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Augment and Diversify Public Hearings
4/10/2010 • BY MICHAEL COHEN • 1 Comment
Abstract:  Public hearings at government meetings are the most visible and influential channel for citizen feedback; but they have become incompatible with the mindset and lifestyle of many residents – especially residents with moderate views, young parents and hardworking citizens. Excluding these voices frequently leads to bad decisions that alienate constituents and weaken public trust in government. Therefore it’s time to augment (not replace) conventional public hearings with complementary, on-line public hearings.

Do you feel that decisions in your community are often overly influenced, or even dominated by people with extreme views and uncompromising attitudes?  Do you have moderate views and believe in compromise, but wonder whether your community has many people like yourself? If so, then you’re probably not alone, because across the US the most influential way for citizens to impact local government decisions – the public comment session at community meetings – has become incompatible with the lifestyles and mindsets of many citizens.  This incompatibility is especially problematic for citizens with moderate views or an inclination to compromise, as well as parents with young children and adults with busy work schedules.

The conventional approach to making decisions in local governments across the nation culminates at the community meeting often referred to as the town hall meeting or city council meeting.  These meetings are typically run under Robert’s Rules of Order, and each issue begins with a public comment session. This public hearing isn’t the only source of community input to the decision makers, but it’s typically the only channel of public input that is officially unfiltered and open to the public. This transparency imbues the public hearing at community meetings with extraordinary influence.

As the only official, unfiltered, transparent forum for citizen feedback, many constituents, the press and the decision makers erroneously conclude that the feedback at a public hearing is representative of the community. In other words, if the public comments are dominated by one-side of an issue, then many mistakenly conclude that the community must be commensurately for that one-side. Likewise, if the public comments are polarized by extreme, uncompromising opposite sides of an issue, then many mistakenly conclude that community must have few if any people that have moderate views on the issue and would advocate for compromise.  Without other official, unfiltered, transparent channels of input, it’s hard not to assume that public hearings proxy for the community.

While the community meeting’s public comment process helps inform decision makers, that forum has many attributes that have become incompatible with the lifestyle and mindset of many citizens.

Lifestyle issues: Community meetings are typically held in the evening, their agendas are subject to reordering at the onset of the meeting, and their agenda items don't have time allocations. Consequently many meetings run late into the night; and even when they don’t run late, if a person wants to participate in a particular agenda item, then they have to be prepared to stay for the entire meeting. Perhaps these attributes weren’t a problem decades ago, when life was slower, young children were living with extended families, work schedules were less hectic, and most families had two spouses with only one working work fulltime. But these days, attending community meetings is impractical for adults that are responsible for young kids or consumed by fulltime work responsibilities.

Mindset issues: Constituents with a definitive position on an issue but who are not passionate about the issue’s topic are also unlikely to make the commitment to participate in an inconvenient public hearing. Furthermore, constituents with moderate views and inclinations to compromise are also unlikely to make the time commitment to attend a public hearing. This results in community meetings that are frequently dominated by people with extreme views – and that further discourages moderates and compromisers from attending because the mob of extremists can act uncivilly and consequently intimidate the moderates from speaking.

Some might argue that the people who don’t prioritize attending a public hearing are probably indifferent or apathetic about the meeting’s topics. But that’s an insensitive outlook, and it’s tantamount to believing that voting should be more challenging so that only those people that feel passionately about a particular candidate should vote in that candidate’s election.

The solution to this community feedback and decision-making problem is straightforward: establish other complementary forums for community feedback that are official, unfiltered, transparent and have attributes that augment and diversify participation beyond the conventional public hearing. More specifically, establish an on-line public comment forum that emulates the critical attributes of the conventional public hearing.

An on-line public comment forum enables time-constrained residents to participate at the time and place of their convenience. By emulating the convention public hearing, the on-line forum enables everyone to understand and learn from other people’s perspectives. Also, integrating the on-line forum with a suite of on-line analysis tools enables decision makers to efficiently synthesize large amounts of feedback.

This on-line public comment forum shouldn’t replace the conventional public comment session at community meetings.  Instead, the on-line forum would complement the conventional forum by augmenting and diversifying civic engagement.  This will improve the insights of government decision makers, lead to better decisions, and increase public trust in government.
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