Thursday, October 25, 2012

How do we engage the full range of community voices to inform our decision making? Or The Arlington Way in an Information Era

Arlco asks: How do we engage the full range of community voices to inform our decision making?

Wow is this a big discussion.  I was just told by an Arlington County Contractor that if I did not attend an Arlington advisory committee meeting, I could not criticize the Arlington government.  Really? Really!  Hum, let me check my copy of the First Amendment....

The Arlington Way must be reinvented and enter the information era.  40+ years ago the Internet was conceived of in Arlington, and administered out of a building in Rosslyn.  And yet it seems that the Arlington Way just cannot seem to find its way into the Information era.  We hold meetings.  Physical meetings.  And require people to be physically present at the meeting.  And then proceed to bore the absolute hell out of them.  And if you do not physically attend the meeting, you are told you cannot have input.

Okay okay.  Complete rubbish.  What we are getting is a civic association Arlington Way process that reflects the views of an absolute minority.

Physical meetings are for people who have the luxury of time.  And even those who have the luxury of time - dont have the luxury of time to attend all meetings that are of relevant interest.  Physical meetings are for people who dont have children who have homework.  They are for people who dont have jobs that preoccupy them.  They are for people who are not volunteer at a dog rescue league or tutoring children or at AFAC.  Physical meetings are attending my a non representative sample of our population - by a segment of the population that is not characteristic of our population.  The vast majority of our population dont have time to sit in a physical meeting while some meeting moderator fritters away time.

[One addendum:  If you do have a physical meeting advisory committee - dont make it a forum for rubber stamping a previously made Arlco decision.  Provide material prior to the meeting that can be reviewed by participants as they prepare.  Too often advisory committee meetings are presentations of material that participants have never seen before, such that the audience cannot prepare informed views].

You want to know how to engage the community??? Bring the discussion to the community.  Eliminate the barriers of time and space.  Bring the Arlington Way into the future.  The Arlington Way, the dialog of the citizens and the reaching of consensus by different groups, can be achieved.  But now blogs and forums and facebook and twitter are a part of the dialog.  Yorktown Civic Association has a facebook page.  Other civic associations have blogs, with active comment sections.  The Donaldson Run blog ran a series of posts last election on the candidates positions on bicycling and bike infrastructure, that was widely read.  ARLNOW, a social news site, has become THE source of news in Arlington - including a robust discussion of the days events.

Leveraging social media, the community can engage the decision making process when and where they have time.  Riding the bus to work.  At 10 pm after the kids have gone to sleep.  While sitting in the stands during a baseball game.  During lunch time. 

Tear down the walls of time and space. Bring decision making to the people through social media.  Declare that "You must be at a meeting to have input" has ended (and any government contractor or government employee that says you cant criticize the government unless you attend said meeting either is sent to remedial First Amendment class - or is offered the opportunity to find employment elsewhere).  Encourage civic associations to create online social presences.  Create a standard platform where civic associations can, if they want to, create their social online engagement. 

The county needs to fully engage in this manner.  In my experience, the county's online presence has grown over the years and is really quite excellent.  The county pushes out notices.  Arlington DES has responded to tweets, responding to an environmental hazard I reported.  Arlington's press releases help keep the public informed.

The county may wish to adopt an online comment system, that allows people to file comments in response to open considerations. 

Importantly, democracy is a dialog.  Restricting commentors to one post (which is the rule on this forum) is silly and annihilates discourse. 

In sum

  • Engagement must move beyond the constraints of time and place of a physical meeting.
  • Input and discourse must be permitted where ever and when ever.
  • Arlco should encourage the civic associations to move the Arlington Way online
  • Arlco should consider an open online comment system
We need to end the notion that "if you dont show up to a physical meeting, you cant have input."  That may have worked 100 years ago.  Today it is anachronistic. 

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