District Councils White Paper

Update 9/20/12: The following District Council White Paper (click here for a pdf copy) describes why District Councils are an essential component of the New Orleans Citizen Participation Program because they build capacity and improve outreach.

 

Opportunity, Not Bureaucracy

Why District Councils Are Essential to Structured Citizen Participation

 

The primary purposes of civic engagement structures like a formal citizen participation program (CPP) are:

-          to give all citizens an opportunity to have meaningful input into government policy-setting and decision-making, especially as these impact their neighborhoods;

-          to facilitate appropriate community and business growth; and

-          to provide government with a regular, structured mechanism for communicating with the citizens it serves.

 

At its core, a CPP is a communication tool – a very powerful one.  As such, it can be as dangerous and destructive as it is beneficial.  Specifically, if a CPP does not include substantial capacity-building and outreach components, all it does is further empower those residents who are already at least partially empowered.  By definition, this further denies access to those individuals who already farthest removed from power.

 

The underlying philosophy of the New Orleans CPP model, as developed by over one hundred and fifty community members and submitted to the City Planning Commission by the Committee for a Better New Orleans (CBNO), is that capacity-building and outreach are absolutely essential in order to provide all New Orleanians with the opportunity to make the best use of this tool.

 

 

Citizen Participation Structures

 

Neighborhood-based organizations are the heart and soul of a CPP.  These are where residents gather to be informed, to discuss the issues before them, to make plans for their neighborhoods, and to make their needs, preferences and opinions known to their government.  These are also the ideal first place for business owners and developers to bring their projects and plans for community discussion.

 

However, every successful CPP in the United States also has a second tier in its structure.  In New Orleans, this tier (referred to as District Councils in the NOLA CPP model) brings together all the individual neighborhood organizations within each of the City’s official Planning Districts.  The Planning Districts were chosen because they are non-political boundaries and therefore do not have be redrawn after each ten-year census.  Also, many New Orleanians are familiar and comfortable with them as a result of the post-Katrina Unified New Orleans Plan (UNOP) work.

 

For a more complete description of the proposed NOLA CPP District Councils, please see the NOLA CPP model, available at http://www.nolacpp.wordpress.com.  However, one point needs to be emphasized:  District Councils are coalitions of neighborhoods.  Their boards are made up of representatives from each neighborhood in the District, as selected by those neighborhoods (not by city government or any other outside source).  These boards in turn hire their own staff, subject to certain parameters and the avoidance of conflicts of interest.  District Councils are truly of the people, by the people, for the people.

 

Unfortunately, despite the existence of District Councils – or some similar construct – as a universal best practice in formal citizen participation structures, there are no small number of critics in New Orleans who wish to remove them from the NOLA CPP before it is adopted by city government.  The most frequent complaint is that District Councils represent an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy that will stand between people and their government.

 

To begin with, this argument flies in the face of current on-the-ground reality in New Orleans.  From the Westbank to New Orleans East, Gentilly to Uptown, neighborhood organizations have already come together in structures that are almost identical to the proposed District Councils in 78% of the geographic area of our city (see this map).  Close and accurate inspection of the details shows there is simply no factual basis for the description of District Councils as intrusive bureaucracies; in fact, they improve communication between neighborhoods and government, and under no circumstances do they block any existing interactions between people and government.  This paper examines how and why District Councils are absolutely vital to the success of the NOLA CPP.

 

How District Councils Serve Their Neighborhoods

 

District Councils serve a variety of functions that are absolutely critical to the overall success of a CPP.  These functions include:

 

Capacity-Building:  while a certain percentage of residents have the background and experience to take advantage of the opportunities afforded by a CPP, many others do not.  They do not know how to work within a group structure, participate effectively in meetings, state their cases in public forums, follow government decision-making processes, etc.  Therefore, such citizens need training in these and other skills.  In New Orleans, the number of people who fall into this latter category is larger than in many other places.

 

In addition, the Landrieu administration is aggressively increasing the capacity of city government to provide information (and other valuable tools) to the community.  This is an exceptional step forward in the partnership between citizens and government.  However, much of this data is technical in nature, such as information about land use, zoning, permitting, etc.  Residents need to be able to understand this information – and augment it where necessary with additional facts and research – in order to be able to provide meaningful input back to government.

 

Moreover, as the amount of information flowing out from government increases, it becomes increasingly difficult for the average resident to sort through it all and home in on that which is relevant to his or her neighborhood, business or other interest.  Ideally, government will construct its outflow processes in ways that allow residents to self-select specific data streams.  Even so, the vast majority of residents need assistance in picking out what information coming from government is relevant, and needs their attention and input; they also need assistance in fully understanding the information and what is implications for them may be.  District Councils, with their professional staffs, are the ideal mechanism for accomplishing this.

 

While resident training programs should be developed for implementation citywide, the District Councils are best able to present these trainings most effectively for the specific neighborhoods they serve; furthermore, they are best able to develop additional trainings specific to those neighborhoods.  Such locally-specific trainings might include not just skill-sets but also trainings on issues (for example, training on problems and potential solutions for neighborhoods built in areas with intense environmental issues, like Gert Town or the Agriculture Street landfill area).

 

Outreach:  widespread citizen participation is necessary to maximize the opportunities represented by a CPP.  This makes outreach a critical component of a CPP.  The NOLA CPP model views outreach as a broad-based concept, including not just going into the neighborhoods to inform people about the CPP and to solicit their participation, but actually facilitating their participation in their neighborhood meetings.

 

Outreach can include:

-          scheduling neighborhood organization meetings at the most convenient possible times;

-          providing transportation or transportation vouchers to the meetings;

-          providing day care and/or homework assistance at the meetings; and

-          making the meetings themselves as valuable as possible, including auxiliary programs ranging from informational (i.e., public health, Crimestoppers, adult education, etc.) to entertainment such as movies and music.

 

Incentives to get people to attend meetings, such as providing meals, may also be considered.  The District Councils, which serve a smaller number of neighborhoods than any citywide office, know best how to outreach to their neighborhoods and how to help neighborhood organizations maximize resident participation.

 

Neighborhood Collaboration:  many issues, proposed developments and projects, etc. span two or more neighborhoods.  In these instances, neighborhoods can often serve their own interests best by collaborating with other neighborhoods.  By bringing neighborhoods together on a regular basis, District Councils foster a spirit of collaboration; they also build the trust and relationships among the neighborhoods that facilitate collaboration.

Such gatherings also empower neighborhoods to:

-          share lessons learned, thereby teaching and mentoring each other;

-          promote the development and implementation of multi-neighborhood projects; and

-          build coalitions that strengthen their ability to deal with issues they may face – after all, the unified voice of several neighborhoods often carries more weight with city decision-makers than the lone or fragmented voices of individual neighborhoods.

 

This function is a unique aspect of District Councils that cannot be replicated in any other structure or by any city office.

 

Dispute Resolution:  the flip side of the neighborhood collaboration function is the ability to bring neighborhoods together to resolve disputes between them, and if necessary, to be the arbiter of such disputes.  A proposed project or development may be attractive to one neighborhood but objectionable to an adjacent neighborhood, provoking a dispute.  The District Councils provide the forum for resolution of any disputes, a process that is greatly facilitated through the ongoing trust and relationship-building that result from the regular convening of the District Council meetings.

 

An added benefit of this is that many such problems that would otherwise require the attention of city government to solve can instead be settled at the community level.  This also makes it easier for the business community to work with neighborhoods, especially when larger-scale proposals are on the table.  Again, this is a unique function of this tier that cannot be accomplished elsewhere.

 

Connecting Additional Stakeholders:  while the NOLA CPP model states clearly that neighborhoods should always be given the loudest voice in decisions that impact them, there are other legitimate stakeholders involved in many decisions.  First and foremost is the business community.  Commerce and employment are essential to life in New Orleans, yet not every project is right for every neighborhood.  At the same time, the present system is cumbersome for businesses while failing to protect neighborhoods.

 

District Councils can help their neighborhoods experience opportunity and growth in ways that serve them best by making sure that:

-          private sector proposals get to the right neighborhoods at the right time;

-          productive conversations between business people and residents take place;

-          neighborhoods who wish to have input on a private sector proposal provide it in a reasonable timeframe; and

-          such input reflects the openly discussed views of legitimate neighborhood residents.

 

Other stakeholders may desire to participate in conversations regarding both government and private sector proposals.  In many cases, such stakeholders can bring valuable ancillary information to neighborhood residents as they consider such proposals.  The potential opportunities and benefits of this construct are discussed further in the Communities of Interest section of the NOLA CPP model.  Suffice it to say that again, the District Council is essentially the only mechanism through which comprehensive neighborhood and stakeholder connections can be made, and balance in the ensuing conversations be assured.

 

Communications:  another key factor in the success or failure of a CPP is the ability of the program to communicate to the citizens.  Especially in a city like New Orleans, nontraditional communications must be used to augment mainstream methods such as newsletters and e-mail trees.  Moreover, to be successful, communications should be as targeted to specific communities as possible.  However, it is not realistic to expect every neighborhood organization to develop and maintain the capacity to communicate regularly and extensively to its members.

 

The District Councils play a vital role in supporting the neighborhood organizations in choosing the most appropriate communications tools and methods; in constructing those tools; and in disseminating such communications at the neighborhood-specific level.  In addition, the Councils can prepare communications for the totality of the neighborhoods they serve; this provides cross-neighborhood information that can be particularly valuable to residents (i.e., info on facilities, programs, shopping, etc. that take place in one neighborhood but that can benefit residents of nearby neighborhoods).  At the same time, it keeps such communications on a meaningfully focused scale instead of attempting to create them with a citywide scope.

 

Programs and Projects:  it can reasonably be anticipated that the CPP can be a genesis for any number of neighborhood programs and projects.  Many of these will be developed and implemented by individual neighborhoods.  However, a significant number of these might well benefit if several neighborhoods get involved.  Sponsors will be more likely to contribute if they are reaching larger numbers of people; neighborhoods themselves may bring different, complimentary resources to the table; and combined efforts may be able to reach more people collectively than duplicated efforts can reach individually.

 

Responsiveness:  while one purpose of a CPP is to create formal mechanisms for the progress of various city and private projects and developments, therefore reducing the need for “emergency” responses, a CPP cannot eliminate such situations entirely.  Land use and other types of proposals may emerge at the neighborhood level that require rapid responsiveness from the CPP.  District Councils are much better equipped to assist neighborhoods in providing higher levels of rapid responsiveness than any citywide entity can achieve.

 

Trust:  since the District Councils are composed of representatives from each of the neighborhoods in their District, and hire their own staffs, it can be assumed that the staff will be familiar with the neighborhoods they serve, and might likely come from within those neighborhoods.  Such staff will be augmented by volunteers from the neighborhoods.  This creates a high level of familiarity, comfort and trust with the District Councils on the part of the neighborhood organizations and their members – a level that cannot ever be replicated in dealing with a citywide entity, let alone a branch of city government.

 

Finances:  one of the most challenging issues regarding the implementation of a CPP in New Orleans will be funding its operations.  To provide all the necessary services for a successful CPP requires a very large number of man-hours; therefore, to do so under the auspices of a city department will require a very large staff.  Given the constraints on the city budget even in the best of times, it may fairly be questioned whether the political will or the resources themselves exist to create a staff of the requisite size.  On the other hand, it may fairly be pointed out that to provide these services under the District Council format will require at least as many people, and possibly more.

 

However, the District Council format has two advantages over the citywide department model on this issue.  The first is that it will be much easier for the Councils to augment their staff with volunteers than it will be for a city department to attract volunteers.  People are much more willing to volunteer close to home, in an environment where they know their service is having a direct benefit on their immediate communities; conversely, many people have no interest whatsoever in going down to City Hall to work on citywide endeavors.

 

The second advantage is that the District Councils can be structured in a way that allows them to augment the direct city funding stream with funding from other sources.  The NOLA CPP model calls for the Councils to be established as independent, nonprofit organizations; however, this may not be the only construct that allows the Councils to obtain additional outside funding.  Just a few examples of potential outside funding sources include:

-          grants (would require nonprofit status);

-          contracts, with both the city itself and the private sector (requires guidelines, including ensuring that any contracts are a good fit with the core mission and work of the Councils and avoiding conflicts of interest);

-          the sale of advertising space in newsletters and other communications produced by the Councils; and

-          sponsorship of programs and projects produced by the Councils (which in turn allow the Councils to provide even more benefits to the neighborhoods they serve as well as helping to underwrite some of their operating costs).

 

Other revenue-generating opportunities can certainly be identified and utilized.  It should be noted that the District Councils should always be aware of fundraising efforts by individual neighborhoods, and support them strongly while avoiding any duplication or conflicts.

 

 

What We Would Lose By Eliminating District Councils

 

These many attributes of District Councils make a compelling case for including this tier in the New Orleans Citizen Participation Program.  At the same time, there are several strong arguments to be made against eliminating this tier and running the CPP exclusively on a citywide basis, within a city department.  As many of them are largely the flip side of the arguments in favor of the District Councils, they will be presented very briefly.

 

Trust:  there is a widespread culture of distrust of city government in New Orleans.  If the only segment of the CPP other than the neighborhood organizations is a city department or office within a city department, citizens will be disinclined to trust the CPP and participation will be substantially reduced.  Further, there will be no way to serve the need of neighborhoods for information they may want beyond that provided through government sources.

 

Outreach/Communication:  it will be significantly more difficult for a city department to conduct the street-level outreach necessary for a successful CPP in New Orleans.  Such a department simply cannot acquire the familiarity with individual neighborhoods and the specific circumstances and needs of their residents.  Moreover, it cannot tailor its communications efforts to the neighborhood level, especially in terms of ongoing communications tools like locally-focused newsletters.

 

Lack of community/neighborhood interaction/focus:  no matter how large a staff can be assembled at the city government level for a CPP, it can never create the same level of connectedness with individual neighborhoods.  The people to people relationships will not be built as effectively, or between as many individuals.  Fewer neighborhoods themselves will be represented on the staff, and given Civil Service and bureaucratic realities, there will be no guarantees that people from a specific neighborhood can work with that neighborhood.  Moreover, charged with running a citywide CPP operation, there is no way that such an entity can provide the same level of focus on individual neighborhoods, especially when some of the neighborhood organizations are struggling (either with internal issues or significant plans/projects they wish to undertake).  Similarly, it will be impossible for a citywide entity to make absolutely sure that each neighborhood receives all the information it needs about projects and proposals on a timely basis; that such information is fully and clearly understood by the residents; and that those residents have a fair and open opportunity to discuss the information among themselves and provide input back to government – nor can a citywide entity truly authenticate such input.  Finally, the opportunity to bring the voices of business, institutions and interest groups to the table with neighborhoods would be lost as well.

 

Political interference:  beyond a shadow of a doubt, there will many instances when citizen preferences that bubble up through the CPP will be counter to the preferences of powerful political forces.  By keeping the District Councils as semi-autonomous bodies, the opportunity for political interference at this level is dramatically reduced, while the opportunity for coalition-building to form strong, citizen counter-forces is greatly enhanced.  Conversely, having the CPP run exclusively through a city hall agency or department opens the door for all kinds of political tinkering.  Since the top level employees at such an agency/department would be political appointees, they would be subject at any time to removal by elected officials with their own agendas – something that could not happen if the District Councils are constructed appropriately.

 

 

The Bureaucracy Debate

 

As mentioned near the beginning of this paper, the common argument against inclusion of the District Councils in the NOLA CPP is that they are an unnecessary bureaucracy.  Some people feel that they will interrupt the information flow between city government and the community.  Others do not see why some neighborhoods need the support of professional staff, or why some residents require support and capacity-building in order to access the opportunities represented by the CPP.

 

The argument that District Councils will come between city government and neighborhoods or individual residents is simply not accurate.  Any neighborhood group or individual can and should be able to directly access as much of the information flowing out from city government as they want.  District Councils can help individuals and neighborhoods make sense of this flow, but they should never interfere with it.

 

Regarding input, once again the District Councils do not in any impede the opportunity or right of neighborhood groups and individuals to provide their input to any city official or agency, via any method of their choice.  On the contrary, they serve to assist neighborhoods and individuals in being aware of their opportunities for input (such as City Council or Planning Commission meetings); to help neighborhoods convene their residents and develop their input; to make sure their input gets to the right city decision-makers at the right time; and to help neighborhoods and residents hold city government accountable for using that input.

 

Simply put, District Councils do not interrupt communications between city government and the people; instead, they facilitate, accelerate and amplify these communications.  Where a bureaucracy implies a complex administrative system that is largely self-serving, District Councils are designed to be highly responsive support structures that exist solely to serve the neighborhoods that comprise them.

 

 

Conclusion

 

Clearly, there is a compelling, overwhelming logical case for including the District Council tier in the New Orleans Citizen Participation Program – further supported by the universal inclusion of such a tier in every other CPP throughout the U.S. and Canada and most of all by their de facto existence already in more than half the Planning Districts in New Orleans.  Building on and working with these existing groups, District Councils should be absolutely be implemented in New Orleans.

2 Responses

  1. [...] of hundreds, if not thousands, of New Orleanians. This amendment would remove any reference to “District Councils,” which are an international best practice for Citizen Participation Programs and which currently [...]

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