Thursday, April 18, 2024

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Public engagement? Yeah, right

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One of the most sure-fire ways to know that government consultants and bureaucrats are trying to pull one over on the taxpaying public is when the term “public engagement” is bandied about.

This is a pet term, preferred by the bureaucratic/consultant class, to illustrate what they claim is the broad, widespread input that they have gotten from the affected public for the recommendations they are making.

Such input is always claimed to be solicited in the course of various studies conducted for local governments – almost always involving thousands of dollars to a consulting firm – for any of a host of government policies or issues.

Massive future land-use studies, recreation plans, and traffic studies are some of the most frequent areas where “citizen input” is allegedly sought. (We’ll deal with whether all input is equally sought or not in a moment.)

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We’ve noticed that there is almost always an inverse relationship  between the amount of bragging and citing of the lengths the government and its consultants went to in order to have “public engagement” and whether people in a particular jurisdiction actually participated.

Our compliments to Mebane councilman Jonathan White who earlier this month had the temerity to follow the statistics used in one such braggadocio presentation and call out the very low participation levels that formed the basis for one study’s findings and recommendations as presented to the city of Mebane.

White made his observation when a Bicycle and Pedestrian Transportation plan was presented to Mebane’s city council on February 5.

The city’s development director Ashley Ownbey prefaced her introduction of the consultant by saying that there had been “a lot of engagement.”

And, right on cue, the consultant went on to expound on what was described in glowing terms as the incredible efforts made to get citizen input on the various issues being studied – and/or the results being recommended as a result of the study.

We would always urge council members, but most especially the general public, to beware any time these “studies” are being considered – and even more so when the “findings” are presented and “accepted,” or ratified, by the public body.

What can seem like a harmless study – even if an unnecessary and extravagant waste of precious municipal revenue – becomes far less harmless when the study and its recommendations become the pretext for a whole, wide range of new government regulation, new policies, or those ever-amorphous “goals.”

What is often portrayed as general, broad “recommendations” somehow become as sacrosanct and ironclad as though Moses descended Mount Sinai with the consultant’s recommendations in tow along with the Ten Commandments.

Inevitably, city officials claim, during the development phase, that these are general “guidance” for broad, future planning purposes.  But, somehow, these guidelines become very restrictive and binding as soon as they’re adopted.

This is especially true in the case of so-called “land use” plans, which often signal proposed, anticipated, or desired changes in future zoning classifications.  But, almost always, these are done without notifying individual property owners that such changes are being contemplated for their property. While that’s not the focus with this specific study in Mebane, there are dangers nonetheless.

So, let’s start at the very beginning, which is where the trouble for average taxpayers and members of the general public begins.

Now, Mebane is a city whose population is estimated to be about 19,000.

The consulting firm was pleased with itself that it sent postcards to 7,000 families or households – of which, it got back a grand total of 311 surveys.

The government and consultant may delight with much hoopla and ballyhooing over 311 completed surveys (woo-hoo).  But putting that in a bit more context, the response amounts to less than 5 percent (4.44 percent, to be precise) of the recipients of the mailing and perhaps an even more miniscule proportion of Mebane’s population as a whole.

While there is also talk of public meetings and focus groups, those included about 90 people.

Now whether those 90 are in addition to the 311, or part of it, no one seems to be able to say.  In fact, no one can even assure us that the 90 people who attended various meetings were, in fact, 90 different people or whether there is some double or triple counting of the same, predictable participants at each of several events/locations.

Based on our observation of many cases over many years, that’s the way these focus groups typically go.  A small, but vocal, number of residents attend the meetings, participate in surveys, make their own recommendations – and then the whole city (in this case of 19,000 Mebane residents) has to live with the results.

We’re also not at all sure that all input is equally sought, appreciated, or received.  For instance, those residents who object to a particular direction that a study’s conclusions or recommendations might be going are typically shunted aside.

Or, we’ve seen instances when citizens who recognize that their point of view  is being ignored or disfavored at these “focus groups,” etc., often just stop coming.

In fact, those who don’t even think the topic is worth their participation have, to some degree, already expressed a majority opinion about the value of the study: i.e., not worth much.

The thrust of these studies is always in one direction: more programs or projects, more spending, more bureaucracy to oversee them.

It’s much like former President Ronald Reagan said, “The closest thing to eternal life on earth is a Government Program.”

No one seems to ask for a study on how to consolidate, eliminate, or even reduce the number of programs, or the expenses of local government.

Now we’re not meaning to harp on the company that did this study in particular, or the topical focus of this study on its own (biking and transportation within the city of Mebane).  These fallacies are typical and prominent in each study of this kind done for governments across the county, state, and nation.

Burlington’s city council, for instance, got the same dog-and-pony show from a different consultant earlier this year about its recreation master plan.  An even smaller proportion of the much larger city’s residents (419) responded to that consultant’s survey, which was, again, used as the basis for a whole array of recommendations for future parks and recreation programs and projects.

If elected officials approach the results with an understanding about the serious shortcomings of such studies – and the very limited amount of so-called “input” – we don’t mind too much if they continue to waste money year after year in having them done; and, of course, as with this one, having multiple variations of the same studies done repeatedly.  This newest version of the bike and ped plan in Mebane, for instance, is an “update” of an earlier study from 2015. And towns and cities regularly do new land use plans every decade or so.

But citizens generally need to be on the alert when they hear of such studies being planned, organized, or conducted. And they should be all the more aware and alert when the findings, recommendations, or goals are announced, especially (as in this case) when the pool of respondents is so very low.

We have grave concerns when municipal policy decisions are made based on the very limited input of a small, self-selected group of people (often with their own, pet agendas), rather than with the citizenry as a whole.

We also object more strenuously when it appears – as it so often does – that a study is intended, or will be used, to manage, direct, manipulate, or, in essence, circumvent elected leaders. 

The individual city council members are the ultimate representatives of the entire citizenry.

They should respond to the desire of their constituents as a whole, not just the few hundred who filled out a questionnaire or a few dozen who may have attended one or more focus group meetings.

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