Conversations on Participatory Democracy
Innovative democratic professionals are encouraging greater participation in some of our most fundamental institutions, yet what they are doing is rarely the focus of political theory, social science research, or what politicians talk about when they are talking about renewing American democracy. The conversations in this series aim to shed light on new democratic practices taking shape and to find out more about the dynamic people involved.
Kimball Payne is the city manager of Lynchburg, Virginia, where public engagement has become a regular feature of local government. We talked recently about how constructive citizen involvement can be encouraged, how it can connect to more formal and technical decision-making, and how public engagement has redefined what it means to be a public administrator.
Albert Dzur: Public meetings come in different shapes and sizes. Some of them go nowhere while others can generate a really good conversation. How do you create productive meetings?
Kimball Payne: Sometimes I think it is hit or miss. Food seems to be key, though we do not generally provide it. We had a meeting at the library last Wednesday to talk about some plans for renovating our municipal stadium. We sent out announcements to the neighborhood and we had about half a dozen people there. Those who were there were engaged—they were neighbors of the stadium—but there were not many in attendance. Then last night we had a meeting for the business community—we do an annual report for them—and we had 150 people there. We had food and drink.
We keep experimenting with when to do these. The meeting Wednesday night was at 6 pm, rather than waiting until 7:30. The invitation is important, too: getting it to the right people and then giving them a reason to come—whether it is food or the topic.
AD: Can you tell when a meeting is going well?
KP: Yes, it has to do with whether you have engaged. One of the ways to improve it is to get some one-on-one engagement. We are not overly concerned about being too formal. If the room is buzzing and people are talking, we do not have to worry about starting right on time. I let the buzz and the conversations go. You can hear when it lulls or pauses and then you start the formal part of the meeting. We also hang around after the meeting to talk to anyone who wants to talk with us one-on-one. I think that is important for people to understand that they have been heard.
AD: It sounds like you try to generate small group discussions as opposed to inviting people to events where they get talked to.
KP: It is usually a combination. Sometimes we will talk to them and then break them up into small groups because we feel the need to give them some background information to set the stage for the smaller group discussions. Then we make a point of letting them report out to the whole group so that we know that everybody gets heard.
AD: We have talked about formal meetings where the regular curmudgeonly people get up and make their normal complaints and then sit down. That is a sign that a meeting is not going anywhere. By contrast, are there signs that a meeting is going well, where you come out thinking, “That really worked?” What are indications that a meeting is going to produce something useful?
KP: Sometimes it is just the general feeling that you have had a good interaction and a lot of discussion and something will eventually come from that. Often at the end of meetings we will talk about next steps we need to follow up on—what needs to be done by citizens or staff or both of us working together.
AD: We have talked about study circles, public forums, and your citizens’ academy. Have you done any brainstorming about other forms you would like to experiment with in Lynchburg?
KP: We have a new initiative right now called “Lynchburg is Listening” on the front page of our website. Actually there are two things on there. One is “Lynchburg is Listening,” which is new. The other is something called “First to Know,” where people can sign on to our mailing list for periodical reports, press releases, and announcements. They will get these delivered directly rather than reading about them in the media. “Lynchburg is Listening” is designed to create a forum for discussion. People can post ideas, comment on other people’s ideas, and vote on them. This is so new there are only a couple of ideas on there right now, but the goal is to see if there is any enthusiasm or interest in generating online discussion about community events, community initiatives, issues, and ideas.
AD: Have you considered how to get more young people involved?
KP: We think that “Lynchburg is Listening” is one way to do it. Of course, we have Facebook and Twitter for some of the other things. We do use social media to try to push the word out. We are trying to be sensitive to that as well.
AD: There are potential bridges between K-12 schools and city government, such as youth programs where students in high schools play various roles in city government especially along school issues. Has that ever come up?
KP: No, it has not come up. I know some communities let the students do a mock city council meeting or sit in and shadow the city council members for a day. We have never talked about that here though. We do have a Mayor’s Youth Council, composed of representatives from all of the public and private high schools in the city, and even a homeschooled representative, that discusses community issues from the young people’s perspective. Recently, an eighth grade student from a private school spent part of a day shadowing the Deputy City Manager and me.
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AD: On this topic of formal meetings, you have mentioned a sobering point that attendance and quality of conversation at city council and school board meetings, for example, have not really been affected by the study circles and other kinds of engagement you have been doing. Do you have any ideas about how the formal system might be more welcoming or interesting to people?
KP: It tends to be so issue specific. We had a council meeting last week that included a public hearing about AT&T’s plan to erect a cell tower in a residential neighborhood. Boy, the neighbors came out for that one. And these are folks we would not normally see attend anything. They came out in full force, spoke, went through the public hearing process, and certainly had their voices heard. The issue got tabled for further analysis and more work. The interesting thing is that AT&T had not talked to the community prior to appearing before council. A number of these folks said, “Why didn’t you come and talk to us?” So there is this expectation now. We will do that if we have an initiative: we will go into the neighborhood and talk to people. This company had not done that and they really got criticized.
AD: So you are seeing somewhat of a culture change.
KP: Yes, and council members even said to the AT&T people, “I wish you had called and talked to the neighbors before you brought this to us.”
AD: To restate this, you are saying that city council and school board meetings are what they are and when certain concrete issues pique the public’s interest or a specific community’s interest you will have attendance and participation and when they don’t you won’t.
KP: That is correct.
AD: I want to shift focus and ask about how to educate or socialize public administrators as professionals who can help public engagement flourish. Reflecting back on your own university training in public administration, has that training helped you work with the public? Or have you simply learned from other people who have been doing this?
KP: I think it has really been more a matter of learning by experience. My public administration program was based on the federal model. The curriculum did not have much about local government. That is what they had when I was at the University of Virginia. Although a lot of the classes were really good, it was not about engaging citizens at all. That never came up. In fact, when I first started to get exposed to ideas of participatory democracy about 20 years ago, I was pretty resistant to it. “Look, I’m the professional” was my thinking. “We know what we have to do and letting the public run this is not going to work.” So my thinking has changed about that over the years.
Through ICMA (International City/County Management Association) and through our state organization, the Virginia Local Government Management Association (VLGMA), we started to bring more of that into our repertoire of tools for local governments to use. And it is something that I do teach in my class. The other instructors and I have been in an ongoing conversation about how to integrate more discussion of citizen engagement into our classes. We are part of a four-course certificate program at Virginia Tech offered to mid-career people and MPA students at the university.
AD: What do you highlight in your classes that did not come up when you were an MPA student?
KP: Well, just the whole idea of engaging the citizen. I do not think it ever came up in my MPA program. It was more philosophy, theory, public policy, and constitutional issues. So through the case studies that we use now and just addressing it in our class, we talk about the need to engage the community, the need for a partnership between the citizen and the city, and the need to just have that interaction.
AD: Are your students receptive to this?
KP: I think so. Yes, yes.
AD: The same reluctance you said you had early on and then grew out of is still part of the culture to some extent. People want to be professionals. They are spending money and time to get a degree, after all. But you are sensing that your students are receptive to public engagement?
KP: Yes, I think they are receptive. What we are telling them is, “Look, you are going to have to deal with this one way or another. It is out there: the noise, the interest. You may as well embrace it and use it.” But as we have talked about before, you have to pick your issues. It is not about the technical day-to-day operational things that people just expect to always work. It is about the more general policy issues. For example, the local newspaper just found out recently that the county to the north of us stopped using fluoride 2 or 3 years ago. They have a public authority that runs their water system. And the public just let them have it: “Why didn’t you tell everybody? Why didn’t you have a discussion about this?” Those sorts of policy issues spark public interest. And sometimes you may think you have the right idea or you think this initiative is going to be of interest and it may not be. Or you may say, “Oh, nobody cares about this,” but then somebody does. Be flexible, I guess, is the lesson here, and be agile in responding
AD: So you communicate to your MPA students that this is a different playing field than when you became a city manager. On this playing field the public is going to require consultation—not every day, but for sure on the big issues.
KP: I think you have to be open to any consultation when the public shows interest. We try to embrace that: “Thank you. We are glad you are involved.” I did not have to deal with Facebook or Twitter or any of these social media 30 years ago. We go to orientation now and tell our folks that when someone comes into city hall and has a good interaction that is pretty much what they expect to happen. When they walk out, that is the end of it. But when they come in and have a bad interaction and they walk out the door and Tweet and put it on Facebook, now a thousand people know about it. So you have to be aware of those sorts of things. The world has really changed on us.
AD: What are the tools that emerge from the case studies you present to your students? What tools do you find yourself using in your daily work?
KP: I think a lot of it is an attitude that conveys that folks in the community have a voice, should have a voice, and we want them to have a voice. We want to do what we can do to promote and respect that. This means when they say something we need to listen. We need to be aware that they have input; they have useful experiences; they see the service delivery on the other end from us; their input is valuable in helping us learn to be responsive and learn to do our jobs better. So it is an attitude: you have to listen to these folks; you have to treat them with respect; you have to help them to understand where they just misunderstand, but you really need to have these conversations.
AD: That point about attitude is interesting because one thing that strikes me in talking with you is that while you are committed to listening and being respectful and being inclusive, you will also tell people when they are wrong and you will tell people when they need to step up and do some work. We have talked about this issue of responsibility and how you can do some things as a city manager but not other things. This is not an easy role to play: listening to the citizen, but also saying from time to time, “Hey, you need to do some of this work too.”
KP: Yes, one of the characteristics of my career is I have often been described as being blunt and honest about the reality as I see it. And really that is the only way I know to operate: tell the truth as I see it and not mince words. I think people respect that. The other part is that you have to listen to the response. You have to be receptive to hearing something else.
AD: Can you think of examples in Lynchburg of policy issues where you felt that people just needed to learn more, times when they had complaints or problems, but they also needed to hear your side of the story more clearly?
KP: Our budget process and discussions about the budget over the years come to mind. We needed to talk about some of the services we provided and the alternatives so people understood that we had explored and were aware of those, and we were not ignoring other options. That is one area.
Another example happened around ten years ago when we changed the trash collection system. People were using anything to put their trash out—using their own personal garbage cans. So we went to a cart system where the carts are actually owned by the city. And we put them throughout the city. This initiative was, in part, to get better control over the cash flow and pay for the system, which was operating in the red. First of all, I do not think city council or the public understood our thinking on this, so we had a series of a half dozen community meetings explaining the situation and presenting the alternatives. We created this little cartoon creature called Bart the Cart to help people understand where we were going with this. And it became very well accepted. I often tell people that if we had been a private company we would have had a board meeting, changed the service delivery, moved the bottom line into the black, and we would not have consulted with anybody. It took us six months to make a decision that was obvious to the staff in the beginning; it took six months to convince the citizens and city council that that was the way we needed to go.
But that is what we call democracy. It is not supposed to be efficient.
AD: Six months is a small price to pay for democracy.
KP: And we are getting ready to change it again. We are keeping the carts for a little longer, but then we are going to pre-pay bags. We have had a tag system for people who were not using the carts or had extra trash that could not fit in the carts and we had a lot of complaints about people abusing the system. So we are going to get colored bags and if your garbage is not in a colored bag with a Lynchburg logo we are not going to pick it up. At least that is the threat.
We are already planning for community outreach on that change and talking about how we can explain to people what we are doing and how we are doing it.
AD: What is the best way to mentor public administrators in other cities who might be inclined toward greater citizen involvement?
KP: The Virginia Local Government Management Association (VLGMA) meets twice a year and a big part of those meetings, besides the informal networking and interaction, is sharing best practices. So we have had people from the city of Hampton come in, for example, to explain what they have done with citizen interaction. One of the most popular events we do at these meetings is called “How I Manage.” A manager or a group of managers will get up and address an issue or will simply talk about their approach to management. So we do a lot of that, trying to learn from each other at these conferences. That works pretty well. One of the things we pride ourselves on in Virginia is supporting each other. We are pretty open in saying, “If you have an issue or you want to learn about something, give us a call.” One of our staff people at the Weldon Cooper Center at the University of Virginia keeps an active listserv. If there is an issue in any community, he will send out an email blast to everyone saying, “Hey, this community has this issue. Do you have anything to help with this?” People always respond, so the community with the problem can follow up with any one of us.
AD: Have you been on call on any of those cases?
KP: We usually respond. A lot of times it is a request like, “Do you have an ordinance on this, or do you have any document on this, or do you have any experience with this?” And we are pretty responsive. Every once in a while we will ask a question that will generate some conversation.
AD: You have mentioned best practices. I wonder if you ever talk about worst practices: “Hey, I tried this and it really failed.”
KP: That is what we do at the bar! Actually, we have a statewide group of assistants, department heads, and others below the executive level who meet on a regular basis. Every so often a manager would go and talk to them. And we finally got the message: “You guys are just telling these horrible war stories and we don’t want to be mangers.” So we had to reflect and adjust, thinking we had to tone that down a little bit. So yes, we do talk about things that do not work.
AD: One traditional concern is size: getting enough people there but not so many that you cannot have much of a conversation. I suspect that the most important thing is just recruiting—getting that attendance level up.
KP: We find that 75 to 100 is a good workable number. We will have enough staff members there. We will have 7 or 8 staff people there so we can make small groups of no more than 10. That seems quite manageable. We tend to have these meetings in schools—cafeterias not in big auditoriums. So that group size tends to work pretty well.
AD: One last question, on sustainability: how do you keep this culture of engagement going in Lynchburg after you retire some 50 years or so from now.
KP: Or two years! It is interesting, we had a budget retreat with city council last Tuesday and at the end of the retreat we said, “OK, what do you think about citizen engagement about this budget? We do not think there is a whole lot to talk about here; things are in pretty good shape. How enthusiastic is city council about this? The staff is not really enthusiastic about citizen engagement on this budget—other than the things we normally do, obviously: we have to have a public hearing and we always do something informal right before the public hearing.” And council said, “Oh no, no, no, no, no. We are definitely going to have citizen engagement. That is expected. We like it. We are going to do it.” So we are going to have three citizen engagements—one at each middle school. My point is that I think the culture has changed and there is this expectation that we are going to be doing these things, that they are part of the way we operate here.
We are continuing to look for ways, as social media changes, to reach out to folks. It really has become an expectation. For example, we had a young man who died in August while being pursued by police officers. The police have been having small neighborhood group discussions and we are going to follow up with a larger community discussion. So it has really become just the way we do things here. We have to keep it going, but I think it is at the point where it is sustainable now.
AD: That expectation seems like it is coming from both directions: from your staff and other people in city government as well as local organizations.
KP: As well as the neighborhoods, because if we try to do something now and we do not consult them, we are going to be asked, “Well, wait a minute why weren’t you here talking to us about this?”
Work on this project was done in partnership with the Kettering Foundation.
Images provided by Albert Dzur.
More of this interview can be found at the Boston Review.