It’s not Christmas

This isn’t really about Christmas. Bear with me while I think this through.

Imagine you are 8 years old. You can read and do some basic calculations. And it’s October 1.

Now imagine that the adults in your life hand you one of those big, glossy catalogs filled with toys, games and stuff, and ask you to create a wish list. This catalog has everything in it, from marbles and checkers to giant wooden swing sets with forts.

So you create that wish list.

What you put on the list may be a factor of your desires and your understanding of your family’s customs and situation (lots of small things, one giant thing, limited resources, significant disposable income, pampering children, making children work to earn entertainment, etc.). But it may not actually reflect what you receive in the end. Maybe you really want a pony, or a miniature electric car, or skydiving lessons – and those are things you don’t really expect to get. And since it’s only the first of October, you have to wait nearly 3 months before you find out what you will see on Christmas – during which time adults lie to you, hide the truth from you, misdirect you, and try to placate you – all in the name of that wonderful moment of surprise when you open your package(s).

Got that feeling?

Now, I want you to consider a different scenario.

You are 8, you can read and do some basic calculations. The adults in your life hand you a giant catalog of stuff – but you don’t want what is in that catalog. Perhaps it’s not appropriate for your age, or it’s for someone else (like a girl, or a boy). Maybe it’s filled with science toys, and you play sports; maybe it’s a catalog of baseball equipment, and you play soccer. It doesn’t matter why, but what it tells you, even if you cannot, at 8, say this is: ‘these people don’t know me, and don’t know what I would like. My Christmas is doomed.’ But no matter how much you lobby, how much you try to persuade, or how much you throw a temper tantrum, you aren’t given a different catalog. And you don’t know whether the adults in your life are lying to you, or whether you will be able to convince them that you want something else. Until you open those packages and find out, of course.

Now think about the public input process at the City.

The City, in its various guises, asks for your input on one idea after another. Sometimes the staff seems to welcome your involvement but other times it’s not so clear. Perhaps this is your experience:

You attend a meeting and the City rolls out its proposal. But it’s not clear when or whether the City will actually do any of the things they are proposing. It’s not certain that this plan, or that plan, or some plan not yet being discussed, or no plan at all will be implemented. All you can do is voice your preference(s), and wait and see. You ask questions, make suggestions, offer ideas and speak out in public. You meet with neighbors and friends to encourage one decision or another; one solution or another. And you wait for months or longer for some decisions to be made.


You attend a meeting and receive a glossy presentation about a potential change in the City (read this as: service change, infrastructure change, or change in use). You ask questions (why this and not that? Why now? What will this cost?) but aren’t satisfied with the answers. You don’t like the options offered. You offer alternatives, but don’t like the way your input is received. You rally your friends and neighbors and start an opposition movement against the change. You write letters, make posters, sing songs, hold picnics – whatever it takes to make certain the decision makers know that you oppose this change.

If you were to bet, which strategy would you bet is most effective in changing the outcome? I’d bet ‘neither and both’, because you – the resident – don’t really know what would have happened if you hadn’t taken the action you did. If you spent a lot of energy fighting some proposal, and that proposal fails, you can easily believe the only way to make your point to the City is to make a lot of angry noise. This tires you out, and never makes you feel good. If you ask polite questions, try to be involved, make suggestions and attend meetings, you still have no guarantee that any problems will be solved in the end, or that you will see positive changes that you can support.

From time to time, the City hands its citizens a giant catalog. Maybe they like what’s in it; maybe they don’t. Maybe they get angry, maybe they just get involved. Maybe they never open it.

Sometimes people become engaged, believe their concerns have been listened to, respected and have helped shape a plan or policy. Then we say the system works. Other times people become engaged, feel that their concerns are not listened to, don’t feel their issues are respected and – even though they help shape a plan or policy – they don’t feel satisfied by the process or the result. The system didn’t work.

And there’s the problem as I see it.

Maybe you got handed the big, glossy catalog that has just what you want in it – or almost has what you want, something that’s really close to a solution to some nagging concern you’ve had – but you have to wait maybe years before anything out of that catalog arrives in your neighborhood. Maybe you were given the glossy catalog that doesn’t contain anything you want, and you have to decide whether to go with this or that distasteful option, or demand a new catalog – a demand that’s just not met. But neither of those scenarios is the way it’s supposed to be. The City isn’t some big monolith, making decisions in a vacuum. And we – as residents – are supposed to engage and shape our future.

We aren’t 8 years old. It’s not Christmas.

If we are involved, we want to be involved like adults. We want to help design the catalog – we may even want to say we don’t want any ‘presents’ this year. And if there’s an idea we aren’t certain we like, we deserve to know why it’s a good idea – as if we were colleagues, working together to make our community stronger and better.

I’m open for suggestions on how to make this change.  Without straining any more metaphors, of course.

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2 Responses to It’s not Christmas

  1. John Floyd says:

    If public decision-making is this opaque, a problem exists. Might be a communication problem between elected officials and the public, might be a flaw in the way some decision process works, might be a problem of the people in government making decisions (e.g. arrogance, fear, emotional immaturity, overmatched vs the requirements of public office, etc), might be a problem in our political system, that elects but cannot remove people who are not constituted to respect – or even understand – the idea of self-government. In any case, when public decision making is opaque, it’s a good bet that someone among the decision makers has something to hide.

  2. sbriere says:

    As a community, we are often at cross purposes with ourselves. I recently attended a meeting where an opponent of a millage spoke against it because all the details weren’t fleshed out yet. I then went to a meeting with a resident – one who endorsed the earlier speaker’s point regarding the millage election – who wanted the Council to place on the ballot RIGHT NOW a question about building a train station.

    I contrasted these two viewpoints: “I don’t know what the millage would buy, I haven’t seen a final plan, I don’t know if I will like it when I do see it so I oppose the millage” and “There’s no plan, no firm location, no budget – but I want to vote it up or down” and asked how my neighbor could hold them both. I didn’t walk away satisfied from the conversation – and that’s because I was applying logic to what were essentially passionate arguments that didn’t stand up to a consistent scrutiny.

    I’ve also recently attended a meeting – held by the City, with a staff member acting as facilitator – that was a model of community engagement. The meeting presented information, including a timeline for decision-making. Staff members didn’t present a plan, only some various considerations. Staff fielded all the questions, answered each one in turn, took a second round of questions, noted all the questions and comments on paper, and committed to placing them on the City’s website. Everyone was treated as an adult who was there, performing a valued task of citizenship.

    If only there were more meetings like the one I went to, residents might feel more respected and less reactionary.

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