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Amanda Brown-Stevens

How Public Participation in Local Government Should Change Forever

This unprecedented global pandemic is touching all aspects of our lives. We are observing from home as health care workers are endangered, friends fall ill, and whole sectors of the economy are shut down, with devastating job loss. We also see our local and state elected leaders here in California making critical decisions much more quickly than our political system is used to in order to protect millions of people. These local leaders deserve a lot of credit. They are using technology in new and creative ways to keep people informed and involved. And early signs indicate it’s making a difference.

As we think about the future, we must do everything we can to learn from this core-shaking experience to change how we act and how we govern for the better. Our work as advocates is to influence our local leaders to address the big, ongoing challenges facing our communities through education and public participation. We work to get people involved and to advocate for the policies that will improve their own communities. 

Public participation is key to our political system, and a crucial tool to keep leaders accountable and ensure that our government is working for us. Yet we struggle with a public participation process that often feels designed for an earlier era, making it difficult for people with jobs and families to get involved. This current system can lead to outcomes that disproportionately benefit longtime, higher income, and older residents who understand the process and have the time to participate. Efforts to change how public participation works have been met with concern—and we know that without public participation in our local decision-making, we run the risk of becoming an authoritarian system.

Advocates like us act as an intermediary to speak on behalf of supporters who are not able to take off hours to attend public meetings, yet care deeply about the outcomes, to ensure those voices are represented. We’ve seen in recent weeks, however, that if given the ability, people want to participate, to speak up on their own behalf. So how do we embrace this newfound flexibility in government? And how do we build on what we are learning today to create a powerful, inclusive public participation process for the future? I have some thoughts.

Transforming Public Participation

Recent weeks have seen an unprecedented experiment in communicating exclusively online and local government is no different. Laws and regulations related to online meetings and gatherings have been changed or suspended to allow for essential work to continue in a shelter-in-place order and the results are potentially nothing less than revolutionary.

How? Currently, decisions get made at a local level by city councils, boards of supervisors, and regional agencies. To influence decisions, stakeholders such as businesses, advocates, and residents must be aware of potential decisions, be in contact with local leaders and attempt to educate, persuade and cajole through whatever tools they can access. This system currently favors a small group of influencers who have the time, understanding, and access to leaders. While certainly wealthier and more privileged members of a community hold many advantages, the landscape of influencers at a local level is more complex than it may appear.  

Depending on the community the local influencers can include local employers and business leaders, longtime residents, unions, and advocacy organizations like ours. These groups represent important sectors of a community and are generally working in good faith to represent what they think is needed from their own perspective. And yet, our current system is not working.

In current (non-pandemic) practice:

  • Communication from the government to residents takes place through mail or sometimes email, with limited use of messaging platforms.
  • Participation in local public committees—boards, commissions, advisory groups, and other tools to involve residents in public decision making—takes place often during the day, limiting participation to those who don’t work 9-5.
  • Public meetings, if broadcast, are through a local public access station, or at best one-way online streaming.
  • The ONLY way to testify at a public meeting is to take time out of a workday or evening, go down to city hall and sit for 2-6 hours.

In this day and age, this system is, frankly, completely insane. And yet we stick with it because we as a society overvalue the status quo and undervalue the benefit of change. We see this over and over again in local land-use decisions about new development, in taking action before a crisis to prepare, and in adapting to new systems. 

In recent weeks, public meetings have moved online, allowing local residents to easily view discussions and participate remotely. Public committees and gatherings are using videoconferencing to allow participation remotely in small groups. Public officials are communicating via a myriad of platforms, often connecting with a much wider audience than usual. These should not be seen as temporary measures, but instead as a pilot period for how we completely upend public participation—in the future prioritizing ease of connection and participation over tradition is essential.

It is certainly reasonable to raise concerns about who can access technology, and ensure we put into place systems to maximize access. We also must ensure that online spaces have proper security protocols to protect participants and block harassment. However, we must truly acknowledge how inaccessible and undemocratic our current system is. The ability for a local resident to get quick updates on projects and policies via text, to participate in advisory committees and public input processes via videoconferencing and—most importantly—be able to see public meetings and participate in public comment online, could be truly transformative.

Steps for transforming our local democracy:

  • Permanently adapt public meetings for people to participate in public comment via video. This will allow people who need to be home with families, at work, or simply don’t have the ability to take multiple hours to sit through a meeting to still have their voices heard on issues they care about.
  • Allow for updates on policies, plans, and projects to be sent via text message to residents and stakeholders, with the ability for response by text.
  • Hold the vast majority of public committees, meetings with elected officials and city staff via video conferencing to encourage participation by a broad sector of people interested, but not able to make the commitment to drive or take transit, to these types of events.
  • Treat internet access like the public utility that it is, ensuring access across socioeconomic barriers.

Although we are worried and rightly focused on other crucial issues today, we know that we must take local action quickly to mitigate the biggest effects of a changing climate. And we know that we need to make large, bold changes in how we live, larger than many of us can conceive of at the moment. We must not go back to business as usual. This can be the beginning of building the new world we need.

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