I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts. – Abraham Lincoln
The City of Columbia has the following mission: “To serve the public through democratic, transparent, and efficient government.” To judge by comments made during our forums, the City is falling short of this mission, in part by not bringing citizens “the real facts” on difficult issues.
Participants raised a number of ways in which the current decision-making process is undermining trust, discouraging public engagement, and failing to move us forward. Consider the following comments at the November 15 Community Commons.
“Facts seem to be more and more elusive in the political arena.”
“Local control seems to be less and less. We need to engage more to ensure the people are aware and involved.”
“Feels like the car is being driven by someone other than us.”
“‘Bias’ in system is to keep people in their slumber.”
These can be added to comments from past forums :
“City asks citizens for input and then doesn’t do anything with it.”
“People want to be informed.”
Convey to the public the goals, the process, the outcomes.”
“Even when there is good information that contradicts the angry public conceptions on a topic, our council repeatedly fails to point out that information and argue against incorrect viewpoints.”
The list of 7 priorities for 2017, recently released by the Columbia Chamber of Commerce, also raised concerns with our current system. The final priority listed was “Encourage the city council to abide by the voters’ will on ballot measures and vote to respect those outcomes.” One of the projects referenced was the stalled transmission line.
Participants also identified a number of ways that current processes could be improved. This included new approaches to how issues are discussed, better education on decision-making systems, and improved follow-through on decisions made. Each of these is discussed further below.
- Adopt new approaches to how issues are discussed:
Ideas generated under this category included the following:
+Promote better understanding by better separation of the facts, the interests involved, and the trade-offs among options.
Participants during the November 15 Community Commons discussed past posts on the transmission line that were titled “Information and Misinformation.” Some stated that “everyone is selective about what facts they choose.” Others stated that engineering and certain other types of information reflected realities that cannot safely be minimized or ignored. As the group observed, part of what drives the selective use of certain data is different interests -particularly conflicts between the interests of those who might be directly affected by the installation of new infrastructure, and longer term community interests in “the common good” associated with things like adequate electricity, sewer capacity, and roads.
When arguing over ” the facts”, we can lose sight of the real issues like: Do we want the lights to go out? Who will be accountable if they do? What are the risks (unintended potential consequences) of acting or not acting and are we willing to live with them? How, if at all, might we compensate those who take losses because of a broader public good?
Under this option, when discussing or making decisions, council members would be encouraged to unpack and separately address the information they are relying on and why (or additional information being sought and why); the long-term and short-term interests involved and how they are being weighted, the interactions and intersections between issues (e.g., economic development or housing values and new infrastructure), and the values or principles being used to guide decisions. This approach could help citizens better evaluate the available information, and the consistency of decisions being made.
+ Provide “deeper dives” on key issues and information, and earlier outreach to those who would be directly affected by new infrastructure.
Here again, referencing the transmission line, participants pointed out that no-one likes surprises and surprise was one element in the opposition that developed during the public hearings on pole placement. One participant provided a resource on “geographic democracy” as evidence that new approaches are needed as the population changes.
+ City Council statements to be made on issues before public comment. Citizens would be better able to make good use of their limited time for public comment at council meetings if City Council members would first discuss their current thinking on an issue.
+ Use more citizen friendly scheduling: A consistent suggestion has been to hold more meetings for public comment, to hold them during days and early evening to accommodate different schedules, to align those with when public transit is running, and to publicize meetings and other opportunities for public comment in multiple ways that are likely to engage the public.
- Provide better education on systems
The process for making decisions is frequently unclear to citizens, and information is difficult to access. Suggestions here included:
+ Use info-graphics: Developing clear, accessible, and easy to read “info-graphics” explaining key systems.
+Use technology to summarize and inform: Make better use of technology, including providing short video summaries and updates on key issues or a weekly 20 minute television program with updates on key issues.
+ Teach while entertaining: Create a humorous show like “The Office” that helps highlight how city government systems work.
- Implement new processes to improve follow-up and follow-through
A number of suggestions were made to improve the way we make long term decisions. These included:
+ Create, disseminate, and archive summary reports on key decisions. Create an “executive summary” type decision report form. Information to be provided might include purpose, information sources, interests and trade-offs, key assumptions, and the decision made. This document would then be available for review throughout the life of a project and contain links to key documents like Council minutes or staff reports. Updates could be created as information is updated or circumstances change, and kept along with the original report.
+Raise the threshold for re-opening key decisions previously made. Establish a set of findings the Council needs to make before pausing/ending a project that has been funded and voted on by the public. Also the Council might be required to establish a clear date for when the issue would next be considered or provide a viable alternative to meet an existing need before it votes to “pause” or cancel such a project.
+Use Dashboards . For key projects and goals, regular, easy to understand progress reports, such as visual public dashboard, could be used so that citizens can easily track progress and cost.
+Use iterative planning on key issues. This could work in tandem with the report on decisions made and dashboards. It would require that goals for projects be defined in advance and evaluated at defined stages. Data, including public comment, would be gathered in each of the fields as the process of implementation unfolds. At defined points, and particularly at project end, the Council would invite review and capture lessons learned for improving and refining its processes.
. . .
One participant at the November 15 Community Commons observed,
“Changing from feeling like a small town to a large city is a rough transition for anywhere.”
“Something about a small community model that is very attractive, authentic. Everybody plugged into everything all the time.”
Greater transparency, improving the ways we communicate, and greater accountability and follow-through can help plug more people in, and create a more authentic sense that we are connected together as one community.
Come share your ideas and insights on December 20.
Tuesday, December 20, 7-9 pm
Enter the Tribune Training Room on Walnut Street, between 5th and Providence.
Sponsored by The Columbia Daily Tribune in partnership with the Kettering Foundation.