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Peter’s Take: New Public Engagement Draft Guide Shows Promise

Peter’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

On December 21, Arlington County’s public engagement team (led by Bryna Helfer) posted a new draft Public Engagement Guide for Capital Projects.

This latest draft incorporates feedback received from residents and County staff during 2017. Over the next two weeks (until January 18), Bryna and her team are very interested in receiving your feedback on this draft.


The latest draft guide shows promise in an area crying out for major improvements.

In late 2016, the County Manager created the Office of Communication and Public Engagement in the wake of multiple public engagement fiascos. Bryna Helfer was appointed an Assistant County Manager to lead this office.

During 2017, while Helfer and her team appropriately were conducting multiple community meetings and seeking public input on an earlier version of the guide, these fiascos continued at Nelly Custis Park and Virginia Highlands Park.

The persistence of these fiascos, many involving the Department of Parks and Recreation, underscores the urgency of approving and implementing a final guide.

As was the case with the prior draft, the latest draft raises issues, some mentioned, some not.


Strategies for different projects and policies

The final guide should be very clear that its public engagement processes also will apply to county decisions in addition to those about capital projects, like all significant new policies or plans and the annual operating budget. Each of these other types of decisions should have its own appropriately-defined and publicly-understood levels of 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 residents are in serious trouble.

Setting priorities

Our new public engagement resources should be focused on key priority choices which drive major amounts of budget dollars. The question should be: “We have enough money for Option A or Option B, but not both. Which do you prefer?” Statistically-valid surveys should be used in appropriate circumstances.

Civic Associations

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. The county government, not civic associations, ultimately must be accountable for public engagement with respect to taxpayer-funded projects and policies.


The county should maintain a separate, interactive webpage with all information, data, assumptions and public engagement results regarding each project or policy.


Limits of public engagement

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

  • Wrong policies
  • Lack of proper staff training
  • Changing needs
  • Lack of accountability

The best public engagement practices cannot cure poor substantive policies or poor management.

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, that is a fundamental management failure.

Neutral facilitators

If necessary, neutral facilitators should be employed to conduct public engagement.


No guide or plan can be perfect. However, the county must ensure that it is delivering the best possible opportunities for fair, transparent and inclusive public engagement.

The latest draft guide helpfully reflects significant improvements suggested by Arlington residents over the past year.

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

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