valuing mavens

I believe the culture of City Hall is changing. It is becoming more customer focused and open-minded. This has been a steady evolution over the past 3+ years, beginning with a small but pivotal change in staff. However, it seems some challenges persist.

One of the attitudes I hope to have purged from City Hall is that public consultation isn’t necessary because it’s always the same people who show up and we already know what they are going to say. The short-circuiting assumption here is that the only purpose of public consultation is to hear new information from people we wouldn’t expect.

But what about helping people understand the issues affecting their community? What about giving them an opportunity to hear about the options or challenges being considered by decision-makers?

Maybe it is usually all the same people who show up. And maybe they often say exactly what we would expect them to say. But giving them that opportunity maintains or strengthens relationships with people who are interested and care enough to show up.

These are people who want to understand. Giving them access to the experts developing plans and giving advice to City Council empowers them, helps them feel valued as members of their community. It also ensures they understand the issues at hand and have correct information to base their opinions upon.

This is important because these are types of people who will talk about what they’ve learned. They spread the information through the word-of-mouth network in the community. They also bring the questions and concerns they’ve heard in the community. This isn’t their elected or appointed responsibility, it’s just in their personality.

They are the mavens of our community. Their role is incredibly important, as described in Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point. The City’s communications must respect and address the unique interests of mavens. It is a mutually beneficial relationship.

The problem we fear is that, by listening, mavens will expect us to follow their advice. It’s a funny reaction – as to say, if we listen to people, they will be disappointed if we don’t do what they say, so let’s just not listen. Attempting to avoid this expectation by isolating the City from citizens does far more damage than good.

I think we’ve been making great progress. I’m very proud of the changes Mr. Pollock and Mr. Richardson have brought to the City. But we still have work to do.

We need to ensure we don’t neglect our mavens, but City communications isn’t just about being available to mavens. The new standard practice is to tell people stuff then ask them to write down their response. It’s easy and safe – minimizes the potential for uncomfortable confrontation. This is a huge advance in City communications in that it allows people access to the experts developing plans and giving advice to City Council. But it is still an insular exercise.

We need to foster the kind of dialogue and cross-pollination that makes an idea stronger or build greater understanding of an issue. For this, we will need to move beyond the walls of City Hall and beyond the safety of a tightly structured questionnaire. Mavens will come to us – we should welcome them and be ready for them – but for everyone else, we need to reach out and go to them.



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