What, Exactly, is a Robust Public Process?

Certain words have their moments in the sun, where they seem to be on every tongue and carry strong meaning that is generally recognized.  Later they become trite or worse and fall into disuse. A particularly good word right now is “robust”.  The dictionary meaning of this word is “strong, healthy, vigorous”.  It is used in particular fields, such as referring to a robust statistical test or a computer system that is resistant to failure.

The word made a marked entry into Ann Arbor politics with the passage of two resolutions on April 4, 2011.  As we reviewed in our previous post, this was the night that the Library Lot Conference Center was laid to rest.   The first resolution, that killed the Valiant proposal and terminated the RFP, contained this phrase:

RESOLVED, That future planning and proposals for this site shall include a robust public process.

The second resolution, which assigned responsibility to the DDA for RFP development of the four city-owned lots, laid out four phases in the process.  In Phase II, the DDA is enjoined to

Solicit robust public input and conduct public meetings to determine residents’ Parcel-level downtown vision.

For Phase III, the DDA should

Solicit robust public input and confirm the extent of community consensus for the Parcel-by-Parcel Plan through public meetings and surveys.

These admonitions were welcome to many of us who support public participation in important civic decisions.  But what does it mean, exactly?

CM Sandi Smith objected to the inclusion of the word “robust” in the first resolution.  When we commented on that in an earlier post, she commented in return that “I do not at all object to the public process which is not only important but mandatory. My objection was to the subjective nature of the word ‘robust’.”

CM Smith has a point.  On hearing the word, many of us think we know what it means.  But on examination, what satisfies this requirement?  A single public meeting on a subject?  Opportunity for public comment? Computerized surveys?  Focus groups? Working exercises? And to what extent and how should public sentiment be incorporated into a final conclusion?  Is overwhelming opposition a veto? Perhaps we need a consensus on this question before we will be able to answer the more substantive ones.

Explore posts in the same categories: Downtown, Neighborhoods, politics

3 Comments on “What, Exactly, is a Robust Public Process?”

  1. Odile Hugonot Haber Says:

    It seems that the Athenian democracy at the age of Demosthenes had a general assembly that that was regularly attended by no fewer than 6,000 citizens. This number constituted the forum,
    and the purpose of the quorum requirements as we know them is to ensure a normal and sufficient number” (The Athenian Democracy in the Age of Demosthenes by Morgan Herman Hansen.)

    This would constitute a robust public process ! now if we have 20 people in the city hall chamber we are happy.

    I went to the DDA Partnership Committee Meeting this past week from 9 to 11 am in meeting which they were going to set up on how to go about developing the five lots downtown. What a debacle!

    They went around 2 hours no knowing how to set up a public process, a city visioning, obviously not knowing what to do… it was evident that they had not done any home work on the subject. They could have read a few books! Google!

    They had no ideas, and kept on repeating the same questions
    for 2 hours:
    – Who is going to lead/facilitate this process?
    – How to you create a community visioning process?
    – What do we want ..and they stated some of what they wanted and towards the end completely contradicted themselves.
    – Some did not want to use the word “developers” some did…

    They spoke of “flushing this out”, “sketch broadly” “figure out the gaps”…… Then they dumped it all on the staff…..

    I think people present in the audience could have done a much better job and had indeed initiated public process in the past.

    For instance Googling one can find that a few years ago there was a project called:” Envision Spokane” this project was to revise the city charter to introduce a “Community Bill of Rights” drafted in a series of workshops and town meetings. The changes included giving greater control into neighborhoods over development, creating legally enforceable rights for the protection of the Spokane River, and guaranteeing access to affordable preventive health care.

    “A robust public process” has to be developed with a momentum, through visions that inspire people, art, appeal to the imagination and has to be pragmatic enough to make a difference in people’s daily life.

    • varmentrout Says:

      Thanks for commenting, Odile. (I’ve edited your comment slightly for format and brevity.) I think I’ve heard of the Spokane example and we should examine such examples elsewhere to see what successful strategies are.

  2. […] What, Exactly, is a Robust Public Process?  (July 14, 2011) It really just asks the question. […]

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