Increase Citizen Input

In Chapel Hill we have a representative form of government that works better than any place I've lived. When I first got here I joined a citizen committee on Technology. I was amazed at how directly involved I could be. But the experience of being on that board also opened my eyes to the many flaws in this process. Yet I still yearn for more citizen input in our Town.

The recent citizen outcry against a Council vote on health care is a excellent example of what happens if you don't have enough community input BEFORE a council vote. This bit from The Chapel Hill News describes the problem well,

Council member Bill Thorpe asked for a review of what local governments offer departing members last spring. He says if he knew then how some people would react, he never would have asked.

Council Members and Mayors MUST know what citizens are thinking and how people will react BEFORE they ask. Simple right? Well actually it isn't. There are about 50,000 people in Chapel Hill. Its damn hard to know what they are all thinking. Multiply that by the hundreds of issues. Then factor in the politics both internal and external then you'll begin to grok this mess. Really... I can't imagine what each part time Council member has to wrap their head around.

What we need is a wholesale reexamination of how citizens participate. So we can help process all the information and assist our representatives make informed votes. Its not enough to just let your voice be heard. We must spend more time on it. A more diverse group of people have to get involved. Petitions, committees, blog posts/comments, letters to the editor, emails to council members, and phone calls are not enough. There have to be new ways for citizens to participate.

I'd like to see the Town of Chapel Hill conduct a brainstorming session. It'll be for all citizens to discover new ways for Mayor, Council, Manager and Staff to listen to them. This is something very different than a community forum in Town Hall. For starters it needs to be in a large open room where everyone is on the same level. Then it must be facilitated in a style called Open Space Technology. Its a way to gather group thoughts and ideas in a safe and fair way.

Chapel Hill has the right participatory government values. Now we need to discover new methods to implement them.



I like your idea very much and I think it could lead to a much better, more participatory form of government in Chapel Hill. But I'm also very skeptical. It amazes me how few people choose to participate in the relatively participatory government we have now. Many of our Town advisory boards have to actively seek members to serve although the time involvement is only 5-10 hours per month at the most. Our Council meetings are usually lucky to have 30 or so people in the audience and that number usually dwindles to a few even an hour or so before adjournment. Even the recent issue which has generated so much attention and generated 500+ signatures on a petition, represents only about 1% of the citizens by your calculation.

It seems like CH citizens are, for the most part, too busy to get involved on any sort of a regular basis and expect that their elected representatives will handle that for them. Perhaps the recent events will result in a desire for more participation, and I would welcome that, but I remain somewhat skeptical for the moment.

I agree with your point about the advisory boards. In fact, I am hoping to be appointed to either the the Human Services Advisory Board or the Public Housing Advisory Board at Wednesday's Council meeting. Citizen involvement is the key. Advisory board participation may not be for everyone but we must all work to find those creative ways for participation. Even as an advisory board member, I feel it is important to reach out and solicit citizen input to the board itself and then channel that input to the Council. Thus, just participating on an advisory board isn't enough if we don't reach out and pull in citizen input.

We can find new ways for people to participate when they have the time. The hard part in my mind is convincing government to try really new things. (It took a decade to get local governments to build websites.) Look what happened when the new thing called the Internet was used for campaigns. Not only did it raise money it got people involved. The same thing can be done for Chapel Hill local government.

How much reward do government and elected officials get for trying really new things?  What do they gain by listening?

To the elected official listening is a code word for "you didn't do/vote what I want." Big Issue? Big contention? Big heat? The losing end of the vote will say, "You didn't listen to us." No matter that you've had a gazillion hearings, gazillion reports, gazillion hours of listening to sturm und drung.

Nowhere is this more prevalent than Orange County and Chapel Hill.

Same for government. Deny a citizen what he/she wants, say no to a citizen, and you haven't listened.

Ah democracy.........messy, aggravating, wonderful.

As you probably know, Brian, it was the hope of the Technology Committee (RIP) that the internet could become a new and powerful participation vehicle for our local elected officials.  Did our elected officials want more participation and citizen involvement?

".........go stranger to the Spartans tell, that here obedient to their laws we fell." 


Roscoe, I have been trying for a while now to demonstrate that there is a difference between "listening to you" and "doing what you say."

Just because an elected board does not do what you ask, that does not mena we failed to listen to what you had to say.  [I realize that you, Roscoe, are well aware of this.]  Let me give a specific example: Someone came to the Board of Aldermen the other night to express her opinion that the School Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance has been a disastrous failure and that we should immediately revisit it.

The BOA had a good discussion about SAPFO and about our growth issues generally.  We talked about the need to emphasize commercial, rather than residential growth.  We discussed amongst ourselves, and to some extent with the speaker, the short-comings of SAPFO and what it can or cannot be expected to accomplish.  She left the meeting reasonably satisfied by the conversation (or so it appeared to me) - even though the BOA did not decide to do what she had come to ask.

I think we can be understood to be listening, even when we are not doing what is being asked.  But of course the desire to listen has go to be there . . .


Or perhaps a good example of a badly run committee. Good ideas generated but they sank under poor leadership and an inability of the techies to become effective policy advisors.

The death of that committee was merciful but not swift enough.

Next time, Council please draw a very discrete charge so that whatever committee is brought back will be less prone to wandering and so to dominating but ineffective leadership.


Two or three comments on Advisory Board membership, all based on Carrboro experience:  

1)  Application doesn't automatically mean you're in, even though most Advisory Boards have vacancies.  You can apply and wait for quite a long time before you're sworn in. 

2)  You promise (swear) to attend meetings.  This keeps you on task and in tune with this or that Advisory Board's activities and mission.  its effectiveness depends on you as one of eight or nine members.  This is either a really good way or a really frustrating way to get your voice heard in the community.  

3) Advisory Board membership is the best way to influence the Council because here you're going through proper channels.  But the Council has to acknowledge and accept your advice.  They might have requested it directly, but more often it's staff that sets your agenda.   

This all sounds discouraging, but it's not meant to be.  I think my message is this:  You can either get involved or make trouble.   



Great points, Catherine. I know that the Town of Chapel Hill lists on the websites the vacancies and term dates of current board members so that folks like me know what is and what is not available. The application also allows citizens to prioritize the boards on which they would like to serve.

One point I made in another post is that my personal angle is that the board should not be a place for only my voice to be heard, but also to share the voices of others who may not be able to participate directly. I think this broadens the opportunity for participation.

I've had a bit of success in navigating other bureaucracies so I hope some lessons learned from those successes and challenges will enable me to be a productive member of the boards.

Thank you for your comments. I look forward to more discussion on these topics.

One more comment, Carrboro-based:  Whenever our citizens whine about lack of input, my dander goes up.  Our mayor and board of aldermen practically beg for input, and with one exception they are all very responsive -- to the point where I sometimes hesitate to bother them! 

One route we've not explored yet in this thread is individual contact.  If a citizen wants to plant a seed or address any council member's pet issue, you can go to that one person.  It's not necessary to make a big splash.  Many citizens, for example, have terrible fear of public speaking.  They can make their opinions known quietly but forcefully by making one friend on the council.  It also helps to cultivate staff alliances.  Staff has lots of clout.  

by asking the elected officials if they want increased input, first off. If they really do want to participate more with the public, they should have a good introduction to technology. I have sent off emails to a number of local officials over the years. Someone like Ed Harrison has always written me back, usually within a day, either with an answer/explanation/or promise to look into the problem. Mark Chilton is on Twitter now, if I had a question about Carrboro I might tweet him up about it (assuming he would answer).

There are lots of easy tech upgrades that could improve citizen input. For instance, video of the meetings should be more readily available and scannable. For instance, mouse over the "dots" on the timeline of this video. You can jump ahead to the part that interests you. I'm now listening to a really boring introduction to a Chapel Hill Public Hearing that I would like to get through. There, oops, I jumped too far, now Mayor Foy is telling someone off. Let me go back...okay, waiting, waiting, waiting....alright, let me move ahead just a little...doh! Missed it, back it up....(Yes, I'm really doing this BTW)...waiting, waiting, waiting......Ah, Calling to Order.

See, that is just a small tech fix that would make keeping up with government easier. If I have a question about parks I know who to contact, but often times people ask me questions about Southern Community Park or the Culbreth to FPG path because they have no idea who to contact. It's easy enough to find out, so why don't they? How do you get the public more interested. Maybe that is the more basic problem, as pointed out by several people in the thread.


One man with courage makes a majority.

- Andrew Jackson


There's lots of modern web tech out there that could facilitate communication . Right now the Town of Chapel Hill is redoing their website. See Improving the Town of Chapel Hill Website. Your emails and phone calls to the Manager and Council could help influence the process.

But the facts are many Town staff and elected officials are not ready to be part of the new web conversation. They lack basic web skills. Such as using sites like this one, establishing a professional identity online, using IM, using CMS tools, etc.

How far can they get behind before our democracy is seriously effected? I say it is already. When will it be so obvious that Manager & Town HR starts requiring a higher level of technical competency? Don't get me wrong. I have great sympathy and respect for folks who are trying to catch up with the modern web. Its why I spend a lot of time teaching skills. But someone has to say this. Is this one of the Manager's priorities? Would love to read Rodgers comments on this... here on OP.

The present Town website uses a Content Management System. How many staff know how to use it? How many use it on a regular basis? Will there be training after the Town gets its new website CMS?

I was listening to JaffeJuice, which is a podcast by Joseph Jaffe, the President of crayon, and heard something really interesting that I thought could apply here. He was talking about Virgin Airlines and said that they approached the airline industry as if "we're a new player in the space and we're going to do things our way, we're going to do things as if the technology space doesn't exist." He talked about how Richard Branson didn't plan his next move based on what other people were doing, but seemed to deal with his brands in his own way. Not using "disruption" to look at the current norms and try to rearrange them, but to do somethign completely different.


I wonder if Chapel Hill or maybe Carrboro isn't the place for something along these lines in small town government? Something completely different.

One man with courage makes a majority.

- Andrew Jackson

How to integrate the use of technology into some of these decidedly non-tech type jobs is the key.   Until a garbage man or bus driver  has to use the computer in a significant manner to  fulfill his job duties, you probably won't see him develop significant technology skills.    We can teach all we want. It's the practice that builds skills.    Imagine if your entire day at work was something else besides using a computer?  Imagine  you vacuumed all day, or cooked, or drove a bus, or mowed grass.    How strong do you think your technology skills would be if you had to learn and develop skills totally away from work? 

Anonymous says that due to poor leadership, the Technology Committee did not become effective policy advisers. Well, the Town and Council did not want policy advisers when they formed the TC, they wanted technical advice for staff in automating town offices and improving the Town's website. The TC thought there were important policy implications and drafted several long and short range plans for the Town that not only spelled out technology directions but also policy directions and values. It's a cheap shot, Anonymous, to imply that committee leadership is responsible for Council decisions. Among others, the demise of TC was both due to personalities and input fear.

The Council deals with stacks of paper for each meeting and work session. They contain information and input from staff, lawyer, applicants and citizens. The hotter the issue the higher the stack. There are telephone calls, hearings, presentations, harangues, emails, letters, meetings and committee meetings. Hot issue? Multiply the above times the Nth power. You're a Council member, do you want more input? Aaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhh!!!! No.  Do you want more tech-neat, interactive, automated, interdependent, community-wide, endlessly followup, real time..............input? Urrrrrrrrp. No.

Of course everyone can site the health insurance issue (may it rest in peace, praise God) as an ultimate case of needing input. All of us are saying, "Wow, I could have told them that was a lit bomb." Makes you feel good, "shees, what a stupid policy trick."

Input:  heat and smoke, any light? Sure, but are you going to get them Council members online or in vast meeting rooms to: try-it-out, interact, consider alternatives, explore existential implications, hone snipets and gotchas?  Nope. 

Thanks, Roscoe for making my point clearer. Not about Council or about Town staff, but about how the Tech Committee was unable to provide the functions requested and as a result never built trust and relationships among themselves and with Council and Staff, but instead launched into unrealistic mega issues that woud not produce results. I blame the leadership, perhaps you?

There are however many effective committees in Town. These committees enjoy trust and help create effective and implementable policies. Council, Staff and those committees don't have the problems that the Tech Committe had.

I rest my case.

Well....I wasn't a leader. The TC was not supposed to provide functions, requested or otherwise....don't remember any mega issues you accuse us of launching. We did provide staff with an efficient and successful path to server technology and GIS implementation, given the resources provided.

However, we digress. The issue is, given all they have to do, read and listen to, do elected officials want more input from citizens and can technology help? With an effective tech committee would the CH Council buy into more input on issues or concerns from a online citizenry eager to interact, real time armed, answer starved? All that is needed is the right interactive system (ok, and maybe committee leader)? I don't think so.

Mark and I have talked about listening - up the chain of messages here. The desire to really listen must be there, even if you're anonymous.

Roscoe, I think you are right to the extent that your point is that our local elected officials are mostly not looking for additions to their workloads.  However, I guess I could imagine ways in which better communication might NOT be more work.  I can also imagine ways in which more communication would be more work.

Specifically, I am periodically contacted by a resident who has an idea that is important to that resident.  For example, one person has asked me to pursue banning plastic grocery bags (such as has been done in San Francisco).  This person feels strongly that such bags are injurious to the environment, generally unnecessary and filling up our landfill.  She's right about all of those things. 

However, she is not aware that NC law casts some serious doubt on whether we could pass such a rule.  She has also not necessarily considered that the City of San Francisco is capable of having a much bigger impact on the overall issue than the humble Town of Carrboro.  And perhaps most importantly, she is (understandably and perhaps mercifully) unaware that we are in the midst of an extensive solid waste reduction and recycling planning process that is looking at this same issue among many others.

So I have to explain all of that to her and she is still unsatisfied with what she perceives to be my lack of interest in solid waste issues.  Never mind I have been working on those sorts of issues in our community for coming up on 20 years now.  Ugh.  That type of communication (whether by new technology or old) can be frustrating for both communicants.

On the other hand, making it easy for me to point her to (or for her to find by herself) a copy of the draft Solid Waste Management Plan:

is helpful.  And I can imagine that there might be ways of making that easier and still more helpful by using better communication.  And hopefully the draft Plan can help her to see the issue in a larger context.  Also perhaps I can connect her with an application to become a member of the committee which is working on the draft plan:

All of that is a lot harder to communicate by telephone (which happens to be the way that she contacted me about the issue) than by email.  And perhaps we could create governmental websites in such a way that she could have found all of that information without contacting me at all.  All that said, I was happy to talk to her and people should always feel free to call me about issues of concern (but email is even better).

Finally, I would just like to add that conceivably we all might be able to create more (and better) things like this:

which allows visitors to the Carrboro town website to request information or services regarding a wide range of matters related to town government without having to know much about the way that town government is structured (ie the requester does not need to know who to call).  That sort of communciation seems like it would be particularly helpful to the public and allow for a quicker and more accurate response from the town.  That said, I have never used the system, so I would be interested to hear (positive or negative) reports about how well that system works (or not) - especially by email to .


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