What Northfield can learn from the Citizens League about citizen involvement

MN Journal sshot The July August issue of the Citizens League’s monthly newsletter, MN Journal has an article by evaluator Bill Johnston titled The final analysis: What MAP 150 taught us about citizen involvement and engagement (p. 7). It includes this startling statement: "Dialogue is more important to citizen perceptions of authentic involvement than the effect on outcomes." He explains why… and I’ve excerpted some other interesting findings. (continued)


One hypothesis about citizen involvement processes is that citizens view processes as “authentic” if the processes results in policies that citizens favor. This turned out not to be true. The most critical element citizens used to evaluate the authenticity of their involvement in MAP 150 projects was the quality of the dialogue with public officials. The quality of the dialogue was more important than the eventual result.

To help them determine whether they are on the right track, process developers can ask these questions.

Of citizens: What is the quality of dialogue? Are public officials interacting with you in a way that indicates they understand what you are saying and want to learn more?

Of public officials: Do you think the citizens you are working with are representative of all of the citizens you serve? Do they seem fixed on meeting their own needs or are they flexible and growing in their understanding of comprehensive solutions?

Citizen involvement leads to defining issues differently.

When citizens are more involved in policy development, issues are defined differently than when citizens are left out of the process.

Some public officials resist citizen involvement and there are reasons for their resistance.

The literature describes three reasons that public officials resist citizen involvement:

  • prior experience with sub-populations of citizens who care only about a particular policy outcome
  • a natural resistance to erosion of authority, and
  • the administrative burden of citizen-involvement processes.

51 comments to  (Including 7 Discussion Threads) What Northfield can learn from the Citizens League about citizen involvement

  • 1
    Griff Wigley says:

    I’d argue that the dialogue between community leaders/public officials and citizens needs to be captured in digital form (audio, video, web conversations) so that it can be leveraged (spread virally on the internet) and thus have more impact.

  • 2
    David Ludescher says:

    Griff: I disagree. The quantity of dialogue almost always dilutes the quality.

  • 3
    Griff Wigley says:

    David, I wasn’t making a point about quantity of dialogue, nor was the Citizens League evaluator, I don’t think.

    What I tried to say with my follow-up comment was simply that it helps to capture the quality dialogue so that others who couldn’t participate can still benefit.

  • 4
    Jim Haas says:

    Sometimes it seems that if it ain’t on the Web, it never happened. Or if it ain’t on the Web, elected officials must have conspired to hide something from the populace. Griff, I mean no disprepect at all by calling this “The Wigley Postulate:” No Web presence = irrelevance.

    I’m no big fan of these kinds of scholarly analyses, but one point of the Citizens League report is, I think, that face-to-face communication has value, weight, and meaning to the parties. Those qualities may diminish as the converstaion gets longer and wider and more dispersed.

  • 5
    Jane McWilliams says:

    Jim -- what do you think about the face-to-face communication at the Congressional town hall meetings? How much should the messages of the opponents who show up and speak influence the decisions? How much influence on the decision-makers does the impact of those confrontations on the press have on decision-makers and on the public?

    Griff, I wholeheartedly believe that the more we talk with people with whom we don’t agree, the more we challenge our own views, and the more potential there is for finding solutions which are balanced. I’m not sure as individuals any medium for communication is best. As an almost octogenarian, I realize that many people in our society get their info from the net, and that their interactions are electronic. But, as a fogey, I still think that face- to-face conflabs are significant if not preferable. As David says, the quality is the key -- and sometimes I fear that the facility of electronic communication may lead us to quantity rather than quality.

    Like this post, perhaps?

  • 6
    Jim Haas says:

    Jane:

    I wouldn’t characterize a shouting match as dialogue. Or at least not as productive dialogue. The examples cited in the Citizens League report involve a range of interactions between rulers and subjects — I mean between decision makers and constituents or stakeholders. Most are in person, many are electronic, but all the examples share the same respectful, patient tone and all exhibit something missing from these awkwardly-staged events called town hall meetings: listening.

  • 7
    Griff Wigley says:

    Did anyone attend Sen. Klobuchar’s Statewide Health Care Tele-Town Hall last night? I missed it:
    http://klobuchar.senate.gov/newsreleases_detail.cfm?id=317124&

  • 8
    Griff Wigley says:

    Jim, no, I’m not quite that radical (“No Web presence = irrelevance”) but rather that there’s no reason (economic, technical) to not take advantage of the web.

    For example, last night’s Klobuchar tele-town hall had thousands sign up. It was promoted via the web as well as other media. And “The call will also be posted on our website for you to listen to if you are unable to hear it live.”

    This is a good example of exactly what I’m arguing for. What problems do you see with it?

  • 9
    David Ludescher says:

    Griff: There are two significant problems with Web-based citizen participation. First, it is elitist; it generally does not touch those who are most in need of help from the government. Rather, it tends to benefit the technological “haves” of the world. Second, because participation is so easy and impersonal, it tends to have a low quality and low value for elected officials. We have quite a bit of conservative talk radio. Does anyone seriously believe that it adds value to public discussions? Why is the Web any different?

  • 10
    Griff Wigley says:

    David, over 80% of Northfielders have broadband internet access. It’s around 60% for the US. The ‘haves/have nots’ problem is less and less an issue.

    Participation need not be impersonal/be of low quality/low value to government leaders, though I grant you, it often is… but I’d argue that that’s usually because it’s not run properly.

    Take a look at some of the Community Issue Forums that have happened here in Northfield, for example, the 1998 Transportation Forum.

    Talk radio, like any conversation venue, can be helpful or not, depending on how it’s run. Likewise the face-to-face venues. Interesting article in yesterday’s NY Times:

    Calm, but Moved to Be Heard on Health Care: In the health care discussion, the respectful questioners may have more impact than the high-decibel rants.

    • 10.1
      David Ludescher says:

      Griff: The Internet is high-decibel ranting compared to the respectful questioning of pencil and paper.

    • 10.2
      Patrick Enders says:

      David,
      Really? Have you ever read the letters to the editor in the News?

    • 10.3
      john george says:

      Patrick- I agree. I don’t think the medium has any bearing on how civil/uncivil discourses might be.

    • 10.4
      Griff Wigley says:

      When I used to do the online portion of the Community Forums, I had a couple of Councilors tell me that they got treated with way more respect and civility in our forums than they did at open mic at City Council meetings where they just had to sit there and ‘take it.’

  • 11
    kiffi summa says:

    Re: citizen involvement: The Open Mic process at the City Council is beginning to ‘go astray’ again. At the 1st street assessment Public Hearing, an elderly gentleman came, haltingly with a cane, to the mic to question why the city charges 2% over the current bond rate for a street assessment to the homeowner.

    The council has a policy of not replying to the citizen at the time, saying they will return a written answer if requested. That is announced , by the mayor, at the beginning of the public comment period.

    Most of the time, after the person has spoken, the council sits silent, looking a bit like a less impressive Mt. Rushmore … and the citizen is left to walk back to their seat in silence.It is a very uncomfortable time, and in the particular instance I just mentioned it was especially painful in more ways than one, because the gentleman walked with great trouble. Letting him struggle back to his seat in total silence was rude.

    Occasionally the mayor will say “Thank you”, but not always, and I think it would be more in line with the common courtesy we were all brought up with to say: thank you, we will be getting back to you,or this is a question that can be answered simply right now , or something polite which brings the encounter to a conclusion.
    As it stands now it is lacking in respect to the citizen’s question whether you personally agree with their perspective, or not. Any councilor could make a concluding remark of some sort, it need not just be the Mayor.

    Cocktail parties are the only social situation where you may wander off from a conversation without putting some sort of polite conclusion to it. Citizens are not
    automatically the ‘naughty’ ones at the ‘party’.

  • 12
    Griff Wigley says:

    Thanks for that open mic observation, Kiffi. The Councilors probably feel a bit awkward during the silence and don’t intend any rudeness, but one could argue that it’s part of the aftermath from the past 4 years.

    • 12.1
      kiffi summa says:

      Griff: I don’t think it is “aftermath from the past 4 years” as you said; that’s a very ‘loaded’ observation on your part, IMO.

      As a matter of fact, Former Mayor Lansing made a point of thanking people for bringing their concerns to open mic.

  • 13
    Griff Wigley says:

    Kiffi, I don’t deny that Lee was generally good at making people feel comfortable at open mic.

    But open mic during his tenure was sometimes chaotic, too, as some people were allowed to go way over the time limit, and some councilors chimed in with cries of ‘point of order’ during contentious moments.

    So I think it’s understandable that this Council and Mayor Rossing are inclined to run a tighter ship with it.

    • 13.1
      kiffi summa says:

      Griff: My last comment on this subject ( I think) :
      “Tighter Ship” does not equate with just plain ignoring the most basic common courtesy of “Thank you”…

      On another subject: Why can’t the council meetings be streamed live? What would they need to do to accomplish that?
      You were at tonight’s meeting; could you hear everyone at the table?

  • 14
    David Ludescher says:

    Open mic is supposed to be a one-way communication tool. If you want a two-way communication, you should talk to your ward rep, then an at-large member, and then the mayor. People are trying to use the process to skip over representative democracy.

  • 15
    Griff Wigley says:

    Kiffi, I think live-streaming is still in the works by year’s end.

    And no, despite the new table microphones, I couldn’t hear so I left early. Very frustrating. OTOH, wi-fi was great!

    David, I’m sure not arguing that open mic should be anything other than one-way communication, citizen-to-council. I’m not sure Kiffi was either.

    • 15.1
      kiffi summa says:

      Ok … so it wasn’t my last comment (13.1)

      David : no one is wanting a free-for-all at Open Mic; some councilors do well enough at “Pulling a Roder” at the end of the meeting in their councilor updates, when there is no way for the attacked citizen to respond. A disgusting power play for those who need to self-aggrandize their power levels, even if it’s by misrepresenting the facts of a meeting they weren’t even at.
      All I’m requesting is that the council make some polite response to the public contribution by a citizen, like: Thank you, or whatever … but just don’t let the person struggle back to their seat in deadly silence, feeling like they must have spinach between their teeth, and all of NF has seen it on NTV!

      Griff: as to the mics, I just don’t get it. Why can’t that small room be miked so the audience can hear what is being said at that table. The flat bug-like mikes were actually better than the bouquet that now graces the center.

  • 16
    David Ludescher says:

    Kiffi: In a representative democracy, citizen involvement is not an intrinsic good. Northfield has too much, not too little involvement -- especially from particular segments. This results in pressure to make poor decisions, like the rental ordinance. It also leads to disenfranchisement of the non-vocal majority who are more respectable of the time of elected officials.

    Open mic should be a communication of last resort.

    • 16.1
      kiffi summa says:

      David: and so it is, when councilors do not listen to those they represent, and when they do not seek the opinion of their constituents on matters that gravely concern them.

      You speak of “representative democracy”; why should those who represent the public not hear from the public? By what other means do they seek to know what of their constituents opinions to ‘represent’ ?

      Open Mic, especially since they do not reply, takes less of their time than any other form of communication.

      I believe we would never agree, on the uses of power, and the domination of hierarchy.
      And the ‘victimization’ of those who choose to remain voiceless is another area where we would disagree.

      I think you should consider why you signed your recent letter to the newspaper, in which you disagreed with some council perspectives, as David Ludescher, Past president, Northfield Area Chamber of Commerce…

    • 16.2
      David Ludescher says:

      Kiffi: The most effective communication I had when I was on the City Council was from Marjorie Cox, a former City Council member. Marjorie called me at home told me that she wanted 30 seconds, expected no reply, and would hang up when she was done. That’s exactly what she did.

      Do you realize that if every person in Northfield spoke for just 30 seconds once per year at Open Mic that the average meeting would start at 1 a.m.?

    • 16.3
      kiffi summa says:

      David: IMO, you are making ridiculous assumptions and arguments. If you actually took the time to work out the math on your above example, you are, again IMO, way too concerned about this issue, and way too anxious to support a failed argument.

    • 16.4
      David Ludescher says:

      Kiffi: 0.5 minutes per person times 17,000 people equals 8,500 minutes divided by 60 minutes per hours divided by 24 council meetings equals 5.9 hours per council meeting.

      Obviously, open mic is a very ineffective way to spend the time of Council people who are already getting paid less than minimum wage to do a thankless job. Write a letter, call on the phone, or if it is really important meet your ward rep in person.

    • 16.5
      kiffi summa says:

      OK, David … the math is simple; I agree with your math.
      I can’t imagine what would bring that number of residents to open mic unless it was the payment of Mr. Roder’s separation agreement/25K…

      You are often a very vocal part of a meeting you attend, e.g. the Comp Plan meetings at the Armory … so what you’re saying is that it’s appropriate as a place for public input since the meeting is structured as such, but the open mic is NOT an appropriate place for public input although that is the exact purpose of that part of the meeting, and is in fact required by the Charter?

      You know , David, this is a stupid parsing of particulars; we have differing POV’s … that is obvious … let’s just quit boring everyone else with searching for a way to convince each other on this issue.

      Aint (sorry, Mom) gonna happen.

  • 17
    Griff Wigley says:

    The Pew Internet and American Life Project released a report yesterday titled:

    The Internet and Civic Engagement

    Political and civic involvement have long been dominated by those with high levels of income and education, leading some advocates to hope that internet-based engagement might alter this pattern. However, a new report by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project shows that the internet is not changing the fundamental socio-economic character of civic engagement in America. When it comes to online activities such as contributing money, contacting a government official or signing an online petition, the wealthy and well-educated continue to lead the way.

    Still, there are hints that the new forms of civic engagement anchored in blogs and social networking sites could alter long-standing patterns. Some 19% of internet users have posted material online about political or social issues or used a social networking site for some form of civic or political engagement. And this group of activists is disproportionately young.

    • 17.1
      john george says:

      Griff- I agree that people with higher levels of education and income exert more effort into public discourse on issues. The reason they do is because they are under the illusion that they can actually change something. I think people who have not completed higher levels of education or are not wealthy are not under that illusion.

    • 17.2
      Griff Wigley says:

      Hey John, do I detect a hint of cynicism there? ;-)

    • 17.3
      john george says:

      Griff- Might be a hint, now that I look at it again. I was trying to get at the idea that those with affluence and higher education seem to have greater expectations on society. They have taken on challenges and mastered them, so consider civic engagement as just another challenge. It is not a cut and dried concept by any means. I just think that some changes take time. There is probably a balance as to what is worth a person’s focus and what is not.

  • 18
    Ray Cox says:

    As someone that has spent nearly 20 years of my life in elected office positions, I will say that by far the most informative, useful way to receive communication is face to face. That can take many forms. While serving, I rarely went to the lumberyard, bank, grocery store, or coffee shop without people talking to me about a concern or issue. I appreciated every comment.
    As a Representative I held ‘mainstreet meetings’, town hall style meetings, topic meetings, and many other face to face meetings. Each year I met with countless constituent groups in St. Paul. I thoroughly enjoyed each and every meeting. And as someone said earlier in this thread, when a group with an opposing position comes to talk to you, it is very possible that they will convince you of their position. I remember well one meeting I had at Carleton where the constituents convinced me to support a minimum wage revision…something I was not leaning toward before the meeting.

    During all those years I also received thousands of email messages. They were often civil and fine messages, but they don’t hold the power of a face to face meeting. And then of course there are always the annonomous electronic messages filled with hate that appear after a vote. They don’t enhance the electronic world.

  • 19
    Griff Wigley says:

    Ray, I don’t disagree that F2F is the best for influencing. That’s why effective lobbyists can make a good living!

    But there’s another aspect of civic engagement that falls into the category of ‘deliberation’ or ‘inquiry’ that’s very different than the type of influencing and lobbying typically seen at open mic, individual emails, or at these so-called town hall meetings where people are pretty much putting forth their already-formed positions.

    I don’t yet know the best place for a skate plaza now. I’m undecided about the safety center. I’m still pretty uninformed about health care reform.

    But I know from experience that I’m much more likely to get better informed about an issue if I can first get into a comfortable (inquiry-oriented) discussion (online or f2f) about an issue. Then I read more articles and blogs about the issue, listen to more radio/podcasts on it, pay more attention to TV news/opinion on it, etc.

    I just downloaded the 66 page Pew report to my Kindle and I’ll be interested to see to what extent they address this.

  • 20
    David Ludescher says:

    Griff: I think you are talking about how to be a good citizen without turning into a lobbyist (political capitalist).

    We are going to get better decisions by more involvement only if the involvement is good citizenship. When the involvement is lobbying without regard for its wider impact, it yields counterproductive input.

    That is what happened with the rental ordinance.

  • 21
    kiffi summa says:

    I’d like to offer this comment about the rental ordinance process: It got 100% out of hand!

    It began 2+ years before it was passed with a few residents on Highland, on the West side, asking for some relief from the behavioral problems they were experiencing with student renters on their block, parking, pissing, etc…

    From that it morphed into a giant mess, became mostly about rentals on the East side, and ultimately became a broad ordinance that was mostly tossed out by the MN Supreme Court.

    What the West side citizens were asking for was simply some practical curtailment of behavioral problems; implementable fines, whatever.
    What resulted was not the fault of what citizens were asking, and in the end lobbying for; it was the result of a council process that simply could not respond to a basic concept and react with a clear process for a clear result. The initial response should have been to behavioral problems only,including landlord responsibilities, and college responsibilities, then move to further issues as they arose.

    All the information about the inconveniences to real life situations which this ordinance has ultimately caused (people selling houses, needing to rent because of job transfers or sabbaticals, etc.) were known then from letters the council received and discussed to some extent at the time the ordinance was being formed.
    In the most recent discussion, the council seemed to react as if these life inconveniences were new situations that had arisen, issues of which they were only recently aware.

    Bottom line: this rental ordinance is NOT a citizen input problem ; it is a Council/Staff process problem …it needed a more focussed analysis of the problem of rentals in a college town as they were presented then.

    • 21.1
      David Ludescher says:

      Kiffi: The initial and final response should have been, “Not our problem.”. But, because the citizen involvement was “… dominated by those with high levels of income and education …” the Council felt compelled to act.

      I can understand why the Council and the Staff cannot develop a focused analysis of the problem when hundreds of people are cramming the City Council Chambers and speaking at Open Mic for hours.

    • 21.2
      kiffi summa says:

      David , re:”hundreds of people are cramming the City Council Chambers and speaking at open mic for hours” is simply not a statement which even approaches the factual situation.

      In the first place the CCChamber has a limit of occupants which has been fairly strictly enforced; it’s way under 100…
      Secondly,There are very rarely more than one or two comments at open mic, and many meetings there are none at all.
      Third, with a two-three minute limit (depending when the comment occurs) it would take 20-30 people to get to even 1 hour, so your complaint of “hours” is fairly absurd.

      It is obvious you do not think people should speak at open mic, but these wild statements are ridiculous.
      Why not work for a change in the City’s Charter, which compels the open mic process, if you are so bitterly against it?

    • 21.3
      Patrick Enders says:

      David,
      I agree with Kiffi: why not work on the Charter? I understand there’s an opening or two on the Commission coming up.

    • 21.4
      David Ludescher says:

      Kiffi: No matter what form of citizen involvement exists, it will continue to be dominated by those with money or education. What is important is for the bobos and NIMPU’s to stop lobbying, and start being good citizens.

    • 21.5
      kiffi summa says:

      “bobos and NIMPUS”, David?

      I don’t think “good citizens” classify others’ comments with denigrating names, or decide who should comment and who should not …

    • 21.6
      john george says:

      I’ve been thinking about this whole thing of citizen involvement in the community. I can’t help but remember my good friend Jeff Ammerman. Those of you who had the privilege of knowing him know that he was a man of few words, but much action. When he saw a need, he didn’t spend much time talking about it. He went out and did something about it. I think it is too easy to be vocal about things in town and never do anything about them. Just being vocal does not necessarily translate into citizen involvement. IMO, those that are most effective are the ones who do things but you never hear from them.

    • 21.7
      Griff Wigley says:

      John, ‘citizen involvement’ covers a range of activities. Action-oriented volunteerism is one of those, but it’s very different than the talk-oriented citizen engagement that’s required to make a decision about, for example, the Safety Center.

      One of things I love about Northfield is that there are plenty of people who gravitate to one or the other… and some who like both!

    • 21.8
      john george says:

      Friff- Good point. Policies and regulations must be discussed before implementation. You’re right in that we have both aspects well represented in Northfield.

    • 21.9
      john george says:

      Griff- I did not intentionally call you “Friff!” Just more evidence of my keyboarding challenged ability.

    • 21.10
      David Ludescher says:

      Kiffi: I consider myself a bobo and a NIMPU.

    • 21.11
      Griff Wigley says:

      I kind of like ‘Friff’, John, given my propensity for fluff here on LoGroNo.

  • 22
    kiffi summa says:

    Well, David, I must admit there are times when I consider you a bobo , too … but I must also admit I’ve forgotten what those acronyms stand for in YOUR mind.

  • 23
    David Ludescher says:

    Kiffi: Bobo = Bourgeoisie Bohemian. NIMPU’s = Northfield Is My Personal Utopia. I think I am both.

  • 24
    Jane McWilliams says:

    ‘David -- As in “Bobos in Paradise” my favorite book by David Brooks?

  • 25
    David Ludescher says:

    Jane: Yeah.

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