Perceptions of Public Officials and Citizens of the Public Decision-Making Process in the Midwest United States Jeff Ehrlich,Ed. D assistant Professor, Health Care Leadership



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Frustration

When attending public meetings as a citizen, frustration was a felt emotion that was reported. Sixteen percent of those responding that they attended public meetings for emotional reasons mentioned frustration as a reason to attend. “Remember the meeting on strategic plan when there was trouble with the neighborhood. For neighbors to make it adamantly clear they didn’t want a school building in detriment to the neighborhood: frustration drove them to come.” Another similar comment states “But I feel impacted by things and don’t go – there is some kind of tipping point. Maybe for me it is frustration – the lack of progress on issues. We seem to be continuously talking and not moving forward; I don’t feel there is a lot of honesty in the public process.”

The focus group interviews often blurred together with respondents voicing their opinion related to frustration and anger intermingling with one another. As an example, one person noted that; “there is a lot of anger and frustration is one of the biggest factors. When there’s a public meeting, there’s a lot of us versus them feeling, like “what are they going to do to us now?” One person noted; “I think if I knew something that might be of help from personal experience then I would speak. If I knew, I could tell them how I feel. If I hear about it I would attend. It’s about frustration or anger.”

A city manager with over 30 years’ experience noted that he had a different level of frustration than the public who attend these meetings. When asked what frustrated him in public meetings, he stated; “Nothing, really. I enjoyed these meetings more than I found frustration. It’s the Democratic process. I try to recognize the frustrating issues from a public perspective before the meeting and get a good feel for public reaction. He goes on to state; “It’s difficult when those attending these meetings have a partial understanding of the issues.” “I want to go faster, but the process (public meetings) takes time and process. Sometimes it feels like an inability to persuade. Like, ‘why don’t they understand?’ But along with that, they (the public) are unique and we can’t think the same way through the process.”


Self-Interest

In addition to citing emotional reasons for participation such as fear, anger, passion and frustration, self-interest was a comment made by 16% of those in the focus groups as it relates to attending public meetings. “I’m trying to get more involved in politics, and as a (potential) politician I might go for that reason.” Another typical comment read; “People who show up at these things are motivated by the way the issue is framed. If you can frame it in terms of money in their pocket, they’ll show up. If you can hit them in terms of core emotional issues, they’ll show up.” One respondent stated his feelings this way; “Self-interest – when an issue will affect you or your family.” Another idea was stated in a way that addressed a larger issue of re-zoning in this person’s community. “A lot of people turned out, even those who weren’t affected personally because if you do this to these folks what will you do to us?” In addition, a respondent mentioned; “It would have to affect me financially, whether it be a tax issue or a property issue or a family issue, something that has to do with one of those three factors. It has to have a major impact on my life in order for me to get involved. Family means like education, especially with younger kids. I went to my first board of education meeting about a local school spending issue.”

A city official made this remark about self-interest in public meetings. “You’re really a part of that, you are a relevant thing, I mean you’re just, all of a sudden you go to work the next day, somebody says something about it and you say…oh yeah, I was there….I know about that…..you know….you just become relevant. Everybody wants….it’s human nature, everybody wants to be a part of something. One administrator noted; “One week virtually you have a council meeting and no one shows up; you have a budget hearing and all kinds of people show up. Most of the time it is a personal interest that they have that brings them to a public meeting.. A similar comment made by official states; “A lot of times we will see citizens attend meetings when it involves primarily their neighborhoods.”

How should meetings be designed?

The questions regarding meeting design and conflict were combined since structure, procedures, and ground rules are subthemes that permeated much of the focus group discussion on both design and conflict.

Design

When asked about meeting design, 10% of the respondents mentioned that ground rules should be established. One focus groups participant stated that “Whoever is in charge of the meeting needs to be in charge of the meeting. That’s a skill not everyone has. Just because you are a public official doesn’t mean you know how to hold a meeting.” “The people behind the ideas are afraid of the audience.” “Roberts rules – there’s time and a place for that.” “Having rules – mutual understanding about how we’re going to behave tonight.” Another participant had this to say about meeting structure; the environment that events occur in. If you have people who are making decisions behind wooden barrier that says something. If you want conversation, set up room different. Change that dynamic.” With regard to the room structure, one respondent stated, “I like small tables. It invites everyone in. You can look directly at the person. When everyone is sitting but one person standing, it can be intimidating. If you’re in the back, it’s hard to hear or see how they’re feeling about an issue.”

When the same question was asked of a city manager, the response was; “I like to give them a note card and a pen when they come in so that as they come up with questions, they can write them down so they haven’t forgotten them when it’s time to ask questions. That seems to help people to not interrupt during a presentation. I think you establish the ground rules in the beginning.”

Conflict

When the focus groups discussed conflict in public meetings, structure, procedures and ground rules were often intertwined with the responses. Twenty percent of the respondents mentioned the need for structured meetings, procedures and ground rules when asked how conflict should be dealt with. Some comments centered around city officials and the meeting design. “Is it set up for people to have a discussion or for just a one-way thing? School board meetings don’t have a chance to be civil because it’s set up for confrontation… Usually starts with official making a speech and then saying I’m sure you have a question. Their staffers have arranged to call on certain people. There isn’t a chance to have a real dialogue.” Interestingly, a respondent stated; “We tend to be a little more civil here in the chicken fried Midwest. I saw on TV, town hall meetings when legislators would go home and all we saw was them being yelled at.” “In our meetings, the person who was in charge would start off by saying; we’re going to have a civil discussion, ‘don’t talk too long, if you do I’ll cut you off.’ Set the rules. When someone announces the rules before you begin you have a better meeting.”


When asked about dealing with conflict, a city official discussed various meeting structure ideas as well. “Each meeting has its own dynamic. It’s about recognizing the dynamic. Not too much structure and no absolutes.” One manager stated it this way; “You have to call and be on the agenda. That way we know what the issues are about. This way we can educate evenly.” Another thought was; “anticipate (the issue) and head it off.” Another interesting point was to break the public into small groups. “It’s the best way to come up with ideas and avoid conflict.” Another city administrator noted that “Well, the truth is that I think [conflict] has to be dealt with immediately. And I think that it has to be deal with strongly.”

How do you define civility?

As stated in the literature section, civility fosters a deep self-awareness, even as it is characterized by true respect for others Institute for Civility in Government (2012). Civility appears to be a major theme. Over 23% of those in the focus groups mentioned that civility means respect in some form. When the focus group was probed on what they expect civility to look like in public meetings they responded accordingly. “It’s hard to be civil. There will always be two sides.“ An opposing view states; “Being civil is listening well, looking people in the eye, smiling.” “Civility is about respect. Respect of everyone’s opinion.” “Approaching people in a non-threatening way. It’s treating other people the way you would like to be treated in public.” “My liberal friends don’t go on the attack. But my religious right friends will go on the attack.” “I think civility is a part of the human condition, part of living together and interaction. It can happen at the national or local level. It’s how people strive to solve problems. Sometimes they behave uncivilly”. A young focus group member posited; “nobody should be allowed to dominate. Everybody should be heard. Adults don’t like to follow rules.” A corresponding comment made in another focus groups states; “younger people may not know the rules of how you should address someone, like saying Mr. Mayor. It can be taken as incivility. It can cause an undercurrent.” “Age has a lot to do with it. Tradition. People maybe expect things to be a certain way.” Another simple definition notes; “Everything we know about civility we learned in kindergarten.”

One city official noted this about civility; “And it’s really getting…It used to be when I first came, my issue was civility. Trying to get them to be civil to each other. We have really instituted a lot of changes to better control people. And when they get to talk, and when they stand, and who they address, and who they are talking to. So as not to get in an argument.” Another comment related to civility from public officials noted; “It’s about mutual respect. It’s the Golden Rule. Both sides must give the due respect and appreciate all values. It gives a sense that there is no battle if everyone is respectful.” “Be respectful. Everyone is entitled to their opinion and thoughts. Treat each other with respect.” A conflicting thought read, “I am not sure how to get it. Sometimes I ask myself, “how did I get it last time?’ We become civil by self-educating.”

Limitations and Delimitations


A delimitation of this study looked at response rates to questions that were 10% or greater. While other interesting data was presented to the researchers, the length and complexity and reporting of these data was not feasible for this research paper. A major limitation of the research was the number of responses from public officials. While some of the public official views were similar in thought, a few comments were unique such as one who noted there were few, if any frustrations with city meetings. Another noted some meetings took on an air of citizen fanaticism. Perhaps interviewing a greater number of public officials may lead to either supporting or refuting some of the observations.

Conclusion


While the majority of comments related to the perceptions of public officials and citizens of the decision-making process came from the focus groups, the addition of public officials and their thoughts added a dimension that in some cases agreed or refuted comments by the citizens. Both groups are interested in making the process one that leads to respectful and engaging dialog. Specific common ground and collaboration for both groups do exist, and ‘getting the cards on the table’ may be one step in either developing or continuing to cultivate an understanding between each group’s perceptions during public meeting process. Culture change in who attends public meetings and why citizens attend public meetings requires community members and city officials to adopt new ways of thinking and acting (Shoul and Rabinowitz, 2011). This shift in cultural thinking and acting happens when the new culture becomes the norm and is simply how a community does as a matter of course.

The data from this study demonstrate some interesting commonalities among the literature, focus groups participants’ views, and public officials’ perspectives. With regard to why people attend public meetings, Verba’s work appears to be the most relevant. Verba (1967) argued that people are more likely to participate if they think that government activity is relevant to their needs. Both the focus groups and public officials indicated that self-interest is a key reason why people attend public meetings.

Additionally, the findings regarding how public meetings and the public participation process should be designed are relatively consistent among the literature, focus groups and public officials. The literature outlined several procedures and aspects of the physical environment that should be taken into consideration including the agenda, facilitators, small meetings, and roundtables. Likewise, the majority of respondents noted similar meeting design changes. This was as simple as time allotments (two minutes seemed to be the norm) of those who are discussing the issue, rearranging the meeting facility such as small groups, tables and chairs, dispose of physical barriers such as higher level seating and wooden barriers, and establishing certain rules prior to opening the session for comments. Additionally, the public officials alluded to specific ground rules when asked about meeting design.

The data on conflict is somewhat inconclusive. The fact that 20% of the focus groups participants stated that structured meetings, procedures, and ground rules are needed indicates that they believe that conflict is somewhat inevitable, but should be managed. On the other hand, the public officials’ views appear to be more in line with the traditional perspective that conflict is dysfunctional.

Community debate and the deliberative process in the United States involving citizens and public officials date back to New England town meetings that are centuries old. One may argue that the same themes explored in this paper are no different than those faced by our founding fathers and the I republic of citizens. The three primary themes structure, procedure, and civility are issues each public forum must consider as consequential to productive public forums. Finally, as a key issue and a term found throughout the interviews, civility was one that almost all agreed with. The definition and comprehension of the term was quite simple; treat each other with respect.



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1 Not all of the Robbins and Judges (2008) conflict management techniques have been listed. Techniques such as training and organizational restructuring were not included.




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