Our View — 29 November 2012
Poor outreach does not lead to better engagement

After months of controversy, accusations and subtle — and occasionally not-so-subtle — insults surrounding the waterfront and then Beauregard corridor redevelopment plans, it’s heartening to see City Hall attempting to bridge the divide with What’s Next Alexandria.

The initiative, detailed in our pages this week, seeks to re-engage residents and open up the decision-making process. For the past year we have heard endless complaints about backroom deals, secret meetings and predetermined outcomes regarding many of the city’s most important decisions. Perhaps this renewed effort to connect city officials with residents will put an end to those grievances.

But it needs to be done right, and What’s Next Alexandria is off to an inauspicious start.

An online survey, which will serve as a baseline of sorts, garnered around 1,600 respondents. That’s just slightly north of 1 percent of the city’s population. And about 160 participated in the initiative’s inaugural meeting earlier this month.

The goal is laudable, but the execution remains lackluster.

Perhaps the online survey — convenient, but easily ignorable — could have been coupled with a snail mail version? Or volunteers might have knocked on doors to hand-deliver the questions? And rather than host one meeting, city staff could have arranged for several at various locations and times.

This might be a nitpicky position, but at the end of the day — if participation remains this low — City Hall’s skeptics will retain a convincing, if tired, argument: that officials have failed to keep Alexandrians in the loop. And, more importantly, a brief opportunity to truly engage residents will have been lost on the majority of the city’s population.

Going forward, officials must do better in the outreach department. The city previously partnered with ACT for Alexandria, a local nonprofit, to provide and promote the online survey. Why not do it again? ACT — with connections to a plethora of local residents, groups and businesses — might help organize volunteers to individually approach residents and encourage them to take part.

After all, not every resident regularly checks the city’s website or subscribes to the emailed news alert system.

And rather than hold one meeting every few months, host multiple get-togethers across the city, perhaps during the course of a week. That’s asking a lot, for sure, but there’s too much hanging in the balance. When every redevelopment or transportation project becomes a re-enactment of the War of the Roses in city council chambers, it’s clear the system needs fixing.

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