Peter’s Take: Moving Forward On Civic Engagement

Peter RousselotPeter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of

As previously reported, Arlington County has posted a draft civic engagement action plan.

You should read the current two-page draft plan outline, and submit comments by September 13 using the comment form.


Just last year, the County Manager created the new Office of Communication and Public Engagement. The office was created in the wake of multiple civic engagement fiascos (e.g. WRAPS process, Fire Station 8, Bluemont Park baseball field). Bryna Helfer was appointed an Assistant County Manager to lead the office.

Over the past four to six months, Bryna and her team have been actively meeting with community leaders to gather insights about how they viewed public engagement, particularly for capital projects. The team has held meetings with government planners, engineers, county leadership and County Board members.

The team believes four key themes emerged:

  • Engagement Opportunities
  • Communication Practice
  • Diversity of Views and Participants
  • Lack of Capacity

The resulting draft plan raises many issues, some mentioned, some not.


Strategies for different projects and policies

The County plans to use the development of next year’s Capital Improvement Plan as a pilot to test improved strategies for civic engagement concerning new capital projects. This makes sense. However, there should be other distinct civic engagement models for other types of major county decisions (e.g., significant new policies, major capital maintenance, ranking among priorities based on overall budget constraints) — each with clear explanations for community engagement.


Staff must disclose up front all current assumptions and restrictions for all projects and policies. If necessary, neutral facilitators should be employed to conduct civic engagement. 


Arlington’s civic associations, ranging from the many superbly-managed ones all the way to some non-existent ones, always will display a spectrum of effectiveness because these are volunteer groups. The county government, NOT civic associations, must assume primary responsibility and accountability for civic engagement with respect to taxpayer-funded projects and policies.

The County should maintain a separate, interactive webpage with all information, data, assumptions, civic engagement results (favor, oppose) and FAQs about the projects or policies subject to civic engagement.

Project and policy definitions

If the county only asks, “where shall we put the basketball court?”, and never asks, “do you want a basketball court?”, the county and its citizens are in serious trouble.

Weight of community opinions

The weight to be given community opinions depends on knowledgeable expertise. In siting a new school, a community’s opinion about whether to build “up or out” should be entitled to a lot more deference than whether a foundation can bear the weight load.


Limits of civic engagement

Even the best civic engagement practices cannot prevent fiascos caused by other factors such as:

  • wrong policies
  • lack of proper staff training
  • needs changing
  • lack of accountability

If the policy is wrong, change it. If staff lacks training, train them. If needs change, then processes need to be flexible. If staff members are never disciplined, transferred, nor fired for repeated mistakes, civic engagement cannot fix that fundamental management failure.


No outreach, survey, tool, process or plan is perfect. However, because Arlington properly relies so heavily on its numerous and talented citizen volunteers, the County must ensure that it is delivering the best possible opportunities for fair, transparent and inclusive civic engagement.

The May & June 2017 Friends of Aurora Highlands Park Newsletter contains excellent additional civic engagement suggestions.

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