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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:

  1. Enhance citizen participation, civic engagement and citizenship education.
  2. Inform policy makers.
  3. Improve on the traditional public hearing process.
  4. 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.

For a more detailed description of the Countywide Community Forums, download the great document (pdf) John put together for his feature day.

Sandy Heierbacher is the director of the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD). She co-founded NCDD in 2002 with her husband Andy Fluke. Sandy has an M.A. in International Management from SIT Graduate Institute. Click here for a list of articles and resources authored by Sandy.

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We always encourage a lively exchange of ideas, whether online or off. Questions? Please feel free to contact us directly.

  1. John, thanks for the great writeup and your invaluable work raising consciousness about better forms of public participation!

    I'd love to know if you have any thoughts about how to tighten the linkage between the forums and policymakers?

    Also, what have been some of the most interesting (unexpected) findings from the forums you've held to date?

  2. John Spady says:

    Hi Phil,
    "Tightening the linkage", in my opinion, takes personal outreach (even more than I expected perhaps) to the policymakers themselves. A report, presented in public session, is not enough to capture enough attention — unless you have already done your outreach ahead of time to the media and policy makers. After the report is presented, you become dependent on their interests, their schedule, and their follow through. Although you can push the discussion somewhat, cooperation is better then conflict.

    The mosts unexpected findings have come from a deeper analysis of the results when contrasted against specific demographics.

    I am making my 5-page presentation to the Central Area Chamber of Commerce available at the link below. It was my attempt to highlight the interesting differences and similarities of Black and African American opinions on our Round 4 topic of Public Safety: Law and Justice. If anyone has any questions, please let me know.
    http://files.me.com/jspady/ep9655

    -John

  3. A friend of mine, LaVonna Connelly, commented on my facebook note about John and Seattle's Countywide Community Forums:

    My utmost respect to Mr Dick Spady for his committment to getting this started. I'm too "green" to have intelligent questions for you, John… but let me just say "I want some of this for my own community"… its just a matter of how. It is entirely inspiring to read about your work. KUDOS John!

  4. In facebook, I asked John:

    "I'm curious if you know of other counties or local governments that have instituted these kind of community-wide dialogue programs? As far as I know, this is quite rare! If you know of any, I'm wondering if they are also privately funded? Seems like the requirement to use "no taxpayer funds" would be quite an obstacle for making this happen in most places."

    John's response:

    "Well, we wrote this into the original initiative. The council did not impose this requirement on us. It has good and bad aspects…

    On the good side, you are not subject to being cut out of the budget — there is nothing to cut! You do get some respect from people who are constantly looking for programs to cut.

    On the bad side, it's up to us to raise donations from the public, other businesses, and (hopefully) a interested foundation.

    This might be a good time to post the link to our online donations page! ;-) http://tinyurl.com/ccf-donation

  5. My response to John:

    Thanks for clarifying this, John. Do you think the private funding gets the results of the forums more attention from public officials, or less attention? I can see how it could go either way, and I'm wondering what you think.

    John Spady's response to me:

    As I remember it, a few days before the ordinance was unanimously adopted, some officials did offer a concern about NOT using taxes for a PUBLIC program. I think there was perhaps a questioning about how to manage/control a process that had no traditional "funding strings" that could be pulled. Maybe not. Eventually this concern was put aside and the ordinance was adopted.

    I don't think public officials particularly think about the funding source of a project when they interact with it. If it exists in law then it is honored. If donated funds for the program run out in the future, and county officials choose not to change the law to fund it with taxes, then the program would go into a kind of hibernation until additional donations could revive it.

  6. Later, DeAnna Martin asked John this in the NCDD facebook group:

    "John, you know I love the countywide community forum process, especially the opportunity to be a host in my own community… I'm curious to hear your response to a few things:

    What need do you think it fulfills in our democracy?

    What's your dream of how this process would operate fully in the world and in what forms?

    In relation to the D&D field, what's unique about your process and how can it add value to the myriad of processes D&D practitioners look to when planning an engagement effort?"

    Here is John's reply to DeAnna:

    "I think it fulfills a deep desire for meaningful interaction with others in community together and a desire also to have an impact on the social and political issues of our times.

    Only a decentralized process could ever hope to operate "fully in the world." Voting is a decentralized process and offers resolution to community decisions. Our Community Forums are also a decentralized process — they offer insights, awareness, and the measured opinions of community participants. This helps to further the conversation until a vote, or some other decision, is finally taken. I guess my dream is for any process that appreciates our individual values and our collective wisdom.

    What's unique is the use of linked networks of small groups. It costs almost nothing for a small group to meet. However, the more people who meet physically, the more difficult it is to manage the logistics and keep the costs low. By linking small groups with common materials and methods for feedback (paper, phone, web, etc) a "virtual group" can be measured for relatively little cost. So, we "add value" by "reducing cost" while also increasing the opportunities for meaningful participation of more and more people.

    Great questions! Thanks."

  7. John Spady says:

    Just an update that we completed our “Round 7″ forums on the topic of “Equity and Economic Opportunity Across King County” in May, 2011 with 489 respondents. Results are available from the King County Auditor’s website — click on my name above to see those results.

    Round 8 begins in September, 2011, and will (for the third time) be about the King County budget and the values of county residents as they continue to come to grips with continued spending cuts and accompanying service reductions across all sectors of the general budget.

    If you have any other comments or questions, please post me a message here. Thanks!

  8. What is CCF? says:

    [...] Overview and background about CCF from appointed Councilor Coordinator, John Spady: http://ncdd.org/2401 [...]

  9. John Spady says:

    This link gives information about a new sister organization — the Community Forums Network. Please check it out.

    http://ncdd.org/7286

    Thanks,
    John Spady

  10. Bill Larsen says:

    It seems like a convenient way to get county officials off the hot seat. Now they can stay safe and insulated in their offices free from the rabble their decisions may affect and free from having to give direct answers to direct questions. When officials feel pressure from the electorate they’re more apt to resolve problems. Now it will be too easy for them just to put community problems in the round file and not have to answer to the voters.

    • John Spady says:

      Hi Bill,
      I understand your concern. The CCF process brings to the table lots of people who have never directly communicated with their local officials. And the CCF process is not a replacement for any of the other processes that officials have used to interact with the broader public. Polls and public meetings and other traditional methodologies will continue to be utilized. CCF is proven model that broadens the pool of voices that can be presented to officials using measurable reports and gives officials the opportunity to review and internalize the opinions and values of an engaged public. With what we have learned using county, state, and city level models, we are able to consider doing something similar now on a national level. Please reference: http://ncdd.org/7956

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