If This is How it Starts: Report Back from the Citizen Participation Process Summit

Tonight, the “Citizen” Participation Process (CPP) Summit opened on the 11th Floor of the Pan-American Life Building in the Central Business District. Though this event was free with an advance registration, only about 150 people showed up in a city of nearly 300,000. This pales in comparison to the UNOP’s Congress Events, to which thousands flocked and where efforts were made to include displaced persons via teleconference.

Of course, civic participation may not be for everyone, but everyone must be offered the time and space to contribute and be a part of the decision making process from the beginning—for everything that starts at this summit will influence subsequent dialogue.

A potential pitfall is that residents who miss this summit due to conflicts or not being informed will not be viewed as legitimate—in effect people could become a victim of what’s known as “Founder’s Syndrome.” Or perhaps more simply, that certain attendees can say they were at the summit and can use this for political and personal power in influencing others in decision-making. Greater inclusion and

Some of these concerns were brought up throughout the night session. The session included questions to key note speaker Judith Mowry, a representative from the formalized Office of Neighborhood Involvement in Portland, Oregon.

Mowry’s last sentence–“Basically the world is run by those who show up”—showed considerable insensitivity to the context of post-Federal Flood New Orleans and to the logistics of low-income people. It makes invisible the difficulty of many New Orleanians who might work two jobs, have night shifts, or other conflicts and may not be informed, as stated above, especially by mass emails or by direct connection to a neighborhood association. (This is a pattern: The primary way to stay informed and engaged with the Master Plan and Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance process, which the City Council approved to put on the November ballot for popular vote on Thursday, is through its website. This is unacceptable in New Orleans, a place known for its digital divide and acquisition of news through those old-timey mediums like radio.)

In response to Mowry, Brad Ott, a health patient advocate and resident of New Orleans, immediately spoke to the necessity to involve the approximately 200,000 people who are not present. In addition, he later added how those directly affected by land grabs, such as the destruction of public housing and now the imminent VA-LSU teaching hospital plan for lower Mid-City—were and are currently left out of the decision-making process. The first public meeting on the teaching hospital came last month, more than two years since plans began. Ott’s determination is then that the CPP, as a burgeoning formal body, could put certain current issues on hold until a well established and inclusive participation process is in place.

After questions for Mowry, facilitators then continued the agenda wherein each table at the summit had two models of citizen participation. There were six models total across the participants. My table had models #2 and #5. The models described “Structure,” “Scope of Focus,” and “Funding.”
[Note: It should be mentioned that these models were meant to ignite discussion and feedback, not what the coalition organizing this summit actually want to see.]

#2: Essentially created a three-tiered system beginning with neighborhood groups, then to district coalitions, then to a Citizens Voice Council, wherein the scope was largely developmental and the funding decision-making power remained in the hands of the city council and mayor who would have to respond “in some way” to the Voice Council.

No one at my table thought this model would improve anything in the city. From their comments, it seems this would function largely as the system already does but formally, by granting authority to neighborhood associations alone and not including more informal community groups. In general, in all models, there were no specifics as to a standard of how decisions would or should be made—consensus? simple majority? two-thirds majority?—from the neighborhood association level all the way up to a Voice Council.

In my view, this tiered system continues the concentration of power into fewer and fewer representatives that is a mirror of our government, which we all know is largely out of touch with the priorities of its residents. We need to flatten out the decision-making power to include as many people as possible that will still be functional.

#5: Somewhat like #2, but more broadly inclusive and distinct in the fact that participants in the process could have decision-making power over the priorities of the budget.

We appreciated this distinction, but the process still remained vague. I noted that I would put more faith in this model if the budget priorities were determined in a city-wide ballot constructed like run-off elections in Ireland: if there are five priorities (or candidates) then you rank them from 1 to 5 for the ones you prefer (or give no rank for things you disagree with). The ranks are given weight in the ballot count such that a #1 priority would get 5 points, a #2 priority 4 points and so on…

Of course there could be thirty items on the ballot, each of which would have a paragraph description of what they mean…for this to be efficient you’d have to extend the number of days people can vote and you’d have to have an informed electorate.

Of course, in the larger analysis, even the word “Citizen” is problematic as it precludes migrant workers, incarcerated people and others who are and will be residents of the city and are affected by the decisions made in this process. Resident was preferred. People unable to vote, such as those under 18, should also be considered in the dialogue.

When groups reported back on other models, we had no concept of the context from which their comments sprung, whether critical or in support. The gap in communication and lack of a “crib sheet,” or list of participation process definitions, only produced confusion. For instance, in model #5, what is a municipal assembly? Who comprises it and how many people are on it? What is it accountable to and how does it make decisions?

I recommend any information, including all 6 models, intended to be commented back to the entire group should be included in the packet so all participants can read them and understand the comments in context.
We wished that we had a greater introduction and understanding of different models run around the country—their successes and problems—before engaging and brainstorming in this process.

Lastly, these are my initial observations and this entire process is new to me so I have much to learn, but I see pitfalls in the concentrating of power all around. I’m open to dialogue on this, please add your thoughts as comments.

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Published in: on July 13, 2008 at 7:38 pm  Leave a Comment  
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