What is the Speed of Citizen Involvement?

October 31, 2009

Since I first got involved in my neighborhood association in the mid-’90s, the speed of communications related to citizen involvement has changed quite a bit, and we now have a range of ‘velocities’:

  1. The speed of the neighborhood newsletter – Monthly, often with long lead times. For example, there was some challenge getting this month’s Portland Plan workshops into neighborhood newsletters.
  2. The speed of e-mail – Staff often sends notice of meetings to interested parties by e-mail, but still has to notify a few people who have not embraced computers by postal mail.
  3. The speed of Twitter (or an RSS feed) – Effectively instantaneous. I was  a little chagrined to learn that an exchange I had with Mayor Adams during the hearing on the Climate Action Plan had been Tweeted and Re-tweeted! (No, believe it or not, I don’t tweet – at least not yet.)

I caused a little bit of a stir with some activists a week or so ago when I posted topics for an upcoming meeting. I wasn’t posting anything that wasn’t already online on the bureau site, but it was buried deep inside Portland Online in a PDF file, while it was much more prominent here. Activists were griping that I was ‘breaking’ the news here and they hadn’t been notified by staff even though that had requested to be on the interested parties list. In fact the staff e-mail notice (and postal mail notice to a few people) went out that week, so the difference in ‘velocity’ is really the only thing that created the stir.

My question, readers, is how do we manage citizen involvement effectively for City planning efforts when we have this wide range of velocities for communication? How do we use each medium to its maximum benefit without disenfranchising some people?

I’m looking forward to your thoughts.



  1. The speed at which the information goes OUT to citizens isn’t the only relevant factor. If the neighborhood or other nonprofit group wants to make an official comment on a issue, the by-laws of the organization usually requires that the issue be discussed and voted on at a meeting. And most of these groups meet monthly, or even less often than that. This can limit true citizen engagement more than how fast they get the information in the first place.

  2. Linda, that’s a great point and one we ran into on the Streetcar System Plan (one of the reasons the process took at least six months longer than planned).

    Can we structure processes such that Neighborhood Associations clearly have time to weigh in on the final product, and use faster cycles with input from individuals or smaller groups for phases of the project?

    Or can Associations evolve to use electronic communication to make some decisions more quickly?

  3. One of the challenges of NAs is that while the City regards and funds them to act as the interface between City and citizens,you have folks within the NA who have varying levels of skill and desire to connect with all communities within their boundary. There are also other communities who can’t/won’t engage,or are unaware of the NAs structure and role. In short, while communication is so vital and important, the volunteers on NAs have varying levels of expertise and tech saavy to insure the bulk of their community is being informed. Add to it the fact that a large part of the community is really not interested in most of the information being passed along. In my neighborhood, we reach at best perhaps 10% of its residents.
    This is a recurring topic in my NAs board meetings. We still haven’t figured the way to keep everyone informed and how to retain the cadre of folks to do the work.

  4. The tools to inform and engage people on a shorter timeframe than a monthly meeting have existed since telephones became commonplace. Phone banking and door-to-door canvassing may seem too pushy for a neighborhood association, but they (along with newer tools like email, Facebook groups, and Twitter) can be an effective way to talk to a lot of people in a short amount of time.

    Off the top of my head, I can think of two initiatives that could make a huge difference in shortening the feedback cycle for public decision making:

    1. Make information from the city as accessible and up-to-date as possible. Chris, your comment about the “buried PDF” is totally apropos here — we need a steady stream of readily-consumable data coming out of City Hall, not documents put online simply to satisfy public records requirements. For an example of how to de-balkanize event data, look at the Calagator project on http://calagator.org/ — a bunch of local techies built, in a few months of volunteer time, an “event aggregator” which pulls information from dozens of input sites to build a single coherent view into the goings-on of the Portland tech community. City government can and should do even better.

    2. Neighborhood associations should be much more aggressive in engaging their communities. Issue-driven organizations (ex.: BTA, BRO, Portland Business Alliance) work tirelessly to instill a sense of urgency in their members, but most neighborhood associations seem content with a much more passive approach. “Enouraging input” is very different from making a call to action, and neighborhood groups need to do more of the latter if they want to keep up with the increasing speed of government.

    I think that this blog is an excellent grassroots effort at tackling #1 (and hope to explore similar ideas as I begin my tenure on the Citizen Campaign Commission next month), but I honestly don’t know where to start with #2. It seems like some catalyst may be necessary to really push neighborhood associations into the 21st century with regards to their orgnizational and communications strategies.

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