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The controversy over Palo Alto's "Civic Engagement for the Common Good"

By Douglas Moran (July 2009)

2009 is the second year that Civic Engagement has been one of the City Council's top priorities. The new City Manager arrived with a strong background in this area and it looks like positive action may well finally happen. What the coverage of this issue has not reflected is the wide divergence in perspective and priority between the two primary groups involved, and the implications of the two approaches on how residents interact with the City government.

Members of the first group tend to be already heavily involved in City affairs, either as volunteers or as part of their professional lives (for example, developers and architects). They see the impact that such as themselves can have and naturally focus on volunteers who will dedicate significant time over the long haul, heighten by the current shortfall of such volunteers. They tend to see the frustration that ordinary residents have in dealing with the City as resulting from them not knowing how the City works nor how to properly work within the current City processes. Consequently their solution involves educating residents about these matters, and a significant part of their proposal involves a series of training sessions (an academy) on these issues (many cities have similar training, as did Palo Alto many years ago). I will refer to this as the PAGE group because P.A.G.E. (Palo Altans for Government Effectiveness) is the leading advocate for this viewpoint.

The second group is predominantly people with a grass-roots focus (such as me). They see involvement as typically starting small and increasing through multiple stages with only a few people from each stage moving on to the next one. Their focus is on the early stages of this "pipeline." What they see is a serious shortfall in people moving on to the next stage, often because they become exhausted and frustrated and drop out altogether. Although this group tends to support, even advocate for, having an academy, they note that it benefits only the few who reach the later stages of the pipeline (because the academy requires a significant time commitment). Rather than training residents on how to accommodate the City's processes, they argue that the first priority should be changing those processes—and the organizational culture behind them—to lower the bar for meaningful participation by ordinary residents. Such participation goes beyond residents expressing their concerns and views: Residents may have expertise on an issue that complements or supplements that of City staff and the consultants. I will refer to this as the PAN group because the primary advocates are neighborhood leaders (PAN is Palo Alto Neighborhoods).

The approach of the PAGE group is expressed in an evolving proposal first issued by PAGE in spring 2007 and currently advocated by the City's Human Relations Commission (of which the primary author of the proposal is also a member ). A significant portion of this document is abstract goals that don't seem to translate into specific actions or actionable policies. Another portion puts forward good guiding principles for conducting meetings, but then over-extends by advocating that they become rules, thereby bringing to mind the old warning that "Strict adherence to Roberts Rules of Order ensures that a meeting will accomplish nothing."

The PAGE group emphasizes the role of volunteers as being advocates to the community for decisions taken by City government (such as bond measures) and in implementing programs. The PAN group's emphasis is enabling broader participation by ordinary residents in the City's decision-making process, especially by getting their input in the early stages when the choices are being defined. Recognize that, in various situations, how a program is conducted (the day-to-day decisions) can have a larger impact on the community than the high-level decisions on that program.

The PAGE/HRC proposal is more controversial than need be because its supporters violate the very principles that they advocate: Despite two years of discussion, they have yet to address the concerns of the PAN group. One of those concerns is that the proposal may wind up enhancing the power of "insiders", partly by elevating their role and partly by raising the bar for participation by ordinary residents. For example, the phrase "for the common good" from the PAGE proposal is highly controversial. This and similar phrasing are routinely used by advocates, often insiders, of one point of view to dismiss, even demonize, people with other viewpoints as being "selfish" (Avoiding this very sort of personalizing of debate is one of the prominent guiding principles in the PAGE/HRC proposal). Despite this, PAGE heavily lobbied to have it included in the statement of that City priority. In 2008, the City Council decided against including it; this year Council included it. The failure of PAGE, and then the HRC, to address a range of such concerns has created suspicions about the real goal of its proposal. However, from what I know and have seen of the primary author, I suspect that it is tone-deafness with a measure of stubbornness. As I hope I have shown, civic engagement is not Motherhood and Apple Pie but a set of real choices about priorities.

Resource: A variety of examples of how the current Palo Alto process discourages, even rejects, input from residents can be found in "The Palo Alto Process: A culture of bad decision-making" by Douglas B. Moran