Pittsburgh Open Government Amendment: the Citizen Advisory Panel model

Open government = better government!

The Model

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Drawing on previous experience


he model used and adapted for the Pittsburgh Citizen Advisory Panel in the Open Government Amendment to the City Charter is that of the former Citizen Advisory Panel of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Regional Planning Commission.   The Federal Highway Administration was so impressed with its level and quality of public involvement, they used it nationally as a model for excellence in public participation.

The key to the effectiveness of the CAP of SPRPC was its open membership with no size limit, its autonomous self-governance, and the ease with which citizens could join and immediately begin to participate.   This openness enabled the CAP of SPRPC to capitalize upon both the long held and momentary concerns of citizens as a motivation to get involved.   Many who joined over a concern with one project or a specific issue in their own back yard soon became aware that their concern was really a subset of larger problems which also needed attention.   Some members grew tired or quit after their favored or disfavored project was approved, but others persisted and became more involved with the issues.   One member even went on to become a County Commissioner in Beaver County.

The dynamic membership and productivity of the CAP of SPRPC would not have been possible if its members were appointed or had to wait on a list before being allowed to participate.   The ease of initial involvement assured the participation of many highly competent people who with packed schedules would have otherwise been dissuaded if they had to undergo a long, drawn out appointment process.   What was most impressive to some members of the CAP of SPRPC was the level of technical expertise in various areas that was quickly brought into the process through the open membership policy.   In some cases, CAP members had at their disposal expertise to which SPRPC itself did not otherwise have access.

Just as importantly, though, the open membership also brought in inexperienced citizens who would not have been there if an impediment was laid in their way.   The mix of citizens brought new ideas and perspectives and provided an educational process for many who would not have otherwise learned about what was going on.

As with any group, it was found that members tend to pick leaders who lend stability to the organization.   Similarly the core component of the membership tends to be those who have a fairly good grasp of the issues and put in the most time and effort.   They, in turn, help to provide continuity not only by keeping the organization running but by helping educate new members to bring them up to speed with both the issues and how the CAP operates.

In considering the Open Government Amendment, a few people have expressed a concern that allowing just anybody to join and govern themselves would be unwieldy.   First, this was wholly not the experience with the CAP of SPRPC.   Moreover, if this were a valid criticism, then democracy in any organization, community, or country would be unwarranted.   It should be made clear that we are not talking about unleashing anarchy among an agitated mob.   Indeed, neither the CAP of SPRPC nor the proposed CAP of the City of Pittsburgh was or would be unruly.   In both cases, Roberts Rules of Order stood and stand as the governing rules beyond the CAP bylaws and the rules set forth in the Open Government Amendment itself.   To provide further protection, unlike its predecessor, there is a strong conflict of interest provision, which is something that was found lacking before, while, as with its predecessor, there is an "anti-packing provision" to prevent a sparsely attended meeting from being taken over by a small insurgent group of new members.

The CAP of the City of Pittsburgh is designed to provide an enhanced, civil process for the engagement of the general citizenry in the generation of public policy and, at the same time, to enable the monitoring of their government so that it may be held accountable in real time rather than after the fact.   As defined by the Open Government Amendment, it is simply not conducive to the involvement of disruptive or rowdy individuals.   To insinuate otherwise is to demean the large number of concerned citizens who would form the basic membership of the CAP, many of whom are already respectable members of other civic organizations or are sincerely concerned citizens who for one reason or another have yet to get involved. -- It should be noted that the CAP process has a distinct advantage in attracting busy, competent people including those who haven't been involved before.   Compared to other groups which offer no assurance of ever being heard by the public officials, let alone heeded, the guaranteed access afforded by the CAP process (with reports of both majority and minority opinions being possible) at least gives the assurance of being heard and tends to make it worth their while.

Possibly the greatest testament to the effectiveness of the CAP of SPRPC is that SPRPC eliminated it after CAP members uncovered improprieties, falsifications, and bad planning practices affecting billions of dollars and reported them to federal authorities.   In contrast, should the Pittsburgh CAP be even partly as effective, it will surely garner significant public support and since the public will have created it by referendum, only the public can remove it. -- On the other hand, though, if for any reason the Pittsburgh CAP would not perform effectively or would become an impediment to the effective operation of the City, there are means for correcting unforeseen problems.   In a worst case scenario, the public is equally capable of totally eliminating it by another referendum within as little as 3 months, a prospect which should provide a strong incentive for members to keep it well run and constructive.

more CAP history

By providing for the Pittsburgh CAP in the City Charter, its existence won't depend upon the will of our public officials -- only the people of Pittsburgh can remove it!

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