A review of (my participation in) the Alachua County 2011 Community Conversations series

About 4 weeks ago I was privileged to attend one of the recent Alachua County 2011 Community Conversations series, gatherings. There has been some controversy about the invitation/RSVP based nature of these events but my perspective on that fact was the desire to get feedback from citizens actually active, civically. Either in a government, non-profit or volunteer capacity.

The conversations have been partially funded for the past few years by a grant from The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, to encourage “better communication and cooperation between citizens and their local governments“.

In the September 2011 (Vol. 25 #10) issue of the Gainesville Iguana Joe Courter writes about the conversations. One question I asked to the county Manager Randall H. Reid was whether or not the data-points from these conversations were summarized and provided to the County Commissioners to be used in informing their decision making process. The data he said was provided. It is up to the commissioners, then I suppose to rely on it or not when making their decisions. Obviously there are times when you may not want your public officials to simply follow the popular vote. That being said, I was disappointed to read Joe Courter write “And, while the public input probably has a limited effect on the actual decisions of the County government“. Although, I suppose the idea of instapolling and table-top exercises directly effecting public policy is perhaps the ultimate fantasy of a technocratic or utopian, participatory form of urban governance.

I would like to think fundamentally though that the commissioners would take notice of larger themes or citizen concerns.

Additionally, I can certainly agree with the second half of Joe Courter’s sentence, wherein he writes “it’s important to understand just how the budget works and where it comes from.” As a civically, educational experience the conversation process was extraordinarily helpful. The combination of work-shoping, table-top budget exercises and insta-polling also made me think of the possibilities of gamification as a tool for civic engagement. Making the soft design of local governance, “fun” and responsive or interactive as it were.

I was also pleased to see the open-source nature of the data collection. A summary of the last two years’ Conversation topics and response breakdowns for all questions and exercises (which can be found here)  provides the ability to get a feel for the values and beliefs of your fellow citizenry.

To close: four comments-data points that I found of particular, personal interest.

1. Regarding the idea of open-source, transparent data collection, due to the wide-open nature of Florida Sunshine State law(s) there was in fact only a brief appearance by any county commissioner, one in fact, and just for a minute  or two before she (Susan Baird) departed for another such event. Presumably, because then it would have been less easy to have a free and open but still anonymous(ish) conversation.

2. The response to the question “How many children live in your household” for my session was 81% and 77% for all sessions. Which when you consider that the session occurred on an evening during the week may not be all that surprising. Still, the majority were of also of child-rearing age, 26-65. Which implies their children (if any) must live elsewhere. I wonder then what kind of county and lifestyle these citizens imagine/desire in comparison to ones younger and more directly engaged in day-to-day parenting.

3. I think it is also note-worthy, given the commission’s previous (more here) and ongoing conflicts with Alachua County Sheriff Sadie Darnell over the budget for the constitutional office of the county sheriff, that as part of the table-top budget exercise the largest portion of the requested 10% budget reduction, was found via a 3.57 % reduction to public safety funding. The general feeling I took away from the conversation participants at my location was a questioning as to why given “the agency’s reduced call load, a drop in the crime rate and a higher officer-to-resident ratio than other counties” Darnell has been so seemingly “combative”  about her budget. It isn’t as if one could argue that perhaps the few (including myself, that spoke up/asked questions about this issue) were just the vocal minority.

4. Finally, in-spite of  the current economic conditions and high levels of unemployment (both nationally and locally) the next highest percentage of reduction was 2.88 % applied towards efforts (by county staff) to encourage “economic development”.  Interesting especially in light of the answers to the question “What one is the best strategy for growing our local economy”, “Reduce or streamline business regulation” and “Business incubators and venture capital” being the two top selected choices. From my perspective the need to grow the tax base of this county is obvious and while encouraging business and thus job, creation is key, one of the key forms of innovation that this county and the city of Gainesville seem to be pursuing is the incubator and startup support model. Using private-public partner -ships yes, but either way this requires public money. Whether in the form of infrastructure investment, various loan-capital programs, or better plus more agile but not less, regulation.

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