People usually don’t much care how you, the elected official, make a decision. They just want to know whether they agree or disagree with you.
That insight was a surprise to me. I didn’t begin this blog thinking that. I began my city council blog years ago sort of naively approaching my content as a former newspaper reporter. “People would appreciate a window into the decision-making process,” I thought. “People would participate in the decision-making process,” I thought, and appreciate the chance to do so.
There’s no question people do want to participate in their democracy through town halls, committees, even blog forums on news sites. But they don’t necessarily want their elected officials involved. They just want to know whether they disagree or agree with the elected official.
What I found over time was that after I described how I was making up my mind, and asked for feedback, people said I was being wishy-washy or indecisive. Sure – if you asked people in the abstract, they’d say they want their politicians to be open and thoughtful. What people have been trained to expect is for politicians to manipulate and deceive them. So it’s a pretty long road to take if you try to involve the public in your decision-making process.
This comes to mind after reading a fascinating exchange on the blog of a fairly new city council member from Massachusetts, Ari Herzog. He’s clearly a bit frustrated, and titles his blog “This Blog is for You, Not for Me.” I’m not familiar with the specific issue referenced in the post, but it sounds like Ari had to vote on something where he had not heard from citizens. Apparently some citizens did not approve of his vote, and contacted him. He writes:
If you don’t share your thoughts with me before votes occur, it’s harder for me to appreciate a complaint after the fact … if you don’t tell me what you think I need to know until after a vote occurs, how should I respond?”
His point in the blog post is, If you want an elected official to know something, tell them. The idea of a blog is to have one more way of exchanging information.
If you read down the page a bit, you see one of the comments to the blog perfectly summarizes what I’ve heard from a lot of citizens here on the other side of the United State:
In the end, we voted Councilors into office to make decisions even in the absence of our input. We don’t expect you to vote for each item based on a poll. We want you to make a conscious decision based on fact and then if/when appropriate explain your reasons. We reserve the right to disagree and obviously we’ll let you know! If we agree more than we disagree by the end of your term, maybe you can stay
Isn’t that how this works?
The citizen is right. That’s how this works. Citizens have been trained to think that a politician asking for feedback is taking a poll – not honestly asking for help or collaboration.
That’s how this works. Those of us who blog often wish there was another way.