Every week, I crack open The Local Economy Revolution to a random location and copy that section here. Intrigued by what you read? Check out the full book here. You’ll be glad you did. Really.
It will take a while…so you might as well get started
In a true display of democracy, a town hall meeting held at the New Bedford High School auditorium Monday gave the crowd of approximately 550 residents the opportunity to publicly voice every last one of the inane thoughts and concerns they would normally only have the chance to utter to themselves.
Though the meeting was ostensibly held to discuss a proposed $21,000 project to replace the high school’s grass football field with synthetic turf, City Councilman Thomas Reed inadvertently opened the floodgates to a deluge of ill-informed, off-topic diatribes on inconsequential bullshit when he allowed those in attendance to demonstrate their God-given gift of language.
—“Town Hall Meeting Gives Townspeople Chance To Say Stupid Things In Public.” The Onion, Sep 8, 2007.
(Everyone knows that The Onion is a satire/fake news web site, right?
This fall, my son starts a new high school. After a lot of deliberation, my husband and I decided to acquiesce to the kid’s wish to attend an academically rigorous Catholic high school. For a former public school teacher and career public education kid, this was a hard decision. Our kids have gone to public school since kindergarten. But in the end, we concluded that this was the right choice for this bright, serious, disciplined kid. We decided that he needed an environment that would build on those assets. And he wanted the challenge. Hard to argue with that.
The kid was accepted in January. By the time he starts school in August, he will have had one Saturday morning with the music program, a one on one with an assistant principal, two weeks of band camp and a two day freshman orientation.
He had the meeting with the assistant principal last Saturday. It was not what I expected. There’s my 14 year old, sitting across a conference table from a massive, intimidating-looking man – 300 pounds of tie-you-in-a-pretzel-if-you-mess-up. Generally a good trait in an assistant principal, thinks the former substitute teacher turned mom.
The assistant principal places a binder full of information in front of the kid. Mr. Intimidating then starts asking James questions (note that he had already been accepted). The questions start off with unsurprising stuff…what’s your favorite subject in school, what do you do outside of school…easy for the kid to answer. Then, the questions take a surprising turn: what kinds of situations stress you out? How do you deal with stress? What are you passionate about -what gets you out of bed in the morning? If I asked your best friend to describe you, what would he say?
Find yourself a 14 year old boy and try those questions on him. Or try them on yourself.
James stumbles through them, and Mr. Intimidating takes notes.
Then the assistant principal asks James to open the binder. Sitting to the side, I steel myself for a marginally painful review of rules and requirements and consequences. Instead, Mr. Intimidating spends the next 20 minutes conversing with James about the core principles of the school’s educational philosophy.
Critical thinking. Self-awareness. Compassion towards others. Integrity.
Deep stuff. Foundational stuff. Not a single rule or regulation.
As I listened, it dawned on me that this wasn’t a one-off thing. It was just more obvious because of the setting. When my son did the music department event a couple of weeks ago, the entire group of kids ended by singing the alma mater. The incoming freshmen put arms around each other’s shoulders, exactly the way the upperclassmen do, while they tried to read the words off a piece of paper.
Find yourself a 14 year old boy and try to get them to put their arm around the shoulder of another boy. Good luck.
And yet I watched my kid do exactly that.
Think for a moment about how we complain about the public’s involvement in our planning and economic development and local government–in person and online. I opened this piece with a purposely over-the-top piece of satire, but…come on. Hits a little close to home, don’t it?
We gripe that they don’t behave themselves, that they say nasty or off topic things, that they pound soapboxes…or worse yet, that they just don’t show up.
No wonder our meetings are so miserable. It’s all their fault.
Now think for a minute about how much effort we’ve put into establishing our community’s culture of public engagement. What have we — and our predecessors– done to convey, to demonstrate, what effective public engagement looks like? What have we done to set the tone, to establish the environment we want?
Do we even know what the public engagement we want looks like? Or would we sound like a 14 year old trying to answer a question about how his best friend would describe him?
What public engagement culture do we have?
If all James’ new high school did was a 20 minute discussion of principles, I would never expect it to take. A 14 year old would forget that stuff before he got out the door. But when every aspect of the culture reinforces those principles– alma mater sung with arms around each other, freshman applauded by upperclassmen when they enter the assembly on their first day of school.
They’re building a culture.
Put aside all that idealistic stuff about public engagement for a minute. Transparency, democratic process, people have a right to know… yah, yah. Got it.
For a moment, be purely selfish.
The fact of the matter is that we screw ourselves over when we don’t have those conversations, when we don’t build meaningful collaboration right at the beginning. We make the whole process of doing our jobs 47 times harder on ourselves than it should be.
The simple fact of the matter is that you know there’s stuff that your community needs to deal with, and not dealing with it is compacting your budgets and your staff and your time to the point where the most basic parts of the job get harder and harder. You need things to change – better tax base, more efficient land use, less money getting sucked up into roads and pipes and programs that aren’t generating a decent return on investment. And you know this is the case all over, so job-hunting or moving to a different town doesn’t get you out of the mess.
People who don’t stand in your shoes are not going to see the emerging issues that are self-evident to you. They’re not going to intuitively understand what you’re seeing any better than you’re going to be able to anticipate what 3-D printing will enable 10 years from now.
And it’s psychological fact: when people don’t have good information to work from, they over-rely on their past experience. “It worked just fine 10 years ago, just do it some more?” That’s not an age issue or a gender issue. It’s a human condition issue. And the only way to counteract that bias, that the future should look like the present, is to give our rational minds the information they needs to shift their gears. That’s the way human creatures work.
So why do most communities fail to have intelligent conversations about their futures?
We have a tendency in assume that The Public won’t listen to reason. We point to lots of situations where residents say stupid things or make assumptions that, given the more extensive level of information we have to work with, just don’t make sense. Even though we “told” them what the facts were, they “chose” not to listen.
Good teachers know that just telling someone something verbally doesn’t mean it will stick in their head. That’s why teachers don’t just tell you something once. You hear it in a lecture, you read it in the book, you do a project, you write a paper. People need to interact with new information on multiple levels, and do that over time. If you want someone to understand something, just telling them doesn’t cut it.
And yet, in local government, most of the time that’s all we do. No wonder they can’t mentally shift away from the status quo. No wonder they don’t see the threats and opportunities we know about.
A fundamental purpose of our approach has to change. We have to become managers and facilitators of community conversations, not just presentation-givers, open-house-when-the-plan-is-all-but-done-holders, grouse-helplessly-to-each-other-when-they-don’t-get-it-ers.
We can’t keep falling back on “it’s complicated…you wouldn’t understand…trust us.” And then wonder why people don’t see the need for change.
Edward Deming, the father of modern manufacturing, gets quoted in business schools every day:
Culture eats strategy for breakfast and process for lunch.
Last year I wrote a blow-by-blow account of how I managed a potentially contentious public meeting. That post has now been read by 3,500 people. Obviously that essay addressed something that a lot of people needed or wanted.
But keeping a meeting from blowing up….that’s simply classroom management. That’s the very basics. It’s not creating a constructive environment. it’s not enabling a constructive culture. It’s not in itself moving us forward at all.
We have to change the culture of community participation, and we have to do it top to bottom. Organizations that take on culture change know that they have to do it intentionally…they have to build it into every interaction, every communication. They need to consciously reinforce the principles of the culture they want–not just by saying what the principles are, but living them through every interaction.
What are your community’s public interactions telling people about how you want to relate?
What does the room setup say?
The rules…or lack of rules?
The options and opportunities for involvement?
Is meaningful public engagement built into your processes, beginning to end? How do you involve people upstream– in setting policy and deciding priorities? Do people have real opportunities to be part of the solution, or do your just invite them in when there is a fait accompli to argue against?
Do you give them the ability to do something other than say no, no, no? Do you channel them into being part of the solution?
If you don’t, don’t despair. Culture change is a long and difficult process. That’s why my son’s new school starts on this work long before they get their books, and why they build it all the way through the experience. The more I think about it, I suspect it’s not luck….it’s got to be intentional.
Like most analogies, this one breaks down. A 14 year old, to at least some extent, goes where you tell him to go and does what you tell him to do. Especially if you are a 300+ pound assistant principal. But your residents will participate only if they perceive that the value of doing so will exceed the cost of their time and energy. Which makes a culture of meaningful public engagement all the more important.
So you might as well get started. Ask yourself: what would meaningful public involvement look like here? What do we need to learn from our residents? What do we want our public meetings to look, to feel like? What character, what principles do we want? How can we build that into everything we do?
It won’t happen overnight. But goofy 14 year old boys don’t turn into men overnight, either. So go ahead and get started.