Terri Buckner: How much does town value input?

February 14, 2014 

Reading through the Chapel Hill Town Council’s retreat materials last month, I was reminded of my favorite organizational learning theorists, Chris Argyris and Donald Schon, authors of two theories of action.

One theory is espoused; it’s what you say you believe. The other is action; it’s what you actually do. For most of us, there is generally a gap between the two. That gap creates varying levels of confusion for those we interact with. Do I believe what you say or what you do?

What struck me about the staff report presented at the retreat was how it was organized around the themes from Chapel Hill 2020 and yet many of the reported accomplishments were a stretch to reconcile with the goals generated by the citizen theme groups. For example, in “A Place for Everyone” staff reported establishing a focus on youth services with plans for a new facility in 2016. Now I think that’s a great accomplishment, but where did it come from? It isn’t one of the five citizen-specified goals for that theme group. And what was the decision process that prioritized that action over the citizen-developed goals?

Throughout 2020 and since, the town has “espoused” its commitment to community engagement. Heck, the final 2020 report includes a whole section of all the ways in which staff engaged the community. And at the retreat, staff proposed community outreach as one of the priority goals for the year. No one can say that staff and the council don’t espouse their theory on the importance of community engagement frequently.

Their actions around engagement, though, are at odds with that espoused theory. During the Ephesus-Fordham public meetings, staff asked citizens for feedback on various aspects of the plans they were developing, from signage to building heights to road restructuring. And citizens offered feedback, both positive and negative. Did anyone else ever notice any acknowledgement of citizen feedback in those plans as they have evolved?

Then there’s the Obey Creek Compass Committee. The citizen committee, created by the council in the name of citizen engagement, submitted a report with a unanimously adopted set of recommendations that were subsequently endorsed by the town’s Planning Board. When reporting to the council though, the staff ignored any of those recommendations they disagreed with, and the council adopted the staff approach, all the while praising the citizen effort.

One of the repeated requests citizens have made to the council as far back as Charterwood and the Northern Area Study (another council-appointed citizen committee) has been to conduct traffic and economic impact studies and to use those studies to inform decisions about how to balance the impact of new development on existing neighborhoods and commercial districts. More recently, citizens have begun asking to have the costs of town services for different types of development quantified. And yet, Ephesus-Fordham plans are moving forward with multi-million dollar financing plans in the absence of any traffic or impact studies and in the absence of any solid model for estimating the costs of town services.

So should we believe the staff and the council’s espoused theory on the importance and value of citizen engagement or their actions that say citizen engagement is at best a superficial action that has no place in the planning process? Based on Argyris and Schon’s research, it would be unrealistic to expect organizations or individuals to have complete alignment between their two theories of actions. But as adults, our goal should be to constantly reflect on that gap and make conscious decisions to bring the two theories into alignment.

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