Engagement effort already off on the wrong foot

Engagement effort already off on the wrong foot

By Kathryn Papp, Alexandria

To the editor:

The first public meeting to kick off What’s Next Alexandria — the city’s ambitious campaign to encourage a web-based engagement process and restore trust in City Hall — was probably a wash. It was a tentative start led by ACT for Alexandria’s John Porter and a healthy mix of city staff and political operatives, but as it unfolded, the general feeling was deja vu all over again.

The campaign launched with an Internet poll asking residents how they engage with the city on vital issues. This poll and its results did not establish a starting point that must be neutral, inclusive, demographically representative of the City of Alexandria and statistically valid. This particular poll was self-selected, nonrepresentative and constructed to ensure predetermined answers. In contrast, a neutral, unbiased survey would have employed professional research methods to provide an impartial place for us to start fresh.

What the poll can tell us? First, respondents use different media sources to get information about the city: electronic/remote (31.8 percent), general media (34.3 percent) and person-to-person (31.3 percent). This is unsurprising given the complex nature of human decision-making on complicated issues. The most important way to engage the community was to invite them into the planning process early enough to identify important issues — cited by 82 percent of respondents. This was weighted by 78 percent responding that it was important to “make it clear throughout the planning process how community input is shaping plan recommendations.”

People are most likely to attend a community meeting if it is held at a convenient time (78 percent), clear how resident input will be used (70 percent) and has “ample opportunity for public input” (63 percent).

What we still don’t know for certain is the need for increased web-based engagement, because the poll was structured so that answers to this critical question were a biased response. Nearly half of respondents “weren’t sure” how else they could engage with the city after reacting to the exhaustive list of participation options that they were asked about in the previous question. These options ranged from “the local PTA” to “voting in elections.”

This uncertainty was used by the city to justify this effort. Critically, we seem to be heading into this web-based forum with no idea how many Alexandrians have access to computers — a key constraint on how effective this could be or how equitable if limited by income or language.

It is difficult to determine whether the decision to launch What’s Next Alexandria has already been made and is rolling forward as a thinly disguised educational campaign or whether it is the best efforts of a small group of people determined to make a new start. Examining the project “process,” it’s easy to believe the former.

First, we start by exploring civic engagement principles, move to creating an engagement framework and toolbox, then end up with exploring and confirming participating residents’ understanding of planning principles. After being confirmed, there comes next steps like signing up for eNews on the city website.

If we want to move to a more fruitful, less contentious civil discourse, we need to start with a neutral base of relevant information about how residents make complex decisions about their town. This information needs to be gathered by research professionals and presented in a politically neutral setting to a representative group of residents. This is the best way to begin to establish mutual trust.

Clearly, this opening session was not a total waste of time and money, but it did showcase why public relations, political theater and gaming have failed to engender respect from residents. We need a credible, well-respected, neutral and outside third party to lead this effort. Whether or not city officials have the courage and integrity to make that decision is a question only they can answer. It would be the ultimate power play.