more than four years ago by the Alexandria Federation of Civic Associations (with some additional language to reflect some of the key conclusions and recommendations of the current “What’s Next Alexandria” project) could be a useful starting point for the drafting of such a Statement of Policy by the Council:

It shall be the policy of the City of Alexandria that significant public policies will be adopted, and significant governmental action taken, only after (1) the nature of the proposed policy or action has been fully disclosed, (2) the public has had full and fair opportunity to learn of the proposed action, and to comment on it, and (3) the decision-making body has had sufficient opportunity fairly to consider and reflect on such comment, before acting. It is the purpose of this policy to ensure that public participation in all of the City’s public policy processes shall be welcomed and encouraged to the optimum degree, so that all citizens of Alexandria, regardless of their station or their circumstances, shall have no less access to and opportunity for participation in those processes, and their views afforded no less full, fair and respectful consideration, than is afforded to any public or private parties at interest.

Michael Hobbs (388) | User | October 11, 2013 - 6:00 PM

Thank you taking the time to listen to our comments on the revised Handbook for Civic Engagement. However, there is a real need for citizens to affect the outcome of major decisions in a meaningful way. Because citizens will only participate if there is a credible organizational process that gives them reason to believe they have the ability to affect the outcome.

Although a lot of work obviously went into the Handbook, the City Growth Policy of the City Council is holding the civic engagement process back from addressing some of the core issues that precipitated the need for it in the first place.

The primary Civic Engagement goal is to improve the quality of Alexandria's public participation process, so that "members of the community are actively, constructively, and meaningfully involved in the public decisions that affect their lives."

This goal was intended to address the opinion of some that the Alexandria engagement process consists of one or more of the following objectives, which the White Paper; The Connected Community: Local Governments as Partners in Citizen Engagement and Community Building specifically states “that citizen engagement is not”

• Selling the public on…;
• Getting votes for…;
• Convincing the public to….;
• A meeting to complain/find fault with…;
• A process where staff…controls [the] outcome….”

As Lukensmeyer and Torres (2006, 7) state: "To simply inform and to consult are 'thin,' frequently pro-forma techniques of participation that often fail to meet the public's expectations for involvement, and typically yield little in the way of new knowledge." In the comprehensive review of the literature on Citizen participation, the White Paper concludes that "What appears to be most important from a citizen's perspective and from the standpoint of attaining ongoing engagement is not the strategy employed, but how government responds when citizens voice their preferences.

For citizens, there are two questions that are paramount:” Did the government listen and take action based on what they heard from us? Was it worth my time and effort?"

These are simple, but vitally important questions that need to become objectives for each major decision and be inculcated into the in the Handbook and City Hall.

By emphasizing form, the Handbook offers the citizens to have opportunity to comment, but it does not address the core issue of ensuring that citizens will have influence over the outcome. Nor does it ensure that public servants treat service recipients, not as customers, but as citizens with whom they want to build a positive relationship, a sense of responsibility, and mutual trust.

Moreover, if the "Growth Policy" is set outside the engagement process by the City Council, to what end is the engagement process? As in the past, unpopular or ill-conceived projects will merely degrade into mass protest movements, causing more damage than good. Furthermore, although the current version of the Handbook is rich in expectations placed on citizen behavior, it is surprisingly silent on the conduct of City entities, giving credence to the belief that engagement is not truly a bilateral process.

Poul Hertel

Poul Hertel (368) | User | October 11, 2013 - 4:09 PM

The Handbook outlines the "What's Next Alexandria?" civic engagement process well, and captures the recommendations made during the public meetings (and online interaction)... Excellent work!

Descriptions of what a "community organizer" does, and the purpose of different communication methods adds clarity and promotes common understanding. Nice work!

Some general recommendations:
-I like the idea of a basic evaluation as suggested by AmyNThomas.
-Consider "chunking" the information into sections for the online version so the reader is not overwhelmed
-Existing leadership groups might need to adjust their current structure (e.g., inviting City staff to speak at monthly meetings) to better align with the new process and could benefit from some training (similar to City staff training that is being planned).

More detailed edits to consider:
p. 23 (2nd paragraph) - Consider breaking up the one long, wordy sentence
p. 26 - Mobile Workshop & ... (out of place? - Move to #2?)
p. 36 "benefits and constraints" repeated twice in paragraph 3

Other considerations:
-Flyers also helpful in places where people gather and have to wait (e.g. bus stops)
-Print distribution can use existing infrastructure (e.g. inter library, recreation center, City departments and/or school distribution systems)

Thank you for the opportunity to participate and comment. I'm committed to carrying this work forward and hope to see the results of this work implemented in upcoming City projects.

Patrice Cunniff Linehan (350) | User | October 11, 2013 - 3:22 PM

Civic engagement Handbook draft looks very good. It is easy to read in Spanish and the format of the presentation takes me slowly to each of the information points, easy to understand the concepts. I am very happy to see how well es explained the community participation and the city embracing our city diversity. I know it will be hard to work but the city already knows that and recognize some of the challenges come along with bringing everyone to the table to work.(Need of translation services and child care services. Just to mentioned some the manual is pointing out).
I love the comments from the participants in some of the pages because shows the view of the residents of our community. The expectations are very clear for all the participants: city staff, community members,volunteers and facilitators. Definitely it is a Handbook that will be use to go back and forth through the whole process for anyone who participate and help to work toward to the outcome with the ingredients the Handbook provides.

Marybel Enriquez (387) | User | October 11, 2013 - 1:09 PM

p. 18: "Project can move on...when the majority is satisfied..." Majority of what? There needs to be some definite deadline on participation as a voting member in groups that require votes. Otherwise, factions pack the meetings at the last minute and obstruct progress. I have seen this happen.

p. 27: "Stakeholders' Groups" should be specifically mentioned and included.

p. 34: Though mentioned later, NEWSPAPERS and LIBRARIES should be included.

p. 46: Again, please do not overlook LIBRARIES.

p. 51: In the side note, "Democratic" should be "democratic"; capital "D" implies the Democratic Party, while lower case "d" refers to the participation of people in governmental decisions.

p. 52: Mention should be made of free translation software. I have in fact used it to produce Spanish language flyers, and it really does work.

p. 52: Getting "permission to post flyers in condos" -- good luck. Condominium rules are a major stumbling block to communications with residents, and a very large segment of Alexandria lives in condos. Unless it is electronic media or mail, it is exceedingly difficult to post materials in condos, and in fact, any multi-family residential area with strong association regulations. This is a real problem for local political candidates as well, and actually is becoming a very major issue.

p. 53: With respect to translators at meetings, a real caveat needs to be added that such translation services must not impede the general audience's ability to hear or see the proceedings. Some translators have actually interfered with members on the dais conducting a meeting, and have frequently been so loud in there translating efforts that members of the audience could not hear the ongoing debate. There should be a protocol to allow for proper translation without it interfering with the overwhelming majority of the participants/audience.

A-12: This should be noted specifically as a BLANK FORM (for people who are easily confused, like me).

Resource Listings: The Beauregard Corridor Stakeholders' Group should be listed as an example of community outreach and input. This was a major success in Alexandria, and we should build on lessons learned from that process.

In general: This is a well written and thought out handbook. My compliments to the staff, and the participants. The only danger is that the public must understand that while their inputs are important, and most definitely should be considered seriously, our elected officials are in office to use their own judgment to GOVERN, and therefore citizen input is not necessarily final -- except in elections.

Pete Benavage (386) | User | October 11, 2013 - 11:46 AM

I've had a chance to review the draft Civic Engagement Handbook and think it does a great job of capturing the What's Next discussions and documenting a flexible framework for future public participation efforts.

I have several specific comments that I wanted to provide for your consideration as you finalize the draft:

In the Principles of Engagement section, pages 8-16, the Actions checklists are very focused on the process for a a given project or single utilization of the framework, but many of the Outcomes seems more focused on the City's civic engagement efforts in general. For example, on page 13, one outcome is "increased trust in city government," an outcome that will require several public outreach efforts using this framework assess. There are a few different ways to address this. One option is to remove the check-boxes from the Outcomes lists. Another is to try to reword Outcomes to make particular to a single effort utilizing the framework rather than the engagement process in general. Another is to separate the effort-specific outcomes with the overall process outcomes using sub-headers.

Page 17: I would suggest flipping the Framework for Engagement graphic so that the flow chart moves naturally from left to right. It's counter-intuitive to our usual reading patterns as it¹s currently oriented.

Page 19: The Tour of the Framework on page 19 is very difficult to read. I suggest showing across two pages to provide more space, so that the annotations can be printed next to, rather than on top of, the framework text.

Page 29: I suggest adding a sentence to the Meeting Venue paragraph on choosing a building and meeting room that is accessible to persons with disabilities. This, of course, is a legal requirement, but is worth reiterating here along with the other venue considerations listed.

Page 32: Consider saying "advance the discussion" or "move the issue forward" instead of "move the ball forward."

Page 40: No other commercial products are mentioned on this page, so consider removing the specific reference to Textizen here.

Page 44: The clip art here (and the smaller version on the preceding page) connotes confrontation rather than communication. Consider using a figure of speaking persons instead.

Page 51: Might add bullet here noting that there is a hesitancy to participate in civic engagement by residents who are not U.S. citizens and are therefore not eligible to vote here, but engagement by non-citizen residents should be encouraged nonetheless.

Page A-7: Suggesting making the organization names hyperlinks that can be directly clicked on in the PDF version of the guide.

Thanks for your efforts and I look forward to applying this framework for future planning efforts.

Nathan Macek (383) | User | October 10, 2013 - 3:50 PM

I appreciated being able to participate in some of these discussions. I think the draft handbook is an excellent start. I do think the achieving engagement will be a difficult road and hope this can have some measure of success.

DB (384) | User | October 9, 2013 - 5:56 PM

Congratulations on this process and acknowledging the needs it seeks to serve. Alexandria's living legacy and brand identity are served by the best possible means of civic engagement and exercise of freedom of speech. This process helps to underscore who we are as a community.

One point I do not see addressed as a matter of diversity is the need to involve and include impartial, informed sources where available.

"Celebrate small victories" (p. 59) is a very worthy goal deserving of a process - as is embracing the understanding that "increasing public engagement across the city will require years of sustained collaboration and considered progress."

The use of a civic engagement advisory commission could extend and enhance this project.

Carol James (296) | User | October 9, 2013 - 5:37 PM

Time is a very expensive resource. I see mention of setting a timeline, but little mention of keeping to it, or revising it. At the micro level, meetings should not go on til 2.00am, at the macro level discussion should not go on until the project dies through boredom.

Pennington (250) | User | October 7, 2013 - 10:43 AM

Coming from a culture where citizen participation does not exist, I am very appreciative of the City's efforts to include in their work, those the City serves. I only hope that those who still do not see this democracy in action, eventually come to appreciate this wonderful place where they live and where they are taken into account.

Maria Mercedes White (382) | User | October 7, 2013 - 10:34 AM