In the first part of this guest opinion piece, I reviewed some of the things I’d learned in nearly three decades of working in public sector administration. These included:
1. Public policy bodies do listen to you, but they often come to different conclusions.
2. Policy-making bodies have to make their decisions with the interests in mind of those who aren’t paying attention.
3. Being loud and obnoxious in public policy debates doesn’t make you right; it only makes you loud and obnoxious.
Here are a few more key things I learned over the years.
4. In addition to considering what the people in front of them want right now, policy-makers need to think in terms of how people will look back on what we do in 15 or 20 years.
This is a tough one for administrators and policy-makers, because when there’s a room full of unhappy people in front of you, the natural tendency is to think, “What do I have to do to make these people happy?” Sometimes, though (often times, actually), it’s more important to let people be unhappy today so that the people sitting in those seats 15 years from now will look back and say, “that was a great decision they made back then.” I never wanted to do anything that would result in people looking back on a decision in 15 or 20 years and asking, “what on Earth were they thinking?”
5. The fact that someone missed the public input process doesn’t mean the board or council didn’t take public input, and it’s not a sufficient reason for re-opening the process.
There were few things more frustrating to me (and I think to public officials generally) than the citizen who shows up after the vote has been taken and insists that the decision be scrapped and the process reopened because they missed their opportunity to participate the first time around.
Participatory democracy is hard work. It requires that those who wish to participate actually pay attention to what democratic institutions are doing before those institutions act. For its part, Ashland goes far beyond what nearly any other local government in Oregon does as far as providing information and providing opportunities for participation. But neither the city nor any other government entity is going door to door to make sure each citizen knows what’s going on and to ask for input.
Of course, every citizen has a constitutional right to challenge government decisions. That right, however, does not and should not entail an expectation that policy-making bodies will reopen a public process to accommodate those who missed it just because they missed it.
6. There are no “right” answers. There is an answer. The answer is whatever the governing body decides the answer is, arrived at via whatever process the governing body chooses to use.
This is probably the single most important thing I learned in my years in public service and the hardest one for the public to accept. Public policy-making inherently involves looking at a range of competing alternatives, any one of which could be right, depending on a wide variety of factors. In fact, the answer to virtually every public policy question is “it depends.” It depends on the circumstances. It depends on how the policy-makers view it. It depends on whether it’s administratively feasible and technically possible. The list of “it depends” factors is pretty much endless.
The challenge for policy-making bodies is that sooner or later, they have to vote; they have to make a decision and move on (hopefully considering the interests of those who didn’t attend the public input session and with an eye toward how people will view that decision in 15 or 20 years). The answer arising from that vote is the one that counts, regardless of whether someone might apply a “right” or “wrong” value judgment to it.
— Dave Kanner served as city administrator of Ashland from 2012 through 2016.