Transparency is a two-way street. Government must be open, but citizens must tune in

There have been two big failures in local government transparency recently. The first was the Timberland Regional Library system’s proposed Capital Facilities Plan that included library closures without any public input. The second was the City of Olympia’s surprise publication of a draft plan that would raise parking fees from $10 to $60 a year for people who live in the South Capitol neighborhood.

In both instances, public backlash led to policy backtracks. No libraries will be closing soon (though the libraries sure have money problems), and Mayor Cheryl Selby and city staff are meeting with the South Capitol Neighborhood Association later this week to discuss the parking fees, which are sure to be revised.

These failures of transparency and timely public participation in local government are anomalies. Most of the time, our local governments struggle in good faith – though with varying degrees of success – to involve the public in what they do.

The city of Olympia was certainly acting in good faith when it proposed the Missing Middle idea for upzoning neighborhoods to make room for a growing population and to address a housing affordability crisis. But citizens complained that even the elaborate and lengthy public engagement process about that proposal came too late, when a policy direction already had been chosen.

We recognize that getting public engagement processes right is an age-old problem, and there are no perfect solutions. But it does seem that governments would do better to involve the public early, when a problem has emerged, and before a policy direction has been chosen.

When the library system realized it needed more money, or it needed to scale back its operations, its board could have told the public, and engaged citizens in finding solutions. The same is true about Olympia’s parking revenue. And when Olympia determined it needed to make room for more people and a solve a housing affordability crisis, maybe it should have started with a community conversation about how to do that.

Asking the public first appears to be what the Port of Olympia is doing with its Vision 2050 plan: It has recently completed a public survey, shared the results on a new website, and is holding public meetings starting this week.

But there’s more to it than starting early and being transparent. How we stay informed about what local governments are doing is changing, and even with the Port’s best efforts, it’s a safe bet that people who didn’t take the survey or don’t see the website will feel left behind.

So maybe the need for better communication between citizens and local governments is itself a topic that warrants community conversations. That conversation will need to involve face-to-face conversation and smarter uses of electronic communications by governments and citizens.

Local government websites could certainly be more citizen-friendly. Olympia’s has links that let people sign up for various topical email newsletters, but its general information about issues (like homelessness) is out of date, and its navigation system for meeting schedules and agendas is byzantine. Tumwater and Lacey’s sites are better, but none of our local city sites provide easily accessible information about what challenges our communities face and how the public can weigh in. Thurston County’s site has recently improved dramatically, and provides hope that others can too.

Facebook pages and other social media have become more important communication venues, as are the broadcasts of public meetings on TCTV. The county is now livestreaming Commission agenda-setting meetings on Youtube on Tuesdays. And, of course, The Olympian continues to cover as much as we can, and to provide video as well as print reporting on our website, which has a growing subscriber base. Local blogs such as Janine Gates’ Little Hollywood, and the podcast The Olympia Standard are expanding the menu of local media options for internet-literate citizens.

So maybe people who care about local government should spend a little more time online, bookmark those sites, and push for improvements in the city websites.

The occasional epic failures of transparency should be recognized as outliers. And although the city of Olympia’s struggles with the Missing Middle wouldn’t have been entirely solved by an earlier and wider conversation, it would certainly have shown how modest a contribution the Missing Middle will make to increasing urban density and affordable housing.

The bottom line is, it’s important to recognize that by a wide margin, local governments do work hard to encourage public participation. Sometimes they’re just not experts at it, and they need all of us to participate more fully to help them improve.