To the Editor:
The first public meeting to kickoff “What’s Next Alexandria”, the city’s ambitious campaign to drive more citizens to a web-based engagement process and to help restore trust between the city and its residents was probably a wash. It was a tentative start that was buoyed along by John Porter and a healthy embedding of city staff and political operatives, but as it unfolded the general feeling was déjà vu all over again … beginning with the infamous sticky dots.
The “What’s Next” campaign was launched using a dedicated website to poll citizens and ask how they now 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 … a place we could all trust. As it was, our expert commentator, Mr. Lomax, had to warn us that what the city collected was a “poll not a survey”, which seemed to imply that it was more political than unbiased. That makes sense. This particular poll was self-selected, non-representative, and constructed to ensure pre-determined answers. In contrast a neutral, unbiased survey would have used a number of professional research methods to provide an impartial place for everyone to start fresh. Even our other outside expert, Ms. Lukensmeyer, while making an excellent presentation focused on national politics, offered some hope. Her brief description of how New York City used a demographically representative group of citizens to create a new public engagement dynamic by using on-the-spot response tools, offered a dramatic contrast to this session … and hope.
What the poll can tell us? First, respondents use different media sources about equally 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 not surprising 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 issues important to them — cited by 82 percent. This was weighted by 78 percent saying it was important to “make it clear throughout the planning process how community input is shaping plan recommendations.” People would be most likely to attend a community meeting if: held at a convenient time (78 percent), clear how my input would be used (70 percent), and had “ample opportunity for public input” (63 percent). And those who responded were slightly older than the Alexandria demographic.
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, induced by the previous question. Nearly half of respondents “weren’t sure” how else they could engage with the city after reacting to the exhaustive list of current participation options that they were asked 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” where the project steps off into an orange box about signing up for eNews on the city web site.
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 of the city 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 citizens of Alexandria. 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 theatre, and gaming has failed to engender respect from citizens. 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 made that decision is something only they can answer. It would be the ultimate power play.