Thursday, August 21, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Why public engagement is more than a feel-good gesture

Given the reluctance of most Council members to hold public hearings about redistricting, we thought it would be a good time to revisit why public engagement matters:

Why public engagement is more than a feel-good gesture

Given the reluctance of most Council members to hold public hearings about redistricting, we thought it would be a good time to revisit why public engagement matters:

CITY COUNCILWOMAN Jannie Blackwell made a statement last week that was a little funny, but mostly sad.

Explaining why she doesn't want to hold public hearings on redrawing Philly's Council districts until after Council settles on a plan, she said to the Daily News' Catherine Lucey and Jan Ransom, "I'm not for having a hearing before we know what we're doing because then we upset the public."

Put aside the funny part - the courageous leadership of a Council member who doesn't want to "upset the public" - and you're left with the sad fact that for many on Council, public engagement is a token, feel-good gesture that gets in the way of actual decision-making. Which may explain why they've scheduled no public hearings about redistricting.

If you've ever sat through hours of public testimony, you know why Council might feel this way. You've heard citizens give impassioned speeches that don't make a lick of sense. You've watched officials yawn through public-comment periods since they've already made up their minds. You've wondered why a self-selected group of citizens should represent "the public" any more than 15 people pulled off the Route 48 bus.

But none of these are signs that Philly does too much public engagement. They're signs that we do too little - and when we do it, we don't do it well enough. As Council members work behind closed doors, plotting a redistricting plan, it's a good time to review why involving the public makes sense.

To succeed, public engagement must come early enough in a process to influence a decision. And it needs to be structured. Elected officials interact with constituents all the time, but that's not the same thing as organized forums or hearings where citizens and officials give-and-take with each other. That kind of public engagement makes things happen:

It makes democracy more democratic. Philadelphia had a primary election in May. A few topics that didn't come up often: redistricting; the school budget; property taxes. Aren't these issues about which citizens might want to weigh in? But local elections tend to focus on one or two hot topics (see: the Deferred Retirement Option Plan). On other issues, decision-makers hear mostly from interest groups with loud voices or big money. Public engagement creates "another stream of influence," said Sandy Heierbacher, of the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation.

It makes better policy. "There is a lot of wisdom sitting around the city," said Harris Sokoloff, faculty director of the Penn Project on Civic Engagement, which helped organize town-hall-style workshops on the city budget back in 2008.

There are 17 members of Council, plus their staffers and a few experts they consult. Is it really possible that in a city of 1.5 million, there aren't a few other smart folks with insights that might improve decision-making? Public engagement can bring some of those folks in, even if you have to sit through the occasional rambling speech. This is especially important, Sokoloff said, because citizens tend to think about issues differently from experts.

It makes Philadelphia smarter. One of the nice things about public engagement is that it builds on itself. If engagement is done right, it's also an educational process: Not only are participants presented with information about civic issues, but they're also forced to debate those issues with other participants who have different opinions and interests. Maybe a union guy sees things differently after a conversation with a struggling business owner. Maybe a fiscal conservative changes her tune after meeting a parent who relies on public health centers.

 We've had real public engagement in this town over the last few years, in the budget workshops of 2008 and the design process along the waterfront.

But we need more - and the more we do, the bigger the return will be.

Tell your Council person: Don't be scared. The public will only get really angry if we don't get a seat at the table.

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Every year, city government spends slightly more than $4 billion. Where does all that money come from? More importantly, where does it go? Are we getting the most bang for our tax buck? “It's Our Money” is a joint project between Philadelphia Daily News and WHYY, funded by the William Penn Foundation, designed to answer these questions.

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