In Alexandria: More Dialogue, Fewer Speeches in Civic Engagement
Alexandria is blessed to have many engaged and well-informed citizens. Many of them are experts on issues of great importance to the City. The City offers many opportunities for public input on City decision-making, but many citizens feel that their views are not really being heard.
I think the City should provide more interactivity in the public involvement process. The City’s usual process involves public meetings where staff make speeches to citizens. Then at the end of those meetings, citizens make speeches to the staff. Then later, at Board and Commission meetings and at City Council, citizens get the opportunity to make more speeches.
But where is the dialogue? There certainly are exceptions, e.g., where attendees break out into small groups and have real conversations. But too often, in my experience, people are talking past each other.
I think Alexandria should make a much greater effort to provide opportunities for interactive public outreach. We need to learn from other communities who are doing this much more than Alexandria. Electronic town meetings. Blogs. Comment sections on important issues. Even Wikis! As the spokeswoman for former San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom once said about their electronic town meetings: “A regular town hall meeting provides a forum for a person to make a speech. The electronic town hall meeting demands an exchange of ideas without individuals standing up and giving emphatic statements of their opinions. People can share their thoughts on policy with an immediacy and depth not possible at the typical town meeting.”
Interactive public outreach would enable more citizens to participate. A lot of Alexandrians can’t make a weeknight public meeting from 7 to 9, but they might be able to focus on an issue at their computer late on a Sunday night.
With real dialogue between citizens and staff, we can reduce the risk of people talking past each other. With the use of modern technology, we can generate more real discussions (even if they are virtual!). With real interactivity, maybe we can reduce misunderstandings, get staff to really hear what citizens are saying early in the process, and reassure citizens that they really are being heard.