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By Douglas Moran

Disengaged "Engagement"

Uploaded: Mar 14, 2015

This proposal was written by a bureaucrat who opposes it. That was my reaction to a proposal for "Strengthening City Engagement with Neighborhoods" on the March 16 Council agenda, and attributed to four Council members. I had hoped that my previous blog entry on neighborhood associations would have provoked others to make this observation.

My first reaction was that the proposal lacked a meaningful statement of the problems to be addressed and that the statement of the goals was so abstract and generic as to be meaningless. There is one exception?"adding much more face-to-face contact"?but it is not supported by the recommended actions: While the proposed "annual town hall-style meetings" may mean that for the members of City Staff involved, the same cannot be said when viewed from the residents' perspective.(foot#1)

"So," I asked myself "who were the neighborhood leaders consulted in the formulation of this proposal?" I did a quick check with those I figured to have been leading choices and found that none of them had been?not only had they not been part of the formulation of the proposal, but they hadn't even be asked for feedback on the draft. It bodes ill when a proposal on engagement fails in the most trivial and obvious form of engagement.

Note: Before you say that I am reading too much into how this proposal is presented, recognize that it was generated by people highly experienced in these matters.

Recommendation 1 of the proposal involves two of the basic tactics of a bureaucracy intent on doing nothing. The first tactic is to have trivial actions so that they can report false achievements. In this case, it is adding a link on an existing web page on the City's website to one or more existing web pages that the City already knows of. (foot#2) The second time-honored tactic is to create a prerequisite that can be "an infinite time sink" which not only bogs down and exhausts the participants, but can serve as an excuse for not making meaningful progress on other parts of a proposal. One favorite is coming up with definitions, terminology, standards? where there are so many dissimilar situations that it is an exercise in futility.(foot#3) (foot#4) Based on my experience, this pseudo-attempt to come up with standards will drag out for several years before expiring. The stronger neighborhood associations will have walked away, recognizing that the cost of jumping through the hoops far exceeds the benefits. And for lesser neighborhood associations, the "standards" will likely be prohibitive.

Recommendation 2 addresses a real problem: Providing meeting spaces for neighborhood activities that are currently prohibitively expensive and complex to arrange. But the recommendation is not about actually doing this. It isn't even about producing procedures for doing this. It is to "explore guidelines". And then to further impede anything useful happening, this is to be restricted to "recognized" neighborhood associations, likely making this moot.

Recommendation 3 reveals the bureaucratic mindset: "Provide small, one-time start-up grants for neighborhood associations to be used to attend the United Neighborhoods of Santa Clara County?s Annual Conference and toward neighborhood association initiation activities." When I was in the leadership of Palo Alto Neighborhoods (PAN), we decided against participating in United Neighborhoods of Santa Clara County because the benefits to us were minimal, and certainly not worth the costs. However, an appetite for more meetings is the hallmark of a true bureaucrat, and conventions are a treat.

Recommendation 4 could be read as "Make the neighborhood associations more effective in supporting City Hall." For several years, "Civic engagement (for the common good)" was a Council priority, with negligible effect. This was highly contentious because there were two starkly different interpretations of what this phrase meant. One interpretation involved greater involvement by residents in decision-making, and was led by Palo Alto Neighborhoods, and were the people that are now commonly referred to as "Residentialists". The opposing interpretation was this was to have ordinary residents volunteer to help implement decisions (grunt work) already reached by the political elite, and?surprise, surprise?was pushed by "The Establishment".

Recommendation 5?"Each neighborhood association will be encouraged to identify a designated "Communications Officer" as information liaison with the City"?represents a multitude of sins. First, it is one of those trivially accomplished pseudo-accomplishments that I mentioned above. Second, it ignores how many of the neighborhood associations actually operate, imposing a bureaucratic notion of how a proper organization should function. Third, it seems to extend the problem of Recommendation 4: Assuming that communication is from City Hall down to the residents.

Recommendation 6 about "town hall-style meetings" I have already addressed.

Recommendation 7?an Ombudsperson?seems nice until you think about the history and pattern of Ombudspersons. The ones that take the position seriously often quit in frustration at their impotence, not uncommonly within a year or two. Others are Public Relations people who see their job not as solving problems, but deflecting them. Furthermore, this represents a very bureaucratic attitude that input from residents needs to go through proper channels, and that the proper person to deal with the public is someone who specialized in PR, not someone who is responsible for dealing with problems.

Back in the day when I was on the Barron Park Association (BPA) Board and was managing the email lists and co-webmaster, I had back-channels to some staff in Public Works. There were documents, especially maps, that they couldn't get posted to the City's website, either in a timely manner or at all, so they would email them to me and I would post them on the BPA website and email out an announcement of their availability. And during major construction projects, such as replacing water and sewer lines, they would give me daily updates on the schedule of which streets would be obstructed so that I could pass it on. This benefited both residents and the City: Residents so they could avoid those area, and the City because the contractors had to deal with less traffic disrupting their work. Although these staff members recommended this to their co-workers, many refused to avail themselves of the resource.

Summary: Those are the recommendations for this major priority for the year. So my question is: Is there any there there? (paraphrasing Gertrude Stein about Oakland)

---- Footnotes ----
1. Recommendation 6 (of 7) is to "Hold annual town hall-style meetings?focused on different regions of Palo Alto." Reportedly, the current thinking is to have four such meetings a year. That number is not unreasonable given the amount of effort that would be needed to have effective meetings. However, there are more than four major regions in Palo Alto, so this would mean that each region would not have an annual meeting.
To give a sense of "regions": There are roughly 35-40 neighborhoods in Palo Alto?some tiny, some very large?and a degree of clumping is eminently practical, but not to the extent of having only four regions.

2. Palo Alto Neighborhoods (PAN)?the umbrella group of neighborhood associations?maintains this information on its site, and has for more than a decade. On the other hand, we have seen that reusing already compiled information is not trivial for City Hall: In an earlier attempt to list the neighborhood association in a graphic, there were repetitions, omissions and spelling errors.

3. In the tech industry there is an ironic saying "Everyone understand the importance of standards. Why else would they have so many of their very own."

4. The proposal talks of establishing "basic standards and requirements for governance" to have a "recognized neighborhood association". This is an example of widely varying circumstances. For example, College Terrace Residents Association has an election by the membership at an annual meeting. Barron Park Association (BPA) has elections of the Board by the Board. At first glance, this would seem to be bad governance. To the contrary. First, Barron Park has over 1300 households (the borders are fuzzy), and the annual meetings are attended by 50-100 residents, so the participation rate in an election would be miniscule. Second, and more importantly, the Board does not regard itself as a governing body, but as a coordinating committee: Major activities need to have at least one Board member among its leadership, whether an existing Board member takes on that responsibility, or the leader of the activity joins the Board. Since the primary duty of the president and other executive officers is to lead the coordinating committee, it is appropriate that they be elected by that committee. There was one instance many years ago when it was beneficial that the Board was not elected: One Board member was pushing to have the Board say that the BPA?not even just the Board?endorsed a political cause she supported. When told that such an action would require a poll of the membership, she said "It's a shame that we aren't elected because then we could do what we want." We saw that attitude on City Council after the 2013 Measure D election (Maybell upzoning) where multiple Council members (Berman, Klein, Kniss) used a similar argument to justify disregarding the implications of those results.

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