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Poul Hertel (user 368) - Comments by Date

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 | Civic Engagement Handbook Comment Board

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.

Poul Hertel

Poul Hertel (368) | User | July 30, 2013 - 5:02 PM | Civic Engagement Handbook Comment Board