I was recently invited to speak to a group of citizens at Mountain Meadows who wanted me to address the question, “How can we get the City Council to listen to us?”
Indeed, that’s a question many citizens no doubt have. I answered it by sharing with this Mountain Meadows group some of the key lessons and observations I gleaned from nearly 30 years of working in public administration. I don’t claim to be the world’s foremost expert on the subject, but I think some of these observations are worth sharing with the community at large.
Here we go:
1. The council (or board or Legislature or any policy-making body) does listen, and it did listen to you. It just came to a different conclusion.
The plea to “listen to the people,” almost always means “listen to me and my friends.” This is a dynamic that has been exacerbated by social media, where someone can get 10 or 12 people to agree with them on Facebook and mistakenly assume they represent a majority opinion of some sort.
The only way to truly “listen to the people” would be to submit every single public policy issue to a popular vote and require every registered voter to vote on each and every one of them. That’s not only not going to happen, it would be a perversion of the basic principles of representative democracy upon which America is founded.
Public input is certainly an element that must be considered in policy-making, but it cannot and should not be the only consideration. Boards and councils almost always have more information about and a better understanding of the issues they must consider than the public at large does. The fact that a policy-making body comes to a conclusion that some people disagree with doesn’t mean the policy makers didn’t listen, it means they properly considered a lot of other information in coming to a conclusion.
2. As a corollary to the above, most elected policy-makers (at least at the local level) understand that on most (if not nearly all) issues, a majority of constituents have no strong opinion about those issues or they hold an opinion based only on a surface understanding. This is true even in Ashland, with its reputation for citizen engagement and activism.
Most people simply don’t have the time or inclination to dig into and understand every public policy issue that comes forward. Policy-makers typically accept that they must make decisions that are in the best interest of those who aren’t paying attention and aren’t coming to the meetings because they’re affected by those decisions just as much as the people who pack the meeting rooms. Blindly acquiescing to the wishes of those who testify at meetings amounts to tyranny by the minority. It’s difficult but necessary to consider those voices but not give too much weight to them and to make decisions that are in the best interest of the people who aren’t there.
3. It almost goes without saying, but if you want to be heard by policy-makers, be polite, factual and appreciative of how difficult their job is. I never ceased to be amazed by the people who thought being loud and obnoxious in public policy debates actually bolstered their case. I’ve been stunned at every stop in my career by the people who show up at board or council meetings who yell, hurl insults, threaten and spew anger. That’s a sure-fire way to not be heard.
Think of it this way: If a stranger came up to you on the street and began yelling at, insulting and threatening you, would you think, “Hmmm, I need to listen to this person and figure out how I can help them?” No! You would think, “Whoa! I need to get away from this person as quickly as possible.” That same dynamic applies in public policy making. The loud and obnoxious people become the ones the policy-makers want to get away from.
In Part 2: More observations from my three decades in public administration.
— Dave Kanner served as city administrator of Ashland from 2012 through 2016.