Gone are the days when participatory government meant people gathered in the village square and debated the future of their towns and villages. That form of participation has gotten lost in our busy and technology centered world. If we want to bring people together face-to-face today in any major way to discuss the future of cities, it takes planning, organization and money to recreate that village square.
During the Anthony Williams administration, the mayor’s office sponsored more than one citywide summit. There was great participation and feedback from residents across the city who discussed and debated what they saw as the problems and their possible solutions. Some of our media look back favorably on the Williams’ administration events but are now questioning Mayor Vincent Gray for trying to revive individual and community participation in government. Participation declined during the Adrian Fenty administration, where despite all the good things he did, asking people for their opinions and ideas wasn’t one of them.
I support the Gray administration’s decision to conduct another citywide summit, which will be held at the Convention Center on Saturday, Feb. 11. Its success will depend on how carefully the day is planned, how much input people will be allowed and how that input is channeled. But I recall the warm feelings people at the Williams’ summits had after having the opportunity to talk to residents from across the District and the chance to discuss issues and problems with those coming from differing backgrounds and perspectives. There were about 1,500 people and many were surprised that it didn’t matter where they lived in the District they actually saw some things in the same way even if their proposed solutions differed. Just sharing and debating thoughts and ideas with each other was a valuable experience for the participants and the administration’s commissioners and agency directors who roamed the room chatting and soliciting feedback and opinions on the work of their agencies. There was an unmistakable feeling of camaraderie.
Much of the media are now focused not on what can be gained from a summit but rather on how much it will cost. In today’s world bringing people together isn’t cheap. Costs include the facility, audio/visual equipment; the technology required to collect opinions and share them with a room full of people. Then there are meal costs if you want people to come early and spend the day. The estimated cost of the event is about $650,000 or slightly more than $1 per every person living in the District. That is not too much of an investment in citizen participation considering the District’s annual budget is $10 billion.
I urge the mayor to continue to seek private sponsors for part of the event. Maybe Marriott would consider funding box lunches or an AV company would make an in-kind donation. He shouldn’t worry about the attacks that will come from the same media complaining about the cost to the city when he later announces who helped fund the event. Those donors should be proud to help and their names should be prominently displayed at the event.
But for the money that can’t be raised privately why not ask each agency to find funds in its budget based on the percentage of the District’s budget they are funded with. If the Department of Health receives $1 billion or 10% of the District’s budget they would be responsible for funding up to $65,000 of the summit. I am sure that within a billion dollar budget that would be doable and the feedback they get may be a lot more valuable.
Let us not forget that the reason we need to do these kinds of events is that encouraging community input and involvement in the workings of our government is important for our Democracy. I urge every community to be sure they are represented at this event. There should be representatives from every ethnic and cultural group, socio-economic group, men, women, lesbian, gay, bi, transgender, and straight and from every corner of the city.
There needs to be a concerted effort to encourage people to do more than complain about lack of services or waste in government but to rather get involved and be a part of finding the solution to the problems they see. There are great ideas out there that government needs to hear. This summit is an investment in finding them and a very worthwhile one at that.