In my December 22 column, I highlighted a flawed public engagement process recently employed by Parks & Recreation. I also cited examples of other recent controversial County public processes. These controversies demonstrate systemic problems and the need for Arlington to develop an improved model of public engagement.
Reports such as CFS and PLACE have pointed the way. Now we need a plan for getting there.
This new model needs to be grounded in an overall framework of basic principles, including facilitating the broadest realistic consensus, process legitimacy and real-time fact-based decision-making.
Ten core process improvements that should be implemented by the County in 2017 include:
Standard Models: Develop a limited number of standard public engagement models with clear guidance as to what types of processes require a specific model so that the public understands what these processes should look like. The siting model proposed by the CFS provides a starting point.
Ethical Communication: Arlington County’s Code of Ethics should guide both County staff and Board-appointed volunteers serving on project groups during community engagement. Staff must be neutral facilitators.
Civic Engagement Plans: Each project should include a civic engagement implementation and communications plan approved by the County Manager’s Office.
Consultations Hub: Increase transparency and participation with a one-stop-shop online portal to access all ongoing, planned and closed County public engagement processes, including input, questions, survey results and associated documents. These hubs have become standard in government. Three examples: here, here, and here.
Charges: All Charges developed to govern a proposed public engagement process should be published for public comment sufficiently prior to submission to the County Board for adoption.
Disclosure of Material Facts: Disclose relevant material facts upfront, or if arising during a community engagement process, then promptly after being known.
Scientifically Valid Surveys: Surveys conducted by the County need to be scientifically valid. A set of principles for all surveys needs to be published to assure citizens that the surveys are fair, balanced and accurate. Promptly publish all survey results.
Diversity of Views: Project groups should include members with critical or alternative viewpoints. The CFS Residents Forum was a welcome innovation in this direction.
Notification and Minimum Review Cycles: Standardize time periods and processes for notification of stakeholders and for review of decision-making documents. Materials to be submitted by County staff for action should be published no less than five business days and subject to public comment prior to action by Staff or Board. Hold public hearings well in advance of Board consideration, not immediately prior.
Fiscal Stewardship: Project groups must consider best use of resources and be informed upfront of any applicable dollar authorization for their project. Any options considered by the project group must have needs assessments and associated dollar estimates, including maintenance, so that budget impacts are a real-time part of deliberation.
Recent actions by the County, including tasking a senior manager with civic engagement oversight, seem to indicate a willingness to rethink our approach to public engagement. Such rethinking and relevant reforms are vital and long overdue.
Acknowledgement of the community principles and implementation of the core improvements discussed above would confirm that the County is willing to move toward a new model of Arlington civic engagement.