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Progressive Voice: Broader Participation and Communication for a Changing Community

by Progressive Voice December 17, 2015 at 12:00 pm 0

Mary Rouleau

By Mary Rouleau

Progressive Voice is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of their organizations or ARLnow.com.

Two weeks ago, in this space, I articulated what others in the community have been saying: it’s time to craft an Arlington Way 2.0. If nothing else, demographic shifts and the technology explosion support the view that a reboot is timely.

While there has been discussion about and some effort to bring more segments of the community into the dialogue by creating more opportunities for public input, it is not enough. The Arlington Way should also encompass a more effective rollout of studies and policies after they are adopted, including getting basic facts into the community in a timely way.

This is not to advocate for particular decisions or policy directions. The community and its elected representatives will ultimately set directions and make decisions. I am advocating for processes that include early opportunities for broader and more meaningful input together with more intense communication efforts at the back end of decision making processes.

In that way, Arlington can discern views of its residents more accurately and make decisions more promptly as well as more securely. The end goal is building community trust in an environment that differs markedly from the more homogenous Arlington that existed in past generations.

What follows are several thoughts about the overall process, with a particular focus on communications.

First, the Arlington Way for a particular process should include prompt decisions through a schedule, as well as clear and accurate information about where, what and how public input will be sought and used.

Second, we should review our system of charrettes and town halls to better promote inclusion and “community conversations.” We have not had adequate participation or room for deep dive discussions.

We should aggressively reach beyond the civic association structure. We especially need to more fully engage our large millennial population, including involvement on working groups and organizational boards. Leadership Arlington’s Young Professionals Program has grown a pool of candidates.

Third, we still need real-time, in-person give-and-take. While online tools can be helpful supplements, they can be too easily commandeered by those with a preset agenda.

I think the County has been doing a better job at gathering input, yet fuller information flow is still needed.

According to the 2015 County Resident Satisfaction Survey, 75 percent of those polled trust information provided by the County, but satisfaction regarding the effectiveness of County communications and transparency of decision-making declined.

The County has recently created informative and user-friendly portals for the Community Facilities Study, other studies and site plans. We need tools to promote use of those pages — perhaps a “Campaign to Connect” that emphasizes the importance of these portals to decision making.

A changed paradigm for information packaging is needed. Arlington produces thorough reports but few read them. Those reports should be accompanied by highly visual summaries — such as infographics — that are released simultaneously.

My suggestions for disseminating information more effectively include:

  • better use of The Citizen, including a format overhaul and well-designed center pullouts
  • electronic short pieces and infographics to distribute to the many community newsletters and Listservs
  • pop-ups and temporary signage that focuses attention
  • new methods to simplify complicated topics like community planning — such as the upcoming Cards Against Urbanity session
  • placing basic information on major initiatives — not advocacy — inside routine mailers that go to many residences and mailings to neighborhoods directly affected by upcoming decisions

The just-completed Community Facilities Study, like the recent housing study, produced a wealth of data about Arlington’s economy, schools and demographics. This data deserves broad public awareness and could be packaged into a series of “101s.”

An improvement of the County’s communications capacity should be a high priority for the newly constituted 2016 County Board and the County Manager.

Given the enormous successes achieved by Arlington and some issues that divided the community despite lengthy processes meant to avoid such divisions, it is important that the County not leave itself open to the impression that it is hiding something or that a particular process is not fair.

A fully informed and engaged public can improve County decisions and do so even with a streamlining of our processes. The County should leave few stones unturned in the effort.

Mary Rouleau is a 25-year resident of Arlington. She is the Executive Director of The Alliance for Housing Solutions. This column reflects her personal views.

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