How not to do public participation

T.A. Barnhart

How not to do public participation

An invitation disguised as a wall.

Engagement. Activism. Citizenship. Great words; hard to put into practice, as we know. In most elections, a majority of voters don’t bother. And when it comes to the on-going work of government, ever fewer Americans get involved.

Here’s one good reason why. This was submitted to Nextdoor.com, my “Mill Park” version (you sign up for your particular neighborhood). An invitation to participate in an important decision the City of Portland will be making. Here’s the web post (see image for screenshot):

Public hearings on draft 2035 Comprehensive Plan begin this week! 4h ago Community Service Aid Chaise Jonsen from City of Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability

City Council will hold first hearing on Thursday, November 19. 

2 – 3 p.m.: Testimony will be taken on the Economic Opportunity Analysis, Growth Scenarios Report and other supporting documents. 
3 – 6 p.m.: Testimony will be taken on the Recommended Draft Comprehensive Plan. 

You must sign up to testify. Testimony sign-up sheets will be available one hour before the start of each hearing. 

Additional public hearings are scheduled for Thursday, December 3 and 10. Please check the City Council agenda to confirm dates, times and locations for all hearings.

Shared with all areas in City of Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability in General


So many problems here; so many barriers to public understanding, much less participation. Let’s start at the top.

“draft 2035 Comprehensive Plan”.

Thank you and good night. Who the hell is going to come within 20 feet of this other than a policy wonk or an insomniac looking for any relief? What a great way to drive away 99.9% of Portlanders: name this event in a way that scares holy hell out of them.

But even if you decided to scope this out, good luck. There is no link to the damn plan. None. “Please comment based on what you guess or hope or fear is in the Plan of Doom.” Click on the “City of Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability” link under the title, you get more updates and some links to some documents. Hunt around enough (click the “read more” links) and you’ll eventually get to the plan.

Well, not so much the plan but a webpage that has more links, including one that says “How to Use the Plan”. Not read it; not skim the highlights. Use it. Not read; work. There is an FAQ but it says little about the Plan itself. Lots of wonky stuff to be ignored as well. The Maps links leads to another page of Maps links, which lead to data-dense maps that open very slowly: I have a pretty good internet connection, and it took me over a minute for the map to open.

Yea, not inviting, user-friendly, or useful.

But let’s say a stout-hearted Portlander decided to learn what she or he could and then attend a hearing. Can you come down to City Hall on a Thursday afternoon? No?

Tough luck, buck.

There’s a hint that two of the three hearings won’t be at City Hall, but you have to check the City Council agenda to find out. Which means you may have less than week to make the necessary plans. Or to be angry that you can’t get off work, or miss a class, or find childcare, or whatever, and that you can’t be part of the process you’ve been invited to squeeze yourself into.

Businesses that do this go out of business. They get hammered on social media. They fire people. This, however, is not only standard business for government, it’s a huge improvement on years past when the citizenry wasn’t wanted. This is damn near state-of-the-art for bringing citizens and government together.

But it’s still awful. And it doesn’t have to be this way.

City government that is serious about citizen participation – and in a democracy, city government damn sure ought to be – needs to become far more innovative. I remember back in 2007, Portland City Councilor Sam Adams and Multnomah County Commissioner Ted Wheeler held a series of info meetings on transportation. They held them in the evening, and they held them all over the place. The spoke directly to those who attended, no experts or staffers serving as blockades. (I remember how Adams let his transportation wonk freak flag fly; even Wheeler sat back in awe at times.)

Modern government has to use as many ways as possible to connect policy and citizens. Yes, the results will be spotty, but experts have a way of getting things exactly wrong. Look at the horrible mess that was the Columbia River Crossing, or the original N Williams Street plan that ran roughshod over community sensibilities. Connect citizens to decision makers and the policy experts, and you get a deeper, more thoughtful and balanced policy plan. It may still contain flaws, but all policy does. At least get flaws the public can own.

I am glad to see City staffers providing this information to Portlanders via Nextdoor and other online venues. The more, the better. But this is the least they can do – literally. Commercial enterprises needing to break through the noise and clutter and busy-ness of life expend vast energy and creativity to get their message out, to engage potential customers, and then close the deal. Government has to do the same. Not to push through any particular policy.

To make democracy work.

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