Though I have often turned a critical eye on this process, pointing out that the limited amount of time and large number of meetings have strained the nature of collaboration, it is important to point out that the planning group is making successful progress.  The MTCY&NPG is accomplishing everything it has set out to do: committees have formed to delve into research on the various facets of the project, architects have signed contracts for the design process (though we are awaiting final budgets), PPR has opened up conversations with employees outside of the planning group, the greater Portland community has been kept apprised of the headway, and we are meeting our established deadlines.

For all intents and purposes, there is no reason to think that this partnership won’t continue along a successful path.  All indications point toward the planning group creating a design for the maintenance yard that meets the economic needs of PPR and its employees, factors in the environmental responsibilities, and creates a model of collaboration to serve as the foundation for how the City interacts with the community.  This process has mirrored successful community engagement undertakings that have happened across the country, but unfortunately, it has yet to raise the bar.

Incorporating Web 2.0 to create greater dialogue and innovation among the group and the greater community is one way to raise that bar, but the interactive Internet is only a tool.  The “attitude” of Web 2.0, that everyone’s input adds value, is the key to breaking loose from what has already been done and finding new ground for collaboration.  Everyone has their niche of expertise, but when only one way of communication dominates the process, participants are limited in adding their value.

The Way It’s Been Done

I don’t believe that limiting input to a specific communication method, especially one that involves sitting face-to-face around a table, is a malicious attempt by PPR to control information.  It is an attempt at managing too much information, and it’s a necessary technique used by organizations everywhere. Explaining how to balance diversity and manageability in a group setting, Gordon and Berry (2006) offer an informal matrix to categorize members into one of four groups as a way to increase efficiency among the whole:

“The matrix classifies people as completers or noncompleters in the columns and whether they make the group’s life easier or harder in the rows.  ‘Completers’ are people who almost always finish what they start or tasks they are given in the time allotted.  ‘Noncompleters’ may be brilliant people who make valuable contributions, but who almost never do anything on time or within budget.  ‘Life easier’ people tend to be optimistic, companionable, and easy to work with.  They may or may not top the list in substance.  ‘Life harder’ people, who again may be highly effective and valuable in other ways, tend to see the dark side of things, raise all possible objections to a course of action, and have prickly personalities.  In this oversimplified, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but amazing useful, method, the leader’s first task is to move the ‘noncompleter/lifeharder’ people out of the group” (p. 40).

The authors do remark that this method is “oversimplified, [and] somewhat tongue-in-cheek”, because they aren’t advocating this technique as modus operandi for managing group efforts, but their inclusion of this exercise speaks volumes about how far hierarchical systems have replaced inclusiveness.

Looking at this technique (Figure 10.1), I can’t help but wonder who falls into the category of “Life Harder-Noncompleter”, who gets to place them there, what their point-of-view is, and whether their point-of-view should be heard?  Prior to this process, the community felt that the City was calling the shots and the neighbors were the ones removed from the process (Figure 10.2).  The inverse was also true; the community raised their voices and shut Warner Pacific out of the process (Figure 10.3).

This matrix could be re-written in hundreds of different ways, with hundreds of different groups ending up in the “remove” column. “Tongue-in-cheek” or not, it is a technique that is used to gain a majority, manage time, and move forward. I can’t help but think back to my experience getting hazed for not raising my green card along with the group and wondering what alliances wanted to have me removed?  It’s efficient, and I am certainly not immune to using the exercise.  As President of the STNA, I became frustrated with how many times I found myself reverting to a process similar to this in order to manage discussions.  That frustration, however, stoked my interest in finding ways to create equitable relationships.

Web 2.0 doesn’t bring Utopia and solve all the problems of group manageability, especially when there are many kinks to work through.  It does, however, introduce a means to everyone (with a computer and network connection) of the very real concept that decisions don’t have to be administered from the top down.  Tools other than the interactive Internet still work, exemplified by Mt. Tabor neighbors showing their power by physically gathering a large audience to make noise, but it is inefficient. Neighbor’s strength came from having documented inconsistencies from the City on hand to prove (and threaten) that their direction had veered from the vision of the park.  That documentation came from a core group of neighbors who had the time, willingness, and know-how to search reams of documents and keep articulate notes.  Many community members don’t have the means to do such research, much let others know what they find, but new Internet tools are making it easier.

Paradigm Shift

Planning group member Pete Forsyth, a Wikipedia editor and a proponent of the interactive Internet, and I have discussed at length how to get the planning group to expand collaboration online, and haven’t found easy answers except that it will happen – and that it is happening.  Not just in the MTCY&NPG, but across the City.  Forsyth writes at length on Mt. Tabor and City issues on his blog, ournewmind.wordpress.com, keeping others informed and setting an example at how to use Web 2.0.  He has been an inspiration for me on this project – for both my research on this paper and how to proceed with my online participation.  So much so that I have wondered why my findings are going into a bound, paper document, and not online.

The answer that I am comfortable with is that it is because I want city government, a traditional institutions, to become aware of these tools from sources they trust, such as academia. Though the project manager introduced the Wiki to the group, there has been no follow up or elaboration on its uses with either the community or the City.  Acknowledging its existence, but not understanding its implications or its potential, will be hurtful as society employs these tools in increasingly successful ways.

In his book, Here Comes Everybody, Shirky (2008 ) reflects on his uncle’s small-town newspaper, which his grandfather founded in Richmond, Missouri, and the fear that perpetuated the industry when USA Today rose into existence.  His uncle was obsessed that “TV on paper” would ruin the newspaper business.  Although the national newspaper, with its snippets of information on a wide-range of topics, did take some market share from local papers, it wasn’t catastrophic.  What his uncle – and the newspaper industry in general – missed with the rise of USA Today, was the radical change in the overall ecosystem of information distribution.

At the same time that “TV on paper” was printing four-color and distributing news nationally, the Internet was being invented and was opening up pathways for individuals to gather news worldwide.  Newspapers could understand a threat from one of their own taking business away from them, but they couldn’t comprehend how an entity that isn’t a newspaper, isn’t a business, and isn’t even an institution, could make their industry obsolete.

There was a kind of narcissistic bias in the [newspaper] profession; the only threats they tended to take seriously were from other professional media outlets, whether newspapers, TV, or radio stations.  This bias had them defending against the wrong thing when the amateurs began producing material on their own (p. 56).

Through my research, I have found that there is a bias in City government to only take threats seriously that come by traditional means: citizens articulating their wishes with letters and testimony at public hearings, media exposing hardship and injustice, and voting to name a few. They cannot comprehend how an entity that isn’t a special interest, or even an institution, could threaten the existence of government that we know today.

This tool is only in its infancy, but my point isn’t that government should attempt to control this “threat”; they need to harness it as a collaborative method to navigate a demanding future. When an increasing number of participants are informed, and vocal, there will more demand on government to be transparent and include the community in its planning efforts.  There will be pressure to establish deeper collaboration on a diverse number of efforts.  There will be interest in more partnerships like the MTCY&NPG.  And all indications point to citizens becoming increasingly engaged and active in wanting their voice heard in planning efforts.

Economic factors, however, have to be considered, as the danger of the budget being cut for this effort – a partnership that was unanimously approved by City Council – is an indication that finances are stretched.  As an advocate for equity and inclusion in this process, every collaborative effort with the City needs $465,000 a year.  Realistically, this isn’t bound to happen anytime soon, as bureaus and projects fight for limited monies.  By investing, with both money and training, in efforts that incorporate the interactive Internet, local government can lay the foundation to usher in a new era where community engagement is seamless, expansive, and affordable.

Closing Remarks

The most exciting detail of the research I found in this process was that definition after definition of Web 2.0 explained that there was no one way to implement the technology and philosophy.  Just as compelling is that no one knows yet of the full potential.  Mistakes and successes have been equally revealing, and new ground is broken every day.

With such a dynamic interplay happening in communication, the only mistake local government – or any organization – could make is to believe that the way institutions are run will remain static.  Change is happening, and a continued effort needs to be made to incorporate innovative tools to broaden participation and gather insight.  Without it, we will continue down a path that will, for efficiency’s sake, “remove” someone or some group’s voice.

When I began my involvement with the MTCY&NPG, it was fresh from the successful mediation undertaking where I impacted decisions by expressing the point-of-view of the land – of Mt. Tabor.  I expressed that from a foundation of sustainability, but it wasn’t framed in the three E’s – or any other principles.  It wasn’t that definable.  I spoke of the land as a living ecosystem, with countless activities going on “behind-the-scenes” that added to the health of the land.

I spoke of the community connecting with the land in ways that are not quantifiable – that you can count all of the walkers in the park, but those numbers won’t tell you about the conversations had, the insight procured, and the peace attained from their connection with nature.

Having children, which was well known among my neighbors, I spoke of the need to steward the land for future generations.  I even mentioned, several times, that I had seen the same blockbuster movies on climate change that my neighbors (and PPR) had seen, and that paving over the land and dumping pollutants into the air was no longer an option.  My insight didn’t offer a solution, but it was unique expression of the multitude of issues involved with land-use planning.  Participants agreed that following values that took care of the Earth and the people would lead to innovative solutions.

For the most part, moving the same sort of conversations that were had in the mediation into the planning group hasn’t happened.  Whether it is because of the short timeline or because managing a group of 40 members is a complicated task (or both), efficiency is a must, and keeping discussion bullet-pointed and top-line achieves that.  PPR’s agenda rules because they hold the information and distribute it as needed.  Group meetings are discussions, but they are always in response to a PPR presentation.  Innovation has happened, such as increased input on coordinating agendas and individuals finding their voice in committee homework presentations, but the City very much sets the pace. A spark of a creative idea has a long way to travel to be approved by authority.

For example, there has been an interesting recent development in the group about the concern of maintenance having an increased priority over horticultural.  The neighbors are pushing for the development of a business model that takes advantage of additional horticultural services, but I shake my head at the difficulty they’ll have making the quantifiable case without 1) having reams of information and 2) having the department responsible for strategy, finance, and business development refuse a seat on the planning group.  And though more meetings will be had to discuss the possibilities, the opportunity to kill creativity abounds.

Endeavors are underway that are changing this dynamic.  Technology and collaborative efforts like the MTCY&NPG are creating a living democracy in the 21st Century.  I admire that Portland Parks & Recreation took on this task and that they have run it as smoothly and enjoyably as they have.  Their values, both in writing and in manner, align with the community and attract deserved attention from around the world on Portland’s livability and forward thinking.

It is because of their leadership that I recommend that they, and the City of Portland, make headway with the interactive Internet.  With a compelling topic – public parks – and the organization to reach 1000’s of Portlanders “offline,” there is the opportunity to break new ground in community participation and earn additional worldwide recognition as a leader.   Even if – or maybe especially if – mistakes are made along the way.

With the right budget and the right resources, the City and community could raise the bar of deliberate government.  Coincidentally, on June 3, 2008 – and at the closing of this writing – City Council passed the revised budget, fully funding this project.

The door is open to them… and to all of us.

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