Photo by The Hamster Factor on Flickr.

Public bodies from the DC Council to boards like the Zoning Commission are configured to value most highly input from people who show up in person. But this excludes many people with day jobs or family responsibilities. We need to fundamentally reexamine some basic assumptions about public input.

At last week’s redistricting hearing, Marion Barry criticized me for bringing the results of the Redistricting Game to the Council. Despite having over 100 Ward 8 residents participate, he felt that it wasn’t representative of the views of Ward 8:

Did you ask the economic status of each person?  Did you ask the educational level of each person? This whole thing is flawed. ... I was trained as a research scientist. I know good research techniques and tactics. ... Your study is a good one, but it’s not scientific enough. ... As far as Ward 8 is concerned, the information is flawed. Seriously flawed.



Mike DeBonis explained the primary motivations at work here. In short, Barry probably wants Near Southeast redistricted into Ward 8 to give him a role in the booming development in that area.

But Barry is right about one thing: The Redistricting Game was not scientific. It’s not an opinion poll which tries to accurately estimate the views of all residents. But since when does the Council ever use opinion polls to make decisions?

They don’t. Instead, they listen to people who testify, people who schedule meetings with them, and to a lesser extent people who email, call, or write letters.

Barry did listen to those present. He brought in a number of people to testify about extending Ward 8 west of the river; some, as it turned out, didn’t even live in DC. Far fewer than 100 people from Ward 8 testified at this hearing, but Barry didn’t claim their testimony was “flawed” because it’s not scientifically representative.

Later, he noted that nobody from Near Southeast had yet testified at the hearing, and therefore there must be no opposition. Is that scientific?

About 30 people testified at the hearing, and their views should be listened to. But they’re not necessarily representative either. The people who filled out the Redistricting Game are also a set of residents who expressed their preferences, and the Council should consider them as it would any other set of suggestions from any other not-necessarily-representative group of 4,000 residents.

It’s easy to take potshots at Barry, and regardless he’s unlikely to get his redistricting wish. But there’s a larger point. Why do we accept our current model of civic engagement as the right one?

It gives a much louder voice to people who want to take the time to attend hearings, which are often in the middle of the day. It gives priority to those who can afford to spend 4 hours or more on a single development project, a single bill, or a single zoning change.

That favors people who are retired, or people paid to lobby for issues, or people who feel particularly strongly about a single narrow subject.

The Zoning Commission has been holding many, many hearings on the zoning rewrite, with few participants at some of the hearings. Geoff Hatchard, Ken Archer, CSG’s Cheryl Cort, DC Sierra Club’s Bradley Green, and I testified recently for accelerating the parking location zoning change, and Zoning Commission member Peter May complimented everyone on attending. I’m glad we could, but this also points out how such a turnout is somewhat unusual.

Few people can go to all of the zoning hearings, or even more than a few. It’s tough to get people to go to a zoning hearing on, say, changing waterfront zoning when they have no objection to the changes, when the changes won’t have much of a visible effect on development, and they are likely to sail through.

The people who testified at last week’s HPRB hearing on the Hine school represented those who felt so strongly they wanted to take an entire afternoon off to talk about the project. HPRB hearings happen in the middle of the day, and typically take all day. Items have start times on the schedule, but those are very approximate. I’ve spoken at the HPRB and had an item come up hours after it was scheduled.

I’ve gone to testify at the Board of Zoning Adjustment, another board with daytime hearings, and seen the mid-morning item I was there for moved to the afternoon (or moved to another day entirely). DC Council hearings have started hours late. Sometimes the chair of a council committee has moved the government witness to the beginning, instead of at the end as is usual, and talked to that witness for 2 hours or more while the public witnesses waited patiently.

Many residents of Capitol Hill think the Hine project doesn’t need to get shorter, or should even be taller, but they didn’t go to the hearing. Some had jobs which prevented it. Does that mean their views don’t matter?

There are some advantages to a process which favors those who care about an issue. If you just poll people, a lot of folks don’t know much about an issue at all and are making snap judgments on little information. Decisionmakers shouldn’t necessarily hold every resident’s opinion exactly equal.

But the current system goes much too far. There’s little value in giving a voice only to people who can spend 4 hours in the middle of the day waiting to speak for 3 minutes.

What to do? One step is for decisionmakers to listen to other channels as well. Montgomery County at-large councilmember Hans Riemer does by listening to people on Facebook, and found drastically different views there versus in person at a hearing on the Silver Spring skybridge. DC councilmember Tommy Wells uses Twitter, sending his own tweets and reading his own Twitter feed.

That’s a step, but not the end of the story either. These channels privilege people who spend a lot of time sitting around on Twitter and Facebook. That’s not representative either, though when combined with people testifying in person, it adds breadth.

It’d be great to develop a good channel for leaders to hear more views from poor and minority communities, and add that to their cognitive understanding of what residents want. Wells took a meaningful step by conducting a “listening tour” about bus service in wards 4, 5, 7, and 8, but there’s much more that can be done.

Elected officials try harder to hear more views because they want the votes. Unfortunately, not only do our formal boards and commissions not generally use these channels, but many can’t. You can tweet @TommyWells during a hearing to suggest questions, but there’s no @CatherineBuell account for the HPRB chair.

Even if there were an @AnthonyHoodZC account, the Zoning Commission chair would be breaking rules against “ex parte” communication. Just like judges, Zoning Commission and BZA members are not allowed to hear comments on cases except through the official hearing or formally submitted letters of testimony.

Sure, there are reasons for this. A body making a legal determination is required to do so based on a public record, and so the comments have to go into that record. But these rules also mean that the commission is limiting its input in ways that result in an incomplete view of residents’ opinions.

Could the Zoning Commission legally set up a @DCZoningCmsn Twitter account, where messages appear on commissioners’ smartphones or on screens behind the dais during the hearing, and which also go into the official public record, for example? To get people on the other side of the digital divide, are there ways to make it easier to submit comments on cases beyond sending formal and time-consuming letters or faxes?

The boards should be seeking more ways to get input while still keeping their responsibility to have a public record, and elected officials should look for opportunities to hear from a broader range of people. As a first step, both elected officials and appointed board members should acknowledge that while holding hearings is a valuable part of getting input, relying on it alone is very much “flawed.”