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Our public input processes are "flawed"

Public bodies from the DC Council to boards like the Zoning Commission are configured to value most highly input from people who show up in person. But this excludes many people with day jobs or family responsibilities. We need to fundamentally reexamine some basic assumptions about public input.

Photo by The Hamster Factor on Flickr.

At last week's redistricting hearing, Marion Barry criticized me for bringing the results of the Redistricting Game to the Council. Despite having over 100 Ward 8 residents participate, he felt that it wasn't representative of the views of Ward 8:

Did you ask the economic status of each person? Did you ask the educational level of each person? This whole thing is flawed. ... I was trained as a research scientist. I know good research techniques and tactics. ... Your study is a good one, but it's not scientific enough. ... As far as Ward 8 is concerned, the information is flawed. Seriously flawed.

Mike DeBonis explained the primary motivations at work here. In short, Barry probably wants Near Southeast redistricted into Ward 8 to give him a role in the booming development in that area.

But Barry is right about one thing: The Redistricting Game was not scientific. It's not an opinion poll which tries to accurately estimate the views of all residents. But since when does the Council ever use opinion polls to make decisions?

They don't. Instead, they listen to people who testify, people who schedule meetings with them, and to a lesser extent people who email, call, or write letters.

Barry did listen to those present. He brought in a number of people to testify about extending Ward 8 west of the river; some, as it turned out, didn't even live in DC. Far fewer than 100 people from Ward 8 testified at this hearing, but Barry didn't claim their testimony was "flawed" because it's not scientifically representative.

Later, he noted that nobody from Near Southeast had yet testified at the hearing, and therefore there must be no opposition. Is that scientific?

About 30 people testified at the hearing, and their views should be listened to. But they're not necessarily representative either. The people who filled out the Redistricting Game are also a set of residents who expressed their preferences, and the Council should consider them as it would any other set of suggestions from any other not-necessarily-representative group of 4,000 residents.

It's easy to take potshots at Barry, and regardless he's unlikely to get his redistricting wish. But there's a larger point. Why do we accept our current model of civic engagement as the right one?

It gives a much louder voice to people who want to take the time to attend hearings, which are often in the middle of the day. It gives priority to those who can afford to spend 4 hours or more on a single development project, a single bill, or a single zoning change.

That favors people who are retired, or people paid to lobby for issues, or people who feel particularly strongly about a single narrow subject.

The Zoning Commission has been holding many, many hearings on the zoning rewrite, with few participants at some of the hearings. Geoff Hatchard, Ken Archer, CSG's Cheryl Cort, DC Sierra Club's Bradley Green, and I testified recently for accelerating the parking location zoning change, and Zoning Commission member Peter May complimented everyone on attending. I'm glad we could, but this also points out how such a turnout is somewhat unusual.

Few people can go to all of the zoning hearings, or even more than a few. It's tough to get people to go to a zoning hearing on, say, changing waterfront zoning when they have no objection to the changes, when the changes won't have much of a visible effect on development, and they are likely to sail through.

The people who testified at last week's HPRB hearing on the Hine school represented those who felt so strongly they wanted to take an entire afternoon off to talk about the project. HPRB hearings happen in the middle of the day, and typically take all day. Items have start times on the schedule, but those are very approximate. I've spoken at the HPRB and had an item come up hours after it was scheduled.

I've gone to testify at the Board of Zoning Adjustment, another board with daytime hearings, and seen the mid-morning item I was there for moved to the afternoon (or moved to another day entirely). DC Council hearings have started hours late. Sometimes the chair of a council committee has moved the government witness to the beginning, instead of at the end as is usual, and talked to that witness for 2 hours or more while the public witnesses waited patiently.

Many residents of Capitol Hill think the Hine project doesn't need to get shorter, or should even be taller, but they didn't go to the hearing. Some had jobs which prevented it. Does that mean their views don't matter?

There are some advantages to a process which favors those who care about an issue. If you just poll people, a lot of folks don't know much about an issue at all and are making snap judgments on little information. Decisionmakers shouldn't necessarily hold every resident's opinion exactly equal.

But the current system goes much too far. There's little value in giving a voice only to people who can spend 4 hours in the middle of the day waiting to speak for 3 minutes.

What to do? One step is for decisionmakers to listen to other channels as well. Montgomery County at-large councilmember Hans Riemer does by listening to people on Facebook, and found drastically different views there versus in person at a hearing on the Silver Spring skybridge. DC councilmember Tommy Wells uses Twitter, sending his own tweets and reading his own Twitter feed.

That's a step, but not the end of the story either. These channels privilege people who spend a lot of time sitting around on Twitter and Facebook. That's not representative either, though when combined with people testifying in person, it adds breadth.

It'd be great to develop a good channel for leaders to hear more views from poor and minority communities, and add that to their cognitive understanding of what residents want. Wells took a meaningful step by conducting a "listening tour" about bus service in wards 4, 5, 7, and 8, but there's much more that can be done.

Elected officials try harder to hear more views because they want the votes. Unfortunately, not only do our formal boards and commissions not generally use these channels, but many can't. You can tweet @TommyWells during a hearing to suggest questions, but there's no @CatherineBuell account for the HPRB chair.

Even if there were an @AnthonyHoodZC account, the Zoning Commission chair would be breaking rules against "ex parte" communication. Just like judges, Zoning Commission and BZA members are not allowed to hear comments on cases except through the official hearing or formally submitted letters of testimony.

Sure, there are reasons for this. A body making a legal determination is required to do so based on a public record, and so the comments have to go into that record. But these rules also mean that the commission is limiting its input in ways that result in an incomplete view of residents' opinions.

Could the Zoning Commission legally set up a @DCZoningCmsn Twitter account, where messages appear on commissioners' smartphones or on screens behind the dais during the hearing, and which also go into the official public record, for example? To get people on the other side of the digital divide, are there ways to make it easier to submit comments on cases beyond sending formal and time-consuming letters or faxes?

The boards should be seeking more ways to get input while still keeping their responsibility to have a public record, and elected officials should look for opportunities to hear from a broader range of people. As a first step, both elected officials and appointed board members should acknowledge that while holding hearings is a valuable part of getting input, relying on it alone is very much "flawed."

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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It's easy to take potshots at Barry
It's easy because he left himself open to it. He shouldn't criticize others intentions and work when what he's defending has the same flaws.

Great article, David. As you noted, I was able to attend the hearing on parking last week, but I was unable to attend either of the redistricting hearings. I had quite a bit to say, and sent in testimony via email, but was told that it would have been better had I showed up in person. That really made me angry - to think that my opinion suddenly becomes more or less valued because of the fact that it's coming out of my mouth instead of coming off of an electronic letter. Does that mean that the opinion of people who are homebound is automatically less valued.

The system is absolutely flawed. Broken, I would even say. If there are other ways to get people's opinions, we should welcome that with open arms. More democracy and participation is always, always better than less. Sure, it's messy, but it's worth it!

by Geoffrey Hatchard on May 4, 2011 11:17 am • linkreport

This sounds like the digital divide, with Barry (and obviously the entire council and boards) on one side and progressive facebookers and twitters on the other side.

I don't know how this could work but sure something can be done to get more public input. I just often cringe @much of anything where tweeting is part of the equation. Face it HogWash, you hate it. You really, really, really do. Hate it about as much as reality shows.

Call me old school but I do think there is something good about investing time (personally showing up) participating in the public process. I'm not sure how creative we can be in thinking about ways to increase input across demographics but can imagine that facebooking/tweeting our democracy will eventually tip the balance in favor of those who do so. Then you end up in another situation where it's not those who take the time to attend hearings whose voices are loudest, it's those who tweet.

As DAl said neither is fully representative but something would have to give.

BTW, I can fully understand why Barry would look sideways @the thought of an online game representing the views of those in Ward 8. I know I would.

by HogWash on May 4, 2011 11:42 am • linkreport

Our government systems need to have the capacity to accept official inputs using new technology channels. The examples that David cites from just the last week are emblematic across the board.

Certainly government has evolved to accept phone messages and emails, in addition to letters and faxes. There seems to be little reason to think that our government cannot make adjustments to include voices from all corners and though any medium.

Certainly none of this is "scientific", but in a representative democracy, we need to ensure that all citizens can have the opportunity to make their voices heard, not just those who have the time or flexibility to appear in person.

This is a good first step towards advocacy to make it happen.

by Andrew on May 4, 2011 11:48 am • linkreport

Hmm looking at your numbers it appears only 37 unique, not 100+, from Ward 8 participated.

From your page:
The first number, Started, is the number of times someone in that ward started the game. Completed is the number of times they finished a valid map. And the third number makes my best guess as to which ones are the same person, using the IP address and their choice of home area, and combines those likely duplicates into one.

Ward 8: 105/46/37

With those numbers, I would say the Barry's statements while inflammatory weren't exactly wrong.

The public input process needs to be improved, however I'm conflicted on the the opinion that someone who blindly copies a form letter or signs a petition should be given the same weight as someone who is willing to write a unique opinion or take time testify.

I would like to see the city take the lead in expanding efforts for public input rather than relying on a specific technology or group. From a lobbying perspective, I don't see much difference in the weight that should be given ggw input vs a church petition. Both are self-selecting groups prejudiced in their decision making.

by m on May 4, 2011 11:50 am • linkreport

I think this would be stronger without the focus on twitter. Twitter is big on speed, short on content.

Email or a website with public comment forms would suffice, as well as some measure to post those comments publicly.

Within the realm of public comment on public policy, how is the digital divide any different than the those-who-can-attend-public-meetings-during-the-day divide?

by Alex B. on May 4, 2011 11:51 am • linkreport

"But the current system goes much too far. There's little value in giving a voice only to people who can spend 4 hours in the middle of the day waiting to speak for 3 minutes."

Well, it clearly goes the other way as well. There is also little value in giving voice to someone who only has to spend 2 seconds filling out an online form and who is just as likely as not to be an actual resident of the jurisdiction.

As we've seen with GGW polls and online letters, a large percentage of folks aren't even DC residents, and I have an enormous problem with publically elected officials being hoodwinked or pressured into considering something by virtue of the large number of "letters" they have in front of them, when many aren't even from District Residents. The GGW response to the Streetcar issue and trying to get Gray to keep Gabe Klein are two pretty obvious ones. You had people "signing" that were from ~20 other states. I as a District resident don't care what they think, and don't want my duly elected officials considering them either.

I agree with Hogwash in that simply including anyone with an internet access has in many ways diluted the process.

Typically, the people who "show up" have vested some effort to actually understanding the issue at hand. I may not agree with their point of view, but I respect the fact that they were vested enough in their opinion that they set aside some of their day to express it. There was effort involved. It takes zero effort to click a button on your browser, no time.

I do think that there generally needs to be more inclusion in the public process, but this isn't the way. If we could set up a system where peoples ID's were verified by SS number, or by address then fine. But the "online activism" we have now is a sham and frequently gives voice to those who shouldn't have any at all.

by freely on May 4, 2011 11:58 am • linkreport

Email or a website with public comment forms would suffice, as well as some measure to post those comments publicly.

Seriously. The tech to be able to do this has been around since like 1995. There is absolutely no reason that the website listing the details for a hearing (place & time) can't also have a web form that automatically tacks on the code/name for the issue, or a simple e-mail link that embeds that information in the subject line. This is not hard. There's no reason why I should have to sit through a hearing in order to give my opinion. Some may think that one's physical presence is an indication that they "care more" but really it's just an indication that they have nothing better to do.

Personally I would be extremely interested to see some demographic info on who actually goes to hearings - I doubt the people in attendance even remotely represent a diagonal slice of DC.

by MLD on May 4, 2011 12:07 pm • linkreport

An important point should be made about expectations of value. While it does seem to get at more participation to take in comments from more media (such as twitter or facebook), the people who are operating under the assumption that taking off the afternoon to attend an important hearing would be justifiably angry if a digital feed popped up and board members were seen scanning the projector slides instead of listening to the people in front of them.
I would just say that in trying to enlarge the circle, make sure you tell everyone you're changing the rules for how the game is played, to avoid unnecessary animosity between types of participants.

by Margaret Pinard on May 4, 2011 12:08 pm • linkreport

This is a hard problem, and it begins with the information that government makes available, not just with how it processes the public input that it receives. People can't provide good input if they don't know about the issue. At the federal level, President Obama's memo on transparency and open government links transparency to participation and collaboration; you can't have the latter without the former. In DC, both aspects need a lot of work. The new DC Open Government Coalition is a start on both these fronts, and kudos to GGW for being a member.

by Gavin on May 4, 2011 12:10 pm • linkreport

freely, I would submit that the majority of people who sit through a hearing (Zoning, preservation, ABC, whatever) have some sort of vested interest, or self-interest in the issue. The problem is that many are already given party status by virtue of their proximity to the subject. However, decisions in these deliberations impact many others throughout the community, city and region.

The law already protects those who are close to the issue. The question is, how do we as a community/city/society ensure that as many voices are heard, to provide the decision-makers with as broad a tapestry possible from which to make their rulings?

The technology is available to make this happen, and I would give the decision-makers the benefit of the doubt that they would be able to discern form-letter/emails inputs from email or other social media communications.

by Andrew on May 4, 2011 12:12 pm • linkreport

All great comments.

To HogWash, I agree that just making it so the Twitterverse gets heard louder is not the goal. I'd love ideas for ways to increase the ability for single parents who work 2 jobs to participate, since they're shut out by this process, too.

There's a reason that in Langley Park, for instance, planning around the Purple Line station assumed that any single family home areas couldn't be touched in the slightest (and were labeled "stable" on the plan), but anything with apartments or commercial property was fair game for plans to completely rezone and redevelop.

I don't think that's because there's an inherent reason single family housing should be inviolate and all other housing not. It's just the politics of the situation.

To Alex: Yes, Twitter is not the end all be all. But for some reason, people don't read the letters and emails as carefully as they hear the testimony. One thing that seems to happen with Twitter is people who use it take more note of what's said. It's that ability to get space in the decisionmakers' mind that is important.

To Margaret: Agreed; I would note that at these hearings, people generally are reading the printed testimony and the supplemental materials while you talk instead of listening to you directly. I don't blame them; talking is slow and they have to sit through a lot of it. But they're already multitasking. But your broader point is a good one.

by David Alpert on May 4, 2011 12:14 pm • linkreport

@MLD, There's no reason why I should have to sit through a hearing in order to give my opinion. Some may think that one's physical presence is an indication that they "care more" but really it's just an indication that they have nothing better to do.

Oh come on let's be serious here. Why should you have to wait in line to vote?

And yes, I think that those people who invest time into actually physically building a Habitat Home can wear the "I care more" badge than those who simply donate online. Or those who went down and helped during Katrina vs. those who donated money.

Doesn't make it right - necessarily. But the sentiment should be well understood.

by HogWash on May 4, 2011 12:15 pm • linkreport

Why should you have to wait in line to vote? Why is voting on Tuesday? Oregon votes by mail.

We should be making it easier to vote, as long as we can realiably authenticate people, but since a bank manages to authenticate you online, at ATMs, by mail, and in person, our voting ought to be able to do the same.

by David Alpert on May 4, 2011 12:18 pm • linkreport

Thing I learned today: Marion Barry has a Masters of Science in organic chemistry. For real. The Mayor For Life is a fascinating man.

by tom veil on May 4, 2011 12:21 pm • linkreport

I'm all for making it easier to tweet, email, or send by carrier pigeon any comment anyone wants to make. That doesn't mean they will be given any more consideration than now.

And that's not much.

In a normal large application the process starts with meetings between the normal Pay-to-Play special interests. Then the proposal goes to board hearings at which people and ANC's can comment. My experience is that 3-minute people who have the most knowledge of the specific project and the issues specific to that project have the most influence on other attendees. On the board, maybe not so much.

The process does allow time for parties who have a large interest in the project to fine-tune it around the edges to hopefully make it better before approval. But to be in the group that fine-tunes you have to become a party. There's a real incentive to pay attention to parties because if the issues are not resolved they can appeal to the DC Court of Appeals. That Court does not pay any attention to emails, tweets or written comments I'll guarantee you.

In any controversial application it's expected that the "Something is Better Than Nothing" crowd will comment one way and the "I'm Scared of Change" crowd will comment another way.

But to get past the kabuki theater part you have to be a party. It's a lot of work but if someone truly believes that massive underground parking garages are bad for the community, that not enough transit alternatives like bike stations are included, that the building is not green enough, or that the units proposed are too large in square footage, protest, say so, and become a party.

If you're unwilling to become a party just sit back and enjoy the show and hope there's some laughs.

by Tom Coumaris on May 4, 2011 12:21 pm • linkreport

@David Alpert: Realistically, how much research do you expect the single parent who has kids and two jobs has put into an issue? Or is the more likely scenario, someone rings their doorbell, calls them up, they say 'sure, whatever I'll sign'? I'm all for inclusiveness, but for a lot of issues most people don't give a sh&* and forcing them to decide will likely favor whomever has the fastest emotional appeal

by m on May 4, 2011 12:24 pm • linkreport

@ freely: I as a District resident don't care what they think, and don't want my duly elected officials considering them either.

This is short-sighted.

The government as a whole should be available to all stake-holders. Obviously the stakes of residents are higher than those of non-residents. However, hundreds of thousands of people come in and out of DC every single day. They have a stake in what goes on here. Elected officials should consider their opinion.

I am not saying they should value them equally as residents. But they should consider them. Not doing so leads to a situation where DC behaves as if it's a closed system. It is not.

by Jasper on May 4, 2011 12:26 pm • linkreport

There are several layers of issues with public input in DC:

- Inconvenience of Council meetings: As David pointed out they are in the middle of the day, which precludes most people from attending

- Number of Hearings: There are so many silos in DC that you can't even knock your testimony out in one shot. For example if Transportation is your issue, DDOT oversight hearings are held separately from WMATA hearings, which are a separate committee from an Office of Planning hearings and lets toss in Zoning hearings for parking issues. Then for WMATA there is the layer of going to their public hearings. For that's 5 hearings for just 1 issue. On top of meetings in the community for those same issues.

- Lack of reliance on gov't staff: When I worked for the City of Alexandria, the Planning Commission & Council really leaned on planning & zoning staff to work through issues with all the stakeholders and present a coherent staff report that balances everyone's needs with professional expertise. Are things perfect in Alexandria? NO. However, when P&Z was the gateway to the public it allowed us as staff to build relationships with the public and do on the ground/grassroots outreach to traditionally disengaged communities. By the time issues rise to the hearing level, staff has had a chance to work through and provide analysis of the issues.

- Digital Divide: There are several homes in the poorer sections of the City (specifically Wards 7 & 8) without internet access. While it is 2011 and most information is transmitted digitally, there is a segment of the population that are not receiving information.

- Poor communication: Even with internet access the communication between DC gov't and the community is mish-moshed and usually last minute. There is a "kinda" central calendar, but not really. There is a heavy reliance on listservs that are moderated by the community. Even that is problematic as only a small percentage are members of those listservs and there is so much other stuff floating over them that it becomes sensory overload.

Okay.... I have more but that's all I can get out while on a call. LOL.

by Veronica O. Davis (Ms V) on May 4, 2011 12:34 pm • linkreport

"The government as a whole should be available to all stake-holders. Obviously the stakes of residents are higher than those of non-residents. However, hundreds of thousands of people come in and out of DC every single day. They have a stake in what goes on here. Elected officials should consider their opinion."

This is the most wrong I've seen written in one paragraph in a long time.

By your logic, there is absolutely nothing wrong with Congressmen from Utah and Nevada passing or knocking down local District legislation based on what their constituents at home want? We've just seen a recent example of this, are you telling us you didn't care?
Hey, their money is spent here, their representative lives here half the they "have a stake" in what goes on here, by your line of logic.

You have to take the bad with the good. Left to voters in MD and VA, DC wouldn't spend a dime on things like streetcars, the circulator or bikeshare. Why? Because those states direcetly subsidize those things

I don't care if 200K MD and VA residents spend their work hours here. They want a political voice where they happen to spend 25% of their lives? Fine, they can pay taxes here, or become residents of DC.

But to make things fair, I will agree with you if you get MD and VA to agree to honor the political wishes of those tens of thousands of DC residents who work in their states. Agreed?

by freely on May 4, 2011 12:46 pm • linkreport

@David, I'm not sure how you turn the single mother w/kids into a concerned and active citizen. As inclusive as we all like to be, some people will always be left out of the process. I agree that we should making voting easier. I would even support Saturday voting. I do not think it should go beyond that.

@Tom Veil, HA! Yeah I know right. Barry w/a chem degree? I wonder why we never knew it. (ok I'm kidding, I've known for some time now).

@Jasper, I take freely's "i live in dc and you don't" to heart. It rings true to me because of the experiences I had debating "our" issues during the last election - only to find out that three of the constituents in our little polisci group weren't DC residents but yet had so much input. As a resident, I grew to resent that.

Yes, other jurisdictions should have their voices heard, but only to the extent that it affects them. Something like say, WMATA-related. IMO, there are too many nonresidents who seem to vest more time into DC affairs than those in their own jurisdictions.

But, ask these same people would they be willing to pay a commuter tax, then it's a resounding no.

by HogWash on May 4, 2011 12:50 pm • linkreport

David -- I'll quibble with you about your characterization of Langley Park. It's not so much that single family homes can't be redeveloped, but it wasn't suggested because it was politically fraught, but because the process of land assembly is much more difficult and costly, people may not be fully motivated by the profit motive, etc. It's much easier to redevelop property zoned commercial. That's why plans focus on that. Although it is true that even in such plans, they quiver about suggesting rezoning in areas that might merit it objectively based on changing conditions (e.g., think of the blocks between 10th and 12th Streets in Brookland, from Newton to Randolph).

And note that this is an issue going forward with mixed use including owned residential in commercial districts. It could be a real problem to do different things, if necessary, in the future, with this added complication.

I don't know how they managed to do it in Arlington with the fundamental upzoning of the corridor, where single family housing within the upzoned area was mostly redeveloped. E.g., around Virginia Square.

WRT the general point, I too am scared about digitally-derived input because just like any other input it can suck or be misused, but there is no question that the number and types of channels that ought to be included in civic participation methods needs to be expanded.

I think the issue though isn't so much the method type as much as it is the demographics of the person most likely to use particular methods of communicating-participating.

The one thing that Barry was sorta right about is that we don't systematically gather demographic info when we get input. We should. And then at the same time, we need to systematically gather input from underrepresented demographics as indicated by the collection of that info.

Weekend meetings too. One thing I will say about the ZC and the BZA is that their meetings are usually in the evening. At least that isn't an excuse to not go (except that people have other priorities).

I tried to do a special Saturday planning meeting as part of the planning process I ran last year in Baltimore County, but I couldn't get my boss to sign off on it. I figured having 4 night meetings, as well as one weekend day meeting, would increase the opportunity for people to participate.

It is done some in DC planning processes for DDOT and OP.

Generally, I don't have any real solutions, other than upending how we do planning generally, including a lot of workshop-charrette type activities, and being sure to create neighborhood level plans, including programming (depending on the element of the plan), and providing more robust frameworks for people in their consideration of the issues before them.

In the workshop I did a couple weeks ago in Baltimore, I didn't do the presentation on biking infrastructure. The presentation wasn't an overview of best practice, but a listing of new initiatives. So it didn't cover trails--which aren't a new method. It was interesting that in the work groups (there were like 10 tables of 5-7 people) not one mentioned the importance of multi-use trails as connectors within and between neighborhoods.

I think this is a demonstration that by not providing robust frameworks for issue consideration, we miss a lot of opportunities to do better work within, for, and across our communities.

Oh, note that I submitted an amendment to the comp. plan calling for an element on civic engagement. It was rejected. But the idea was that guidelines on engagement be provided, resources directed to capacity building, legal requirements on meeting locations and times--e.g., why is it that so many DC agencies hold meetings in really hard to get to places at the very ends of the city, in places that aren't easily accessible by transit, etc.?

by Richard Layman on May 4, 2011 1:04 pm • linkreport

one other comment. The other thing that planning processes don't do adequately is define separately but simultaneously, city (and/or regional) and neighborhood goals and objectives. Sometimes they are congruent, other times not. But planning processes should be direct about both types of goals and include input on both. And citizens should have to grapple with the sometimes opposing objectives and provide input on how to resolve them.

Mostly, citizens only advocate for what we can charitably call neighborhood goals and objectives, and generally not at all for what we might call citywide goals and objectives (better regional connections, more tax revenue, more residents, a greater variety of housing types able to meet a greater variety of household preferences, cost effective commercial space, thriving retial, etc.).

So the processes are set up for failure, because the motivation of the citizen participants generally are at conflict, from the outset, from the planning objectives of the study, because one set of interests is more narrow and the other set of interests is more broad.

by Richard Layman on May 4, 2011 1:11 pm • linkreport

@ freely: By your logic, there is absolutely nothing wrong with Congressmen from Utah and Nevada passing or knocking down local District legislation based on what their constituents at home want?

@ HogWash: Yes, other jurisdictions should have their voices heard,

I must not have been clear. I am not arguing that Congress should have a saying in DC business. Neither should any other jurisdiction. That is not my point at all. My point is that is would be short-sighted to ignore the interests of stake-holders in DC. Who are stake-holders? People who actually come and move around DC.

Two examples:

* It would be silly for DC to argue that it does not need to maintain the bridges to VA, because no Washingtonians live across the river. Clearly DC benefits from the daily influx if Virginians (and Marylanders), so it is smart to take their interests into account when placing and maintaining bridges.

For instance, if a new bridge were to be built across the river, it would be smart to coordinate with VA, in stead of saying: Well, the bridge is handiest for us here, we don't care it ends in a place where you can not build a road.

* Nevadans and Utahans (?) have generally little stake in DC. They are too far away. However, some come here as tourists. Is it smart to ignore the interests of tourists? No. A large part of Washington's income depends on tourists. So, yes, listen to what those Nevadans and Utahns (?) have to say as tourists.

So, I am not arguing that non-residents should have an actual vote at the table. But it is short-sighted to exclude their interests and pretend they do not exist.

Finally, it is always stupid to ignore potentially good ideas. So, consider opinions. Ignore them if you wish.

by Jasper on May 4, 2011 1:29 pm • linkreport

"m" makes a point that really resonates with me. Submitting a form letter written by another party or a cosigning petition should not carry the same weight as someone who has invested the time to write a unique testimony or deliver that testimony in person. I'd take the status quo over one that gives form letters exponential weight... so hopefully there is a more thoughtful reform being proposed than one that gives any communication considerable weight...

by Paul Sieczkowski on May 4, 2011 1:33 pm • linkreport

I think a few commenters here are assuming that one either can give thoughtful testimony in person, or can submit a form letter via email, with nothing in between.

The point I was trying to make at the top of this thread was that I submitted original testimony via email that I took significant time to write. It's the exact same thing I would have said if I could have been there in person - no difference in content. I was still told that my written submission would be looked at as less worthy simply because of the way it was delivered. I did not send a form letter, but it might as well have been treated as such.

That's not fair. That's something that should be addressed. If you believe that well-thought-out testimony is valuable, surely you can agree with me that it doesn't matter whether you sit at a table and read your letter to a commission, or if you send it in via email because both hearings for your issue take place while you are at work.

by Geoffrey Hatchard on May 4, 2011 1:38 pm • linkreport

When there is a procedure for community input, anyone is free to take advantage of that procedure.

When a group of people feel they are not being heard, they can share their views among themselves in a way and a time of their own choosing, then send a representative to make the case for themselves at an ANC or HPRB or Zoning hearing.

When you feel there are people being left out, you can reach out to them, provide them as much information as they are willing to accept, ask their views and incorporate their views in a letter or testimony. All of that is available under the current system, not to say the current system could not be greatly improved. But it is not impossible to be heard and to insure everyone is heard.

For that matter, when the procedure is fundamentally flawed, people can organize themselves to fix it.

For example, on the Hine issue, you say there are many who prefer more height or less parking or whatever, for whatever reason. But as Commenter Coumaris noted on a previous post, none of them showed up. Did any even write a letter? Did they make any effort to organize themselves and get their views heard? Did they provide ANC-6B or HPRB with the facts and analysis supporting their views? Not yet!

You say, ...they didn't go to the hearing. Some had jobs which prevented it. Does that mean their views don't matter? Nope, it means their views don't matter enough to themselves to do the research and present their views, not in person and not in writing. If they had made the effort, their views would have been considered by ANC-6B, HPO staff and by HPRB.

I get it that you want to dismiss all who testified as making long angry speeches and as participants in an anti-height frenzy, as if that absolves you from addressing what they said, their research, the arguments in favor of their position, and what you see as flaws in their reasoning. You can caricature them as irrational shouters, rather than addressing the arguments they make, but that's the lazy way out.

The measure of the contribution made by those who participate in the process is whether they are adding information and moving the discussion along, or not.

Please compare and contrast the contribution made by those you denigrate for testifying on the last item on the April 28, 2011 HPRB agenda, the Hine project testimony, with that of a GGW darling, ANC Commissioner David Garber, who testified on the first item on that same day's agenda, Landmark Nomination - 1024 1st Street SE- Case 11-13 / Landmarks - 1024 1st Street, SE - HPA 11-036.

Garber preceded the meeting by failing to seek out community input on his proposal, then tried unsuccessfully to obfuscate the question of who, exactly, was the "applicant" (he was the applicant), then showed up 20 minutes late, delaying all the rest of the day's HPRB agenda.

Garber's actions proved to be a bigger flaw in the process that day than the actions of the dozen residents who testified in favor of the Hine proposal while expressing concerns about some elements of that proposal.

by Trulee Pist on May 4, 2011 1:42 pm • linkreport

But it should be as easy as possible for anyone who wants to make meaningless comments.

by Tom Coumaris on May 4, 2011 1:54 pm • linkreport

It is a total waste of time to argue with the Mayor for Life. First, even if he was mentally capable of understanding your logic, he would never accept it because he is only concerned about his own power. He will reject any logic that does not conform to his ends which are to gain more power that he can use for corrupt purposes. I guarantee that if your analysis had shown that near SE should go to Barry, then he would be all for it.

Take your case to a guy like Tommy Wells. He's one of the few sensible people on the Council and he will be open to reason and logic.

by Falls Church on May 4, 2011 2:21 pm • linkreport

That was clarifying. I suddenly find myself motivated to get more involved in the Hine proposal. I want to be a party, too. Hope I qualify. (1300 block of A Street, NE)

by Read Scott Martin on May 4, 2011 2:46 pm • linkreport

@Read- I'd imagine all the deadlines have past for filing. But that brings up yet another concern: there needs to be better notice to the community at large when hearings are coming up and when their deadlines are. A couple placards go up on site but the community depends on word-of-mouth.

Technology could certainly be useful there in getting notice of hearings out.

by Tom Coumaris on May 4, 2011 3:01 pm • linkreport

Tom and Read: This isn't a Zoning Commission case (yet). It's an HPRB case. There isn't the same concept of "party status" and anyone can testify.

The case will be up before HPRB next month. I hope a lot of residents and workers in the area will go to that hearing and tell the Board what they think of the project. It doesn't matter how close you live.

by David Alpert on May 4, 2011 3:14 pm • linkreport

and there would be a strong argument that where public land, the public treasury, and environmental concerns are involved, many members of the community should be granted standing to become a party, even if they don't have that right automatically.

by Tom Coumaris on May 4, 2011 3:15 pm • linkreport

Trulee raises two separate issues - one is on the mechanics of collecting comments, but the other is about organization and the actual structure of the decision-making process.

Matt Yglesias recently had a post about the idea of a zoning budget, linking to this paper:

The key point:

The essence of the problem is that the neighbors who are physically close to parcels proposed for additional housing generally have strong incentives and organizational capacity to oppose changes in the zoning status quo. They are a paradigmatic “Olsonian interest group” – a group of people each with large stakes in the outcome and with physical ties to each other that reduce the costs of networking and collective action. By contrast, the persons benefited by proposals for additional housing are dispersed and disorganized. Further, for many projects, like the Carroll Gardens down-zoning, members of the one powerful interest in favor of new construction, city-wide developers, individually have little interest in paying for political opposition to down-zonings as each developer is unsure whether she or some other developer will be selected by the current owner to develop the lots. It is hardly a surprise, therefore, that the neighbors beat the developers in lobbying the relevant landuse decision-makers about neighborhood-initiated down-zonings.

They argue, for example, that down-zonings do harm to future residents by limiting housing supply and therefore increasing costs. A potential solution would be to require that the city meet a 'zoning budget' that would be sufficient to accommodate all projected demand via by-right construction within a set time period. Therefore, any downzoning in one part of town would be required to be matched with an upzoning in another.

by Alex B. on May 4, 2011 3:27 pm • linkreport

Sorry David. Your article spoke of the HPRB meeting that was held and next mentioned Zoning hearings you attended but I guess it was on another issue, not Hine.

by Tom Coumaris on May 4, 2011 3:28 pm • linkreport


I don't know about becoming a "party," but if you want to do some research and have your voice heard, try this:

The current plan is available here: and more information here:, and here are the heights:

Here is what ANC-6B did on this recently: (click on "Resolution Hine Concept Design 4-26-2011," and "Hine Project Special Call Meeting 3-15-2011")

Capitol Hill Restoration Society also weighed in:

And if you go to, you'll find lots of informative posts about the process to date, such as this one:

I know you're not in ANC-6B, but you do live within a stone's throw of both ANC-6B chair Neil Glick and a commissioner who has been very active and productive in seeking input, ANC6B-05's Brian Pate. If you have done some good research and have something to contribute, either or both would probably be glad to hear from you, so long as you are not literally throwing stones at them.

Finally, HPO staff handles this stuff for HPRB, and the specific staffers for you to contact are Steve Callcott (, Deputy Director, and Amanda Molson (, Capitol Hill Specialist, of the Historic Preservation Office (HPO)

Weigh in.

by Trulee Pist on May 4, 2011 3:55 pm • linkreport

"Public bodies from the DC Council to boards like the Zoning Commission are configured to value most highly input from people who show up in person. But this excludes many people with day jobs or family responsibilities. We need to fundamentally reexamine some basic assumptions about public input."

Are you really serious? Perhaps you should look at the other side of this statement which is, the opinions of people who show up deserve to be heard.

Because Marion Barry took you to task for claiming to represent Ward 8, where you don't live, is to his credit. Glad to know he has his constituents' interests at heart. You are just playing with them.

by karl on May 4, 2011 5:40 pm • linkreport

Nice to know that Marion Barry "has his constituents' interests at heart".

by Fred on May 4, 2011 7:23 pm • linkreport

Great article! For those of you who live and work in Arlington County, I want to let you in on a Civic Engagement Project that we are working on:

How is Arlington County Government communicating with you? How would you like to be engaged in the work of our local government?

A group of Arlington County Employees are working on a continuing education project whose goal is to recommend opportunities for civic engagement to County management in June 2011. This conversation with the community is vital to understanding the needs of the Public as it relates to civic engagement. There are three opportunities to lend your voice:

For Residents and the Business Community: A World Cafe-style focus group will be held on May 16, 2011 from 7pm-9pm at NRECA, 4301 Wilson Blvd, Arlington, VA 22203 (METRO accessible). If you are interested in participating or learning more, please contact This event will hold a maximum of 60 participants.

For Arlington County Government Employees: A World Cafe-style focus group will be held on May 16, 2011 from 9am-11am at FDIC Training Center, 3501 Fairfax Drive, Arlington, VA 22226 (METRO accessible). If you are interested in participating or learning more, please contact This event will hold a maximum of 60 participants.

To Participate Online: We want to hear from you! Please go to and tell us how can Arlington County make it easier for you to participate in government? This blog will close on May 31, 2011 at 5pm EST.

If you have any questions regarding this effort, please contact David Remick at

by Dave Remick on May 5, 2011 12:21 pm • linkreport

We appreciate your suggestions about how to improve our processes and solicit even greater input. That being said, it is inaccurate to characterize the input received from those who do not attend Zoning Commission (ZC) or Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA) hearings as less valued than that of individuals who attend our hearings. All comments received, whether through oral testimony or written statements, are subject to the same level of deference. The only higher deference is to the written report of the Office of Planning (OP) and the affected Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC), both of which receive “great weight” by the Commission and Board.

We understand that there are limitations as to who can attend ZC and BZA hearings based on when they occur (ZC on Monday and Thursday evenings, and BZA on Tuesdays during the day). The issue is that the Commission and Board members are volunteers who work full-time jobs, and the hearings must coincide with their other responsibilities. Further, we work extremely hard to ensure that hearings occur on the dates and times that they are scheduled. If a hearing you attended was moved to another date, it was likely continued as a result of a request by a party, or a lack of a quorum (which is exceedingly rare). If pushed to later on the same date, it was likely due to a time overrun by another case (something that is rare but does happen). Again, we make every effort to stick to the schedule posted and sent to the community and other stakeholders.

We are always eager to obtain feedback from the community on cases before the Commission and Board. As long as the record is open, we encourage everyone to submit letters in support, in opposition, or simply providing general comments. While I realize that using Twitter might make people more likely to submit input, there is no practical way for our small staff to corral such feedback and ensure it is in the public record (which is a legal requirement). Further, all comments must have original signatures (again, a legal requirement). The rationale here is that these are cases that can be appealed to the DC Court of Appeals, and it is required that there be an official written record of the case that forms the basis for the decision. What we’ve done is set up a general inbox to receive emailed PDF letters containing signatures. While this may seem more onerous that a simple tweet, it’s the appropriate balance that is legally sufficient and allows Commissioners and Board Members to have one comprehensive source of data to review. Further, the benefit of having such documents in an official record is that they can be made accessible to the public, which we’ve done through our new Zoning Case Search tool (available at There, you can search cases and view Exhibit Logs and full exhibits of the case files (for those that have been scanned). We’re working to scan more and more documents daily, so full case logs of all cases are eventually digitized. This will obviate the need for physical case files, and will allow anyone to view all case related documents for any case at any time.

Thank you,
Jamie Weinbaum
Director, Office of Zoning

by Jamie Weinbaum on May 5, 2011 4:15 pm • linkreport

Jamie: Please note that, when I was talking about written testimony not being valued as much as in-person testimony, I was referring to what I was told about the redistricting hearing, not a zoning hearing.

by Geoffrey Hatchard on May 5, 2011 4:22 pm • linkreport

Jamie: Thanks so much for your message.

I am still very skeptical that zoning commissioners REALLY give as much weight to a written letter as to in-person testimony.

Last week, because there was one testifier in opposition to the parking location zoning change based on some minor details (and largely a misconception), the commission delayed action and asked OP to fix it. Would they have done that if they'd gotten a single letter raising a minor objection?

I agree that in theory it would be great if all testimony were given significant weight but it's not the sense I get.

by David Alpert on May 5, 2011 4:26 pm • linkreport


Good post. I live in a different city and have been concerned with that problem here. There is no single answer but a couple of ideas:

Especially for lower income people with kids, but for working people generally, time and energy are limited, so make it as easy as possible for them. Go to their neighborhood, and if at all possible, provide food. These people can't make it to a meeting during the day, but even in the evening or on the weekend, they have to cook meals and eat.

Many lower income people don't own computers so can't participate via e-mail or websites, but most own t.v.s. I think there should be a lot more public-service type adds on t.v., like "City elections are being held on these dates and you can vote at these locations."

by Susan on May 5, 2011 7:34 pm • linkreport

Typically, the people who "show up" have vested some effort to actually understanding the issue at hand

freely, I have a vested interest in going to work and getting a f'ing paycheck and, quite frankly, I think that my voice should carry a bit more weight than an underemployed annoying gadfly working from home with nothing better to do than show up in the middle of the day and harangue various DC committees about his annoying hobbyhorses and obsession with harassing business owners over their irrelevant personal obsessions. So yeah, I do think my voice should count at least as much as their irrational uninformed opinions. You think they're worth so much because they have nothing better to do but act like a crank over height issues because they have no jobs and no lives?

It's a shame for us who come home at the end of a day after a long day and work to find out than cranks and gadflies have been running hogwild over our economy and neighborhoods and that the system favors them over us.

by Tyro on May 5, 2011 11:51 pm • linkreport

I agree that the way DC (and every other municipality) works, in which the loud/opposed parties are catered to is bad, but it seems that everyone here is trying to figure out a way for every citizen's voice to be heard - in other words, a public referendum on every issue. This is not how our political system is supposed to work.

I don't think anyone has mentioned an alternative perspective: that elected officials should act and vote in ways that they believe are of most benefit to the community, with those beliefs based on their own values/experiences/perspectives.

by Arnold on May 6, 2011 11:36 am • linkreport

David, I am not sure of your methodology or how you did your outreach but overall, the point is that civic engagement is done mostly poorly here (and in most places). CM Barry could/would pick apart any type of process that he didn't agree whether you used the best quantitative methodology or not. What I do think is missing are opportunities for authentic dialog on all kinds of issues that can allow for people to introduce their ideas and learn other perspectives. Part of the problem is that we have too many public meetings that stretch people thin and we have few trusted conveners/orgs. Someday, hopefully, we'll have trusted a institution/s who can bring folks together regularly to exchange points of view AND provide follow up about how the information was used.

by Neil Richardson on May 6, 2011 12:59 pm • linkreport

Great post and great comment thread. Encouraging input through multiple channels is clearly part of the answer, as you talk about in your post, and no question that participants being informed is important as well (as Gavin and others pointed out), especially with more complicated policy issues (i.e., most of the policy issues of consequence). There's a third piece, though, that seems to be pretty important on those more complicated issues, and that is designing a civic engagement process with tools that help participants make sense of that information and to thoughtfully weigh options and trade-offs against each other. Just having information, even if it's thorough, doesn't necessarily make it usable. It's one thing to ask people how much they support funding for various programs, for instance, and to give them full access to the city's budget and financial data, but it's something else entirely to use a budget tool that requires folks to actually increase and decrease funding for various programs in order to fit within a budget, especially if those budget levels are tied to program outcomes. Similarly, it's one thing to ask people their views on how tall the buildings in their neighborhood should be, but 3-D visualization tools (e.g., CommunityViz) that help folks get a real sense of what various heights and setbacks and architectural requirements might actually feel like make that kind of conversation a lot more productive.

by Jacob on May 9, 2011 9:21 pm • linkreport

I've been lucky in being able to testify at D.C. Council hearings because I work 12-9 pm on some days. Committee staff have consistently honored my requests that I be scheduled in the first group. I wish, though, that coffee and other beverages were allowed in the hearing rooms.

Many cities hold council meetings during the evenings, and I don't see why D.C. can't do likewise.

by DC Bus Rider on Sep 16, 2011 1:19 pm • linkreport

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