“The trouble with socialism is it takes too many evenings.” And the trouble with democracy, as practiced by the National Park Service, is that those evenings aren’t worth the bother.
On Monday I drove out to a dark and inaccessible patch of East Potomac Park to attend the NPS public meeting on the security designs for the Washington Monument. I saw taxis and zip cars pulling up because, of course, there was no access to mass transit. It was rush hour and the bridges were jammed.
But the room was full, and people clearly were passionately engaged with how–and whether–the grounds of the Washington Monument will be redesigned to accommodate a magnetometer screening facility. Much of the official presentation was a perfunctory walk through of the legal parameters for public comment. After architect Hany Hassan spoke the Park Service announced that despite the efforts of several audience members to ask questions and make comments at the microphone, the public was very definitely NOT going to be heard except in what the NPS called a “workshop” format.
And what is an NPS workshop? Do you imagine, say, experienced moderators with flips charts, soliciting, clarifying and recording audience ideas? A report back to the whole meeting at the end, with each group sharing its insights? Dialogue? NPS officials making a list of ideas, repeating them back to the audience in a way that assures people they have been heard? A clear statement of how those ideas will be incorporated and used during the decision-making process? An invitation to a regularly scheduled, accessible next meeting, with a clear agenda for future installments of the “workshop” process?
No. The NPS employees didn’t even bother to take notes–and were, in fact, told not to take notes. There were no formal workshop procedures, and the “groups” they asked the audience to join weren’t even given designated places to sit and engage. Instead, people milled around, then left.
It was a farce. The best you can say of this process is that the NPS is incompetent at public engagement and workshops. But I fear it is much worse than that, the process is designed to thwart any chance of a public back and forth between the audience and the NPS. They didn’t even keep a transcript of the meeting. What’s the point of coming out?
We live in a busy, complicated democracy. People don’t give up two hours of their evening easily unless they are very committed to a cause. If you call a public meeting, then use it to thwart the very reasons that people come out and engage–the right and the opportunity to be heard–you are abusing the public and the public trust. The NPS should be ashamed of this kind of event, and they should change their policies to institute a clear, meaningful and effective platform for true public engagement.