Engagement and representation that goes both ways
It’s cliché, but local politics is not a spectator sport. It needs bodies and minds to come together, leave their tribalism at the door, and enter uncertain roles with tensions certain to arise. A city council is a primary institution where that story unfolds and I believe it is a commissioner’s duty to ensure that all voices – not just the extroverted, the angry, or well-connected – are warmly encouraged to contribute towards positive change.
Traverse City is a great place because of a dedicated population of engaged citizens willing to take their turn representing. This is clear not just on the numerous official boards and committees, but in the non-profit world where thousands of hours a year are contributed to making this a great place to live. Still, when it comes to our decision-making processes, Traverse City can do better to recognize and include the diversity of opinions in the community. It is vital that the City recognize that there is a difference between, as Sherry Arnstein put it, “going through the empty ritual of participation and having the real power to affect the outcomes of a process.” *
Seeking other opinions
As a voter, I’ve always looked to leaders who balance a strong, informed voice with a large dose of humility. I look for leaders who are not only willing to be wrong, but actually seek out views not in their own circle of influence in order to alter their perspectives. With that type of leadership, public input changes from an obligation by rule to an authentic engagement process with an aim to empower community members.
This happens when a broad scope of perspectives are brought in early and often. When the champions are identified and empowered to run with ideas and encouraged to achieve small wins along the way. Making an early investment in the process to have more inclusive engagement can be messy, but results in better outcomes.
When public process is done well, relationships are established that are mutually beneficial. It is a practice for sure, but elected officials can help by not passively receiving public comment – counting the nays and yays of those who are able to make the meeting. Instead, public arenas need to be created where open discussion can occur to ensure a high degree of understanding of an issue by citizens, elected or appointed officials, and City staff. Today, technology can help us (something desperately in need of an upgrade in Traverse City), but it still comes down to a willingness and effort to slow down and create relationships. That’s the advantage to local government – it’s personal.
Communication as an antidote
Communication is the antidote to apathy and community gets better results when public process is not viewed as a chore to check off the list, but as needed engagement to clarify the values the community aspires to. The City has plenty of room to move beyond simply gathering opinions. It can move towards actually providing information, sharing planning tasks, and creating a partnership with individuals, groups, and community minded professionals to collaboratively reach a place of informed consent for decisions.
City leaders can start by building off current processes by asking the following questions before every major decision:
- Who is missing from this discussion?
- What are my own blinders?
- What information or perspective is needed?
- How can I better humanize the process?
(The public can help by asking that these type of questions be asked.)
Truly engaging the community in decision-making is important and is key to a strong Traverse City that will continue to grow and will continue to become more diverse. It’s not just important to plan for the changes, but it’s important to continually strive to have those plans more accurately and inclusively reflect the values, dreams, wisdom, and knowledge of the community.