Featured Member: John Spady and the Countywide Community Forums
Today is our first in a series of NCDD “Featured Member Days.” All day, we will be using our social media tools (our blog, our listservs, our facebook group, our twitter feed, our linkedin group, etc.) to introduce as many people as possible to an extraordinary NCDD member. Today we’re featuring John Spady and the Countywide Community Forums.
Feel free to add a comment here or respond to a post you see on the listserv or in our social media groups! John will be responding to any questions or comments you ask him today.
John is the Executive Vice-President and Director of Research for the Forum Foundation in Seattle, and he’s been an active and supportive member of NCDD since the beginning. John’s story intersects considerably with that of his father’s. John’s father, Dick Spady, is the owner of 5 iconic Dick’s Drive-In restaurants in Seattle, and he has been a strong proponent of quality dialogue and citizen engagement for decades.
Last year, at the age of 83, John’s father submitted Initiative 24 — not to the voters of the State of Washington, but instead to King County, home to the largest city in the state: Seattle. After over 80,000 valid signatures were collected, King County (Seattle area) Councilmembers decided to directly enact Initiative 24, which created the Citizen Councilor Network. The Citizen Councilor Network’s first project is called the Countywide Community Forums, which are designed “to enhance citizen participation, civic engagement, and citizenship education in government through a network of periodic public forums….”
With the backing of his family, Dick Spady pledged that his private business, Dick’s Drive-In Restaurants, would underwrite the cost for the first two years of the Countywide Community Forums. This included the cost of the county employee in the Auditor’s Office, and all the costs associated with production, distribution, and website creation: a stated commitment of $350,000. Now in its third year, Dick’s Drive-In has recommitted itself through the end of 2010. This was critically important for the project, as King County Councilmembers stipulated that no tax dollars would be used to establish and maintain the new Citizen Councilor Network.
Our featured member, John Spady, is one of three coordinators appointed by the King County Auditor. His official title is “Deputy Citizen Councilor Coordinator.”
What are Citizen Councilors?
Anyone who lives or works in King County and registers to participate in Countywide Community Forums can serve as a Citizen Councilor. Councilors don’t have to be “citizens” in the legal sense, and there is no age restriction on who can register as a Citizen Councilor. Over 1900 people have registered as Citizen Councilors since 2008.
What are the Countywide Community Forums and how do they work?
The newly enacted ordinance gave responsibility to the King County Auditor’s Office (KCAO) for its oversight. The Countywide Community Forums were developed to implement the goals of the Citizen Councilor Network. It has three primary components:
- Registration of Citizen Councilors;
- Meeting management tools to connect hosts and guests; and
- Opinionnaire® survey tabulation and reporting tools
The KCAO uses its website for official information and to post results from each round of the forums. However, the three components listed above are managed by a parallel non-government controlled (i.e. public) website.
The public website connects Citizen Councilors who agree to help to physically facilitate meetings in homes, libraries, or other public places (hosts) with Citizen Councilors who are not hosts (guests). The site uses a “mashup” that combines a Google Map with meeting information from each scheduled host forum. Citizen Councilors who cannot attend face-to-face meetings during the six weeks allowed for each round of forums can still participate by filling out an online Opinionnaire® survey.
To make the Countywide Community Forums both independent from government while at the same time effective and accessible for participants inside government, the organizational design effects a de facto “double veto” arrangement between the government Auditor (through the program manager) and the public’s Citizen Councilor Coordinator. Both have to work well together in order to keep the program moving along.
What purpose do the forums serve?
1. Strengthening social capital
In the Preamble ordinance adopted by the King County council it states, “One key to a sustainable community is an informed and sustainable dialogue among leaders and people. Citizens need new, more convenient and effective ways to share their opinions with other citizens and the leaders of their organizations, institutions and governments. This is a process of building social capital through both bonding and bridging dialogue and improving community mental health and happiness….”
Countywide Community Forums help strengthen social capital throughout the broadest dimensions of our communities, creating opportunities for extended interactions among willing people — both face-to-face and in supportive online environments.
With this insight we are now ready to re-imagine the concept of a typical face-to-face public or town hall meeting and extend its traditional forms of interaction into larger, and distributed, network structures while, at the same time, strengthening the social skills of individual participants.
2. Extending the paradigm of the public meeting
Large public meetings can be difficult. Do these problems sound familiar?
- So many people attend a public meeting that it drags on for hours.
- People are sometimes disrespectful of others during the meeting – they might talk too long, they might shout other people down, they might even try to change the focus of the meeting altogether.
- A lot of people just listen – they don’t seem to want to risk speaking up in front of others.
- A lot of good ideas get presented but most of the time no one asks how you feel about what is being said – no one measures the opinions of the people there.
- The loudest voices seem to get all the attention but ideas from the quiet voices should have attention paid to them as well.
In contrast, here are some of the experiences people have during a community forum:
- Each forum is small – typically from 4 to 12 people.
- Because there are fewer people attending any particular forum, it is completed relatively quickly.
- Forums are hosted by ordinary people – other registered Citizen Councilors – who agree to arrange a physical space for people to meet: perhaps in their home, an office, a library, a place of worship, or any other convenient location.
- Because forums are distributed throughout the community and hosted by just plain folks, there is no opportunity for outside groups to dominate the dialogue. There is no shouting, no Robert’s Rules of Order, no filters between participants.
- Hosts are not considered facilitators – they don’t have to be trained in the issues or in the techniques of conversation. Hosts receive everything necessary to conduct their meeting in a box mailed to them as soon as they confirm a date and time.
- Every person in a forum is listened to respectfully and is heard by others.
- All opinions are treated equally and the anonymous collective responses from all participants are gathered, tabulated, reported, and made public. Public officials analyze these opinions and acknowledge the contributions of the participating Citizen Councilors.
This is a new idea for public meetings; a way to increase the participation of people in the organizations of governance; and a way to strengthen the important social skills of a society through its individual citizens.
What are the results so far?
Extracted from the Executive Summary of the CCF Program Evaluation, February 4, 2010, by Chantal Stevens, Program Manager, King County Auditor’s Office:
At the conclusion of the fourth round of forums, the Countywide Community Forums program has collected the views of 1412 participants on King County-specific, policy topics. Overall, participants are satisfied with this engaging, non-partisan effort and report that they learn from it about the topic and King County policies. The program has received some media attention and was a recipient of the International Association of Public Participation Core Value Award.
The goals of the programs are to:
- Enhance citizen participation, civic engagement and citizenship education.
- Inform policy makers.
- Improve on the traditional public hearing process.
- Build social capital and help strengthen the community.
The program has been particularly successful in meeting its first and third goal and offers the right formula to address the fourth. The second goal is more difficult to assess and is likely to have been less successfully met in the initial stages of the program. Implementation of this report’s recommendations would support an environment that is more likely to see all four goals being met.