Over the past fifteen years or so, we've asked hundreds, maybe even thousands, of men and women in state and local government to tell us whether they solicit citizen input to help manage their organizations. To the best of our memories, every single one has told us that they do. This by itself is astonishing. Red state. Blue state. Rich state. Poor state. They're all out there listening hard.
The problem is this: When pushed to describe the ways in which they get input from a diverse group of citizens, a lot of our interviewees have been unconvincing, to put it kindly. Much of the citizen input they're talking about comes from a small body of all-purpose experts - people who are frequently described as "the usual suspects." They show up at all the town meetings, public hearings and open forums and serve two fundamental purposes: One, they represent some point of view - regardless of whether there are many others who share it. Two, they allow government officials to tell people like us that they get loads of citizen input.
Don't misunderstand. Getting citizen input is not easy. Many governments have been turning to citizen-satisfaction surveys lately, and although they can be helpful, the pitfalls are many. "The surveys seem like the easiest thing to do," Barbara Cohn Berman, vice president of the National Center on Civic Innovation, told us. "But they're not the be-all and end-all of citizen input and citizen opinion." They only find out how many people think positively or negatively about a particular issue. The findings are, she adds, "just a bunch of numbers. You don't know why people have those opinions. And that's a very important question."
Cohn shared this example: Several cities asked citizens, "Do you feel safe going downtown at night?" The majority of respondents said no, they didn't feel safe. So, the cities put more police downtown. The next year, the same question was asked and even fewer people thought it was safe. So, they put more police in. "But no one asked people why they thought it's unsafe," says Cohn. It could be that there's not enough light. Or that there aren't any attractions to bring more people to the streets. Cohn offers one chilling possibility: It could be that people believe any place that's full of police can't be very safe.
Given the limitations of surveys, options such as town meetings take on more appeal. But these, too, can be deeply flawed. Sometimes public officials already have decided what they want to do. They don't really want public input but know that holding a town meeting about it is the right thing to do. They go through a kind of make-believe game that's really just a waste of everyone's time. "They want to tell the citizen what to do," says Suzanne Flynn, the elected auditor of Metro, Oregon, a tri-county regional government that includes Portland, "instead of listening and figuring out what they're concerned with."
A somewhat more cynical take on these town hall meetings is that "they're just productions," attended by the local press. It's a point made by Mike Sweeney, a commercial ethnographer whose work with companies such as Coca-Cola, Colgate-Palmolive and Reuters emphasizes a focus on getting in-depth understanding from individual consumers in the context of their daily lives - as opposed to gathering large groups together. He could be on to something. If it wasn't for their public-relations value, why would community leaders who have already decided what to do continue to hold thinly attended meetings from which they get very little of value?
All of this isn't to say that there aren't very useful efforts to gather and use the public's opinions. The little city of Aspen, known best for its ski resorts, is a good example. It wanted to deal with some complex issues of growth and development, and began with a series of 15 focus groups to find out what was on people's minds. The groups, which brought in diverse portions of the town's population, helped to set an agenda for two large town hall meetings in which about 440 people (out of a population of 6,000) were able to make their opinions known.
This process - starting with focus groups, which then inform broader surveys or large, open town meetings - appears to be gaining favor. It certainly makes sense.
In Aspen, as it happens, the big lesson learned was that there weren't many easy answers. "We found out," says Mitzi Rapkin, community relations director for Aspen, "how divisive these issues are.