When Citizen Engagement Becomes Too Much

Politicians say they want citizens to be involved. But it can make things harder to achieve.
November 2018
Citizens meeting.
(Shutterstock)
Alan Ehrenhalt
By Alan Ehrenhalt  |  Senior Editor

In the 1950s, while doing research for a book on political participation, the social scientist James Q. Wilson found himself attending a lot of citizen engagement meetings on urban planning. Eventually he reached a conclusion that seemed obvious to him, but that public officials, and especially political reformers, didn’t talk much about. Wilson’s insight was that most citizens don’t attend meetings to endorse a policy, to give their blessing to a new project, or to sit back and learn. They show up to complain -- to say no to what’s being proposed.

It’s not hard for a local government to fill an assembly hall for a session on airplane noise or the need for a new four-lane road through town. But nine times out of 10, the people aren’t there to tell the government to keep up the good work. They’re there because they’re upset.

One reason most public officials don’t talk much about this is that it runs counter to the deeply held American belief that the broadest possible public participation is good for democracy. It’s true that a significant portion of the time, the ambitious plans of local government aren’t good policy. In those cases, somebody really does need to speak up against them.

The decade that followed Wilson’s research produced perhaps the most dramatic triumph for citizen participation in modern American history: the victory of Jane Jacobs and her band of citizen activists over New York City’s super-planner Robert Moses, and the abandonment of Moses’ scheme to bulldoze much of Lower Manhattan with gigantic expressways.

Jacobs’ crusade marked the beginning of a period in which public participation and civic activism became untouchable articles of faith in American local government. Candidates in every corner of the country began running on a platform of more civic engagement, more transparency, more chances for ordinary citizens to show up at meetings and make their feelings known. They are still doing it.

Virtually no one runs for office these days saying what Wilson implied in the 1950s -- that mass meetings and listening sessions make it more difficult for a local government to enact any complex instrument of public policy, good or bad. Boston’s Big Dig, the highway and tunnel project that ended up costing $24 billion and taking 25 years to complete, was made a good deal slower and more expensive than anyone expected because numerous cadres of citizen activists, environmentalists, preservationists, and others had to be consulted and mollified before work could proceed.

These days, it is almost impossible to find any local official willing to entertain Wilson’s insights -- at least in public. One of the few current officeholders who will go on the record challenging the conventional wisdom is Christopher Cabaldon, the iconoclastic, provocative and often eloquent mayor of West Sacramento, Calif. Several years ago, Cabaldon appeared on a Governing panel that asked a small group of mayors how they apportioned their time and how they wanted to spend it. Cabaldon was asked about the number of hours he spent at town halls and other mass meetings. Too many, the mayor said. Public meetings take up huge amounts of time and rarely produce anything of genuine value.

More recently, Cabaldon expanded on his views to an audience in Texas. Public meetings, he said, generate a warped sense of what the community is all about. They attract the affluent, the angry and the articulate. They do a poor job of expressing the views of the ordinary citizen. “When we generate instant opinion, we are empowering desires in the community that are not necessarily representative. … If we were responsive to every one of the citizen complaints, we would change from being one of the most progressive governments to one of the most regressive.”

Cabaldon isn’t a household name in Austin, but now would be a good time for that city’s leaders to consider what he has been saying. Austin just spent five years working on a massive new planning and zoning project and ended up unable to pass anything. There was plenty of public involvement in this process; one might reasonably argue that there was too much.

No one disputes that Austin needed to do something about its zoning code. Written in the 1980s, it was so badly riddled with waivers and exemptions that even real estate developers had trouble figuring it out. In 2012, the city council approved “Imagine Austin,” a comprehensive plan for the city that extended all the way out to 2040 and covered everything from transportation and housing to recreation and nutrition. One of the provisions of Imagine Austin declared the need for a new zoning code, with work to start on it immediately.

The work did begin promptly, and the new effort, known as CodeNext, attracted what one proponent called “a tidal wave of input from neighborhood associations.” By 2017, the city had received some 4,000 comments and 60 position papers. “I think it was a bit overwhelming,” says Greg Guernsey, the city planner who was in charge of CodeNext at the time.

But it soon became clear that the feel-good spirit of Imagine Austin, with its lofty rhetoric declaring the city “a beacon of sustainability, social equity and economic opportunity,” did not extend to ground-level decisions that had to be made in the new document. Virtually all of the city’s activists paid lip service to the idea of creating affordable housing, but differed on where it should go.

The more progressive housing activists were convinced that the number of affordable units the city needed -- as many as 65,000 over the next decade, by one estimate -- could be produced only through adding density to the city’s residential neighborhoods, mostly by creating more accessory dwelling units on single-family lots and allowing medium-sized apartment buildings to be built on blocks of one- or two-story homes. The neighborhoods weren’t buying this. Homeowners imagined eight-story condo towers dwarfing their modest bungalows. The city, which had been assiduous in conducting more than 100 “listening sessions” before it sat down to write, didn’t do a very good job of quieting peoples’ fears.

The second version of CodeNext was finished in the fall of 2017. It moved most of the projected affordable housing to busy commercial corridors where tall apartment buildings wouldn’t offend homeowners. This placated the neighborhood associations, but it left the housing activists complaining that there simply wasn’t enough space on these corridors to give the city more than a fraction of the affordable units it needed.

So the planners went back one more time and produced CodeNext 3, an attempt to forge a compromise the two sides could each accept. It didn’t work. The neighborhoods remained wary, and the housing activists continued to argue that the number of affordable units likely to be created was much too small. “You just have this tiny narrow strip where they’re allowing development,” said a spokesman for AURA, a grassroots housing advocacy group. “They haven’t widened out the corridors at all.”

The only thing certain about CodeNext 3 was that it didn’t have enough votes on the city council to become law. On Aug. 1, Mayor Steve Adler admitted defeat. “It seems evident,” he wrote, “that we’re not going to get to a place of sufficient consensus.” He described the entire process as “divisive and poisoned … marked with misinformation.” The mayor asked the city manager to come up with a new plan, but offered no specifics on what that might involve.

It would be going too far to say that civic engagement killed CodeNext. But the more that mass meetings were held and the more that people morphed from passive citizens to activists, the harder it became to hammer out a deal. “This started out as a battle between diehard neighborhood activists and a couple hundred urban activists,” one participant recalled. “Then it grew to include hundreds, thousands of new people.”

It isn’t hard to imagine how something like this would have been handled in the 1960s. A select group of middle-aged white businessmen, led by the mayor and the chamber of commerce, would have spent a few weekends squirrelled away in a country club and emerged with a master plan for the city’s future. This is literally what happened in Dallas in 1966.

No one is suggesting a return to that style of government. Cabaldon isn’t arguing for it. “Simply trusting the elected officials to make all the decisions,” he admitted, “is not the right answer either.”

But paying a little attention to the insights of Cabaldon and Wilson might not be a bad idea. Public policy doesn’t get better just because more people are showing up to meetings. Often it gets worse. It improves when voters elect officeholders with a pragmatic sensibility and then give them some leeway to do the right thing and explain their decisions to the public. That’s called representative government. It’s a lovely thing when it works.