The Problem: A Sampling.
I’m going to make the assumption you really do believe in transparency. It is clear to me that everybody talks about transparency as if they embrace it. I also know that the word and concept are often cheap lip-service. Let’s go forward with the assumption you believe government should endorse AND push for true transparency.
Can we also agree that much of the material placed on government Web sites in the name of transparency are well-meaning attempts but with a fatal flaw? They are informative but, they also require much time to read and often a level of expertise few possess. As much as I love and read CAFRs, I must confess they have become so complex I wonder if the dedicated layperson could actually make sense of them? I’m guessing the number of people who even try, outside the finance department, could be counted on one hand with some fingers left over. That’s a shame.
Lastly, as I read local government Web sites and materials, there is an overhwelming effort to encourage citizens to join in, to participate, to learn about their government. Related, I’ve heard stories about how hard it is to recruit volunteers to apply for board and committee positions. And then to get them to attend meetings faithfully, not to mention do their homework. The sound of briefing packets being opened as the meeting starts is often a joke even though there is nothing funny about it. Actually, the rustling sound of the packets does not exist any longer since most of the information is on a desktop or tablet.
The Solution: Implement a Teaching Government.
Let’s face it. Many local government meetings are sterile and boring. It is mechanical by design following an agenda while adhering to Robert’s Rules of Order. The meetings are usually constrained by time. Out of necessity, the leader must move it along. But I’ve seen that rush abused. I once heard about a mayor who was setting a record with 30-minute meetings, or at least that was his target. In the audience are often reporters with limited experience and a deadline that is well before the meetings end. What a farce meetings can be.
Out attitudes about meetings are all wrong. These are critical forums for learning. We are missing the teaching moments. We want people to attend, or at least we say we do, and then we want them to determine on their own the meat of a topic and how decisions are made. Mechanical boards and a blank-faced audiences are the antithesis of learning environments. We can’t beg for an educated citizenry and then not assist in the instructional process.
So, what is a Teaching Government? First, it is one that is clear in its intentions and deliberate in its actions. There must be a declaration that the forum and format are going to change into a learning environment. I assume you might ease into it, but we become more accountable when we make a public statement that a change is in order to meet an unfilled need. There are many characteristics one might express: dialogue with decorum; public teaching moments; citizen development; transparency and disclosure; academic articulation with a classroom demeanor.
Let’s Talk About Examples.
The public forums (council chambers and boardrooms in most cases) need to be video and audio taped. Good quality is a must. If there is a flip chart with bullet points, the audience whether sitting in the chambers or watching on the Internet, need to be able to see.
Start with the agenda. Every agenda item other than a few housekeeping items should have an explanation. Many cities do this already. The documentation of decision processes are limited to just one page, maybe two, but they contain the basic elements of a term paper: What is the issue? What are we being asked to do/approve? What is the background? What is being asked to be decided? What are the options explored and the pros and cons to each? What is the recommendation and why? Who is involved? What is the timeline? What are the costs or savings?
All of that information on just one page or two? Absolutely! What are the basic questions one would expect the council or a citizen to have? Then include it in the briefing memo. Most staffers working under a good manager have developed the skill of out of necessity. A professional organization knows you don’t bring a problem to your superior unless you have thought a bout a solution.
Big ticket items would require more attachments as most cities have currently. Those include the developer request and justification; the staff evaluation and recommendation; and other pertinent documentation like location maps and public notices. But since council meetings are often slices of a continuing story, context much be provided. How many platted lots or building permits are in the pipeline? What are our cumulative budget amendments so far for this year? How much money have we given this non-profit over the last five years and how many people do they serve?
Something Still Missing?
Yes. The Narrator. Hear me out before you judge me on this one, please.
How can you add assurance that everybody on the board, as well as every person in the audience or anybody watching the video, just understood the issue and the decision? An honest board member will often say after a vote, “what did we just decide?” Whoa! You just participated in a discussion or Q&A, voted and didn’t fully understand what happened? The honest answer is yes. Questions weren’t fully answered. There were cross-conversations between board members. And then all of a sudden someone calls for the vote. It happens all the time.
So, if a board member is confused, what must the audience make of it? A true teaching spirit in an intentional environment would appreciate how the best of us struggle to discern complex issues. Or masked issues. Or consent agenda items that have no documentation attached to them!
It sounds strange, but what if the Mayor or Board President prefaced the agenda item with a brief comment about the purpose of the agenda item? And then after the vote, he or she recapped the merits discussed and the basis for the decision? The higher the elevated position, the greater the requirement to possess or acquire basic teaching skills.
The only reason that might sound strange is that nobody conducts that narration routinely.
If you were in a true classroom, it would be typical to introduce a topic, explain the subject matter and then recap the key points before moving to the next item. In a courtroom, a huge amount of effort is invested to make sure the jury understands the story and specific facts, along with the decision expected of them. In a novel or a play, the writer must make sure the plot is understood by the reader or audience. All of these examples involve a deliberate effort to explain the story. And to answer the questions naturally arising from the curious mind. There is a reason to have prologues, preambles, prefaces and introductions. The same goes for the postscript and epilogue.
In news media parlance, is it about answering the Who, What, When, Where, Why and How questions before you are done with an item. You would never go into the office of a tough and skilled executive without knowing the questions you are going to be asked and being prepared to answer them.
More On The Narrator.
I can think of several people who could play the role of the Narrator. The Mayor/Board President? Yes. The City Manager/School Superintendent/Executive Director? Yes. But what about the Public Information Officer?
It seems to me that a large number of local governments, by far the majority, have slim to shallow news reporting if they have any at all. Experienced or not, many reporters have multiple assignments and simply can’t be in two places at the same time. If the PIOs are supposed to be in charge of press releases and media content, then why aren’t they writing news briefs about the council items and decisions? Their skill-set should be such that they could stand up at the end of a council meeting and run through the highlights of the meetings for the audience to grasp. They could also write a synopsis of the meeting as a press release to go out electronically to citizens. How refreshing it would be to have some professional feedback at the end of the council meeting.
What About a Commentator?
This part gets sticky. If the Narrator could and would speak to both sides of an issue, a Commentator may not be necessary. But we learn from someone telling all sides to a story. A local government official may not be able to do that for a variety of obvious reasons. This is where the blogging community could help. I’m not talking about overtly or even covertly biased people with a chip on their shoulder repeating Tea-Party mantras. I imagine that most communities have historians of some sort. The collection of all the meeting agendas and associated materials, as well as news accounts and community letter writers compile a history of the community in all cases. Every meeting is another chapter.
The problem is that the history is often incomplete, biased, shallow or all three. I’m convinced there could be an independent historical board established to write the most accurate history of the city as it unfolds. I know, I know. Even if we could advance to this point, the probability for a breakdown is high. It would have to have integrity yet the ability to be as honest and truthful as possible. This kind of panel would need to be independently funded and possibilty a program within the local junior college or other higher education institution. It would be hard to do a good job in a real-time fashion, but it also couldn’t be with too much of a time delay. Weeks, not months and certainly not years.
We all could give ten valid reasons why The Teaching Government idea wouldn’t work for every reason it might work. And all ten would be personality issues. But before we throw up our hands, let’s go back to the introduction where the problems were stated. Do we desire to address those problems? If so, how could a resolution be designed and successfully implemented? If we place so much emphasis on education and the tools to achieve an intelligent community, why not this approach or something similar?
Are we willing to look back to see decades of the same forum and format as we have today and be satisified that this is the best we can do? Is this the same picture we are going to see in the next decade or two with only a few technical achievements to show for our efforts? Why do we use the phrase political science with no desire to approach the stated problems with no skills? Can we get motivated to advance our skill-sets to draw from several effective story-telling examples to elevate the citizen and draw them to be involved in our local democracy?
Why would we cast the net for board and committee volunteers and then be surprised at the qualifications fo the applicants? Why wouldn’t a threshold requirement be the number of meetings they have attended in the past year and what they learned from those forums?
My first council meeting in 1973 looked as identical and as ugly as the ones I see in 2016. The common thread is the regiment and sterility of Robert’s Rules of Order. A good student can glean some community and governmental knowledge if they work hard at it. But most forums are without a learning environment attitude and ingredients. Moreover, if the players want to participate in a charade where you see voting and a few good questions sprinkled amongst stoic elected officials who don’t know, don’t care and are there mostly to protect their special interests, then all we have to do is keep having meetings erroneously labeled as transparency.
I would like to see a Teaching Government forum with intentional instructors. LFM