Philly Politicians' Love for Unfunded Civic Engagement Mandates

(Zoning Board of Adjustment meeting | Photo credit: Maria Pouchnikova)

Philadelphia city government wants people to be very engaged. 

They want people to sweep their streets to such a degree that we don't need a municipal street sweeping program. They want people to come out twice or three times a month for two hours and weigh in on mostly-inane zoning variance cases. They want volunteers to flyer a few dozen houses every time somebody wants zoning permission for a roof deck. They want people to form Friends groups to support and co-govern neighborhood schools, rec centers, and public spaces. They want people to petition their police precinct and the Streets Department to host block parties, or to receive on-street parking management services, or to turn a tiny bit of street space into a plaza. 

There are even more examples where residents and neighborhood groups are given an "unfunded mandate" to do civic engagement, without much regard for how much time people are realistically going to have to spend doing all this stuff.

Of course it goes without saying that having a really civically and politically organized neighborhood can pay huge dividends in all kinds of ways. And in general, it's a great thing for the City to encourage. 

But while I'm specifically not going to argue that we should have overall lower levels of civic engagement, there is a case that city government isn't considering enough the cumulative load of all the civic engagement they bake into many policies and processes—or in the case of street sweeping, what they force people to do as individuals by declining to offer a core municipal service that every other big city has. 

Elected and appointed officials alike could stand to recognize that individuals have a finite amount of time to spend in a given week on unpaid volunteer civic work, and that in any given neighborhood—even very well-resourced neighborhoods—there are at most about 20-30 activist oddballs (to be aspirational) managing all the various civic affairs for the entire neighborhood. And when elected officials make choices about issues that demand a lot of public engagement, they're often not considering the additional time they're forcing lots of people to spend on unpaid civic work. And it's particularly a problem since having a lot of extra free time to spend on unpaid activism, or a flexible work schedule to attend important meetings like at the Zoning Board of Adjustment,  is a form of privilege that is extremely unevenly distributed.

For instance, when Cindy Bass decided to try and ban daycares from opening in most of Northwest Philadelphia, and then running all daycare applications through the zoning variance process, she probably didn't think about how that could balloon the number of zoning meetings that neighborhood groups have to organize and spend their evening hours on. People are going to be asked to take more time away from their families to go show up at meetings and argue about daycare centers. And since the meetings that really matter aren't the RCO meetings that happen in the neighborhood, but the ZBA meetings held in the middle of the workday, the voices who will be advantaged by this change would be people with a lot of extra time on their hands like retirees, or professionals with flexible schedules—everybody but the working parents who need daycare services the most.

The "unfunded mandate" issue has come up in the past during some of the earlier debates over proposed Council changes to RCO procedures, where seemingly small tweaks to the notification rules that Council wanted to make would have ended up overloading neighborhood groups financially and time-wise. The legislation was amended in response, but the point is that elected officials always seem to want to add to the load without thinking about the total effect.

The increased civic engagement load from something like this also makes the volunteer recruitment death spiral worse, where, because the minimum threshold for participation gets set so high, it scares off prospective volunteers, and the people tasked with carrying things out ends up being the same small overburdened circle of individuals.

Another important point about this is that, if people only have some much time to spend in the week on unpaid civic work, the city should take stock of what they think is most important, and strategically take things off people's plates in some less important areas, in order to nudge everybody toward the highest impact stuff. What if Mayor Kenney sent a machine sweep my block, so I could spend that time going out and registering voters instead, or hosting a committee meeting or event for the neighborhood organization? What if Councilmember Bass decided not to make her constituents spend a few extra hours a month fighting about daycares, so people could do something better with their civic time?

We need way less socially-useless parking activism at the local zoning meeting, and way more socially-useful fundraisers for the neighborhood public schools and libraries, and the city has a lot of power to turn the dial in the right direction. Instead of making neighborhood groups host three meetings a month for people to complain about other people's backyard depth or roof decks, they could just raise the threshold for what requires a meeting and let the truly inane stuff go straight to the city's Zoning Board of Adjustment—freeing up lots of time for civically-oriented people to do what's really important.

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  • Chris Labovitz
    commented 2018-09-21 15:16:53 -0400
    Wow, amazing article. I didn’t think anyone noticed. We are not alone. To all the individuals and groups that spend countless hours trying to maintain their neighborhoods this article is a salute to you. As we say here #taconystrong.