In March 2011, I said goodbye to my life as a community advocate in New Orleans and took on the role of director of a new government office created by a mayor who had been elected in 2010. In my previous role as a community advocate, I had worked with other community partners who wanted increased participation in local government matters.
The new office, titled the Mayor's Neighborhood Engagement Office, was ostensibly designed to address issues of community-government participation through a focus on neighborhoods. Unfortunately, as I discovered in my two and one-half years working for Mayor Mitchell J. Landrieu, the very meaning of participation required extensive unpacking in order to land at some place that could be understood and accepted by both government and the community it served.
This business of meaning-shaping is critical in advancing participation in government. In fact, it is fundamental. For example, when I worked as a community advocate, many of my colleagues imbued the meaning of participation with revolutionary ideals. In their minds, an effective, participatory government was one that handed over the keys to the car, the house, and the bank account.
Nothing short of complete people-driven management would do. On the other hand, the government colleagues I soon befriended and worked with perceived participation as this necessary evil in which they must let the public know what they are doing at some point before a decision is made.
At no point in time did they want to share thought and decision-making processes with the non-government public. In their minds, such efforts would only yield prolonged, bitter talks that stymied decision-making. Government was slow enough, according to them, without adding this cumbersome layer that felt akin to one more bureaucratic hurdle.
Still, within this dichotomy of meaning, I believed, must exist some middle ground that both parties could stand on.
I adopted this credo and decided that I would consider my tenure successful if I could move government and the general public toward some middle ground on what participation should value and look like. In so doing, I was less concerned with specific initiatives (though I managed to launch several interesting new ones and affected the creation of others in which I had little to no direct involvement), and more concerned with building the foundation for culture change.
In my view, intentional culture change was required in order to: unpack what different parties meant when they called for greater or lesser participation; question the merits of different meanings; and determine acceptable platforms that could potentially align some of the contested elements that informed disparate ideologies about governance.
However, the beliefs and bright ideas of new employees typically require tempering, and often this happens through real-world shock. My shock therapy came in two forms; the time-honored bitter distrust of government by community members was bestowed upon me (my “community” credentials meaning nothing to previous community partners now that I was a government suit); and the administration I worked for demonstrated immediate suspicion of my “bright ideas,” resulting in a significant clamping down on many suggestions I made for a more participatory local government. Luckily, for me and for the work, I managed to strategically lodge my claims within a highly contested political issue around land-use. Knowing that the general public had been asking local government for more than five years to provide a more progressive, participatory process around land-use actions, and knowing that a powerful council member (the name for a local legislator) championed the creation of an improved process, I managed to propose my vision for culture change as a foundational solution to any specific structure.
Taking advantage of this opportunity, I proposed that the City of New Orleans lacked a comprehensive framework for public participation. I used the very heated local debates on land-use actions and recreation improvements as relevant cases, arguing that one couldn't go about the business of developing a participation structure if all parties haven't agreed on what constitutes effective public participation.
I also argued that one couldn't go about the business of creating a specific participation structure in one area of local government without some central framework guiding this work. Without such a framework, each autonomous, semi-autonomous, and even bureaucratic unit within local government could develop participation structures independent of each other, each espousing radically different ideas and concepts (a highly likely scenario that would only confuse the public further). Somewhere between revolutionary change and closed-door decision-making, the City of New Orleans and its people could enjoy more progressive, participatory governance.
In the end, I was allowed to focus on creating a participatory framework that could serve as a guiding document for participatory governance processes in New Orleans local government. Borrowing from the Kettering Foundation, the International Association of Public Participation, the Center for Public Deliberation, and countless city offices throughout the United States, I crafted the City of New Orleans Neighborhood Participation Plan to serve as a culture change policy. This plan captures the ideas of consensus building, early deliberation and consultation, and other participatory techniques and values that are to inform any participatory process development effort in the city as it moves forward.
My time with local government was short. Be that as it may, I consider the initial framing document I created as a critical first step in moving the City of New Orleans towards more participatory governance. The real work takes place in the trenches, in every meeting, in every community-government conversation. Will they listen to each other better? Will they begin by framing a viable space from which to begin a conversation? I hope so, and I hope the document I created will help for years to come.
This contribution has been commissioned for an editorial partnership between Participation Now and openDemocracy.net.