Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Engagement is a Two-Way Street

The Daily Review reported today that the City of San Leandro is moving ahead with plans to poll voters on their support for new tax measures.
City Manager Steve Hollister has contracted with the Lew Edwards Group, of Oakland, to analyze different types of income sources and how much money could be raised. Once options have been developed, Godbe Research, of San Mateo, will conduct the polling. The questions and number of people to be questioned have yet to be determined.
The cost to the city will be between $25,000 and $30,000. In addition,
The Lew Edwards Group now is setting up meetings with the Chamber of Commerce and other interested parties. Once the poll is completed and survey information is compiled, the city will evaluate short- and long-term financial strategies.
This does not constitute listening to and engaging the community in developing solutions for the city's fiscal crisis. As noted by Viewpoint Learning,
In the past top leaders did not need their followers to work through issues. They could work through issues by themselves and expect others to implement their decisions. However, if decisions on today's most important issues are to be accepted, understood and implemented effectively, leaders must engage many more people in working through.

Polling voters and talking to a select group of individuals will not bridge the mistrust and disconnect that exists across the state, and in San Leandro, between citizens and the government. As explained in a 2005 report by Viewpoint Learning entitled "Listening To Californians: Bridging The Disconnect," a profound, all-pervasive climate of distrust exists throughout California. This mistrust shapes how citizens view solutions offered by government.

Citizens see waste, inefficiency and abuses that justify their lack of confidence in government, and believe greater openness and accountability are needed. Elected officials, on the other hand, "too often see a public that wants everything but doesn't want to pay for it" and "with little to contribute to policy-making."

Thus, when it comes to significant decisions requiring public support, such as new tax measures, elected officials do not undertake the time consuming and ultimately more meaningful process of listening to and engaging the community. Before the City of San Leandro spends $30,000 on a poll, it should do what the school district did in 2005: conduct community forums where the public is invited to ask questions and offer their input and administrators are present and provide answers. In addition the school district conducted focus groups of employees, parents and community leaders on the pressing issues facing the district.

A poll only provides answers to questions the elected officials wish to ask. What the public wants is for city hall to listen first to their concerns. The public wants to ask questions of city leadership and offer input on a wide range of topics. If that does not occur, San Leandrans will not feel they were brought into the process of finding constructive solutions to the city's fiscal crisis. Mistrust and cynicism of city hall will increase.

1 comment:

  1. I've found that the City of San Leandro's processes and their implementations are neither set up for, nor promote, getting the public's input.

    I've seen "the process" ignore the input generated by the public over and over, from traffic issues to the TOD, but as the legal hoops are jumped through the job is considered complete, despite the continuing lack of effectiveness in actually reaching the public and getting meaningful dialog.

    I suspect this has evolved over the years from the city excluding it's own population from the process, as noted by the study in your post.

    Whether it was acceptable in the past is irrelevant, it should not be tolerated today. There are too many mechanisms by which to reach the public and gather their input to brush that responsibility aside.

    Where there's a will, there's a way, but I suspect there's no will to tackle this most important problem of all.