From CITY WATCH - Los Angeles
Friday, February 16, 2007
EMPOWERMENT REPORT: 10 Totally Unsolicited
Suggestions for the New DONE General Manager
By Greg Nelson
Shortly, the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment
will have a new General Manager and hopefully a new
A SYSTEM THAT IS CONTROLLED BY CITY HALL CANNOT
SUCCEED AS AN EXAMPLE OF PARTICIPATORY DEMOCRACY.
You can't order people to participate in government.
Therefore, I am offering these 10 totally unsolicited
suggestions to the new general manager.
1. IMPROVE MORALE IN THE DEPARTMENT before you do
anything else. Meet with staff individually so that
they may speak freely. Abolish the rules that treat
them like children. Not only accept their ideas, and
their critiques of your ideas, but actually encourage
them. Make it fun to come to work again. Keep the
door to your office open as often as possible.
2. RETURN TO THE FUNDAMENTALS by ensuring that the
department's primary function is assisting the
Neighborhood Councils and not controlling them.
Show them how to reach the traditionally
disenfranchised populations, how to deal with
disruptive people, and how to develop credibility.
One of the golden rules of community organizing is to
never do for a group what they can do for themselves.
It's the old “teach them how to fish” thing.
3. KEEP THE BUREAUCRACY TO A MINIMUM. The most
valuable commodity that the Neighborhood Council
members have is their time. Between work, family, and
other volunteer activities, their time is limited.
The system was designedActive Image without excessive
rules and a bureaucracy to enforce them. The plan was
to empower the Neighborhood Councils, respect their
creativity, and re-evaluate the plan through the
Neighborhood Council Review Commission. To
over-regulate now based upon inadequate information
would be a mistake, and it would disrespect the
4. COMMUNICATE WITH THE NEIGHBORHOOD COUNCILS. The
department has an online newsletter list of many
thousands, but it's pretty much used just to notify
people about upcoming meetings. Substantive
announcements are limited to the Board of Neighborhood
Commissioners, and the one or two persons who are
around late enough to hear them.
5. BE THE NATION'S CHEERLEADER FOR
NEIGHBORHOOD COUNCILS AND PARTICIPATORY DEMOCRACY.
The media can be your friends. Be honest with them
and they'll be fair to you. The DONE website includes
newspaper articles about Neighborhood Councils so that
anyone who wants to be impressed by their
accomplishments, or to just be more knowledgeable
about them can find what they need.
6. MAKE THE NEIGHBORHOOD COUNCILS YOUR PARTNERS. It's
difficult toActive Image convince people to be more
involved with government if government ignores them.
Return to the practice of developing rules, policies,
and laws, and solving problems through working groups
within which Neighborhood Council volunteers and city
staff work together and share ownership of the work
product. Do things with Neighborhood Councils and not
just to them.
7. GIVE NEIGHBORHOOD COUNCILS THE TOOLS THEY NEED TO
SUCCEED. This pretty much means providing them with
the education and training that they want, including
the best practices of other Neighborhood Councils, and
giving them a chance to utilize these tools before
imposing new regulations. But remember the strain
that mandatory training places on volunteers with
limited time, and consider how much higher you want to
see the bar raised above what's required of the
decision-makers that the Neighborhood Councils advise.
8. ENHANCE TRANSPARENCY AND EARLY NOTIFICATION. Many
feel that the Early Warning section was the most
important part of the new City Charter. More people
would get involved in government if they knew what
DONE and BONC were doing, why it is important, and how
they can share their thoughts.
9. MAKE THE CONGRESS OF NEIGHBORHOODS about
Neighborhood Councils – the way it was intended.
10. ENJOY YOURSELF. It isn't like you're in charge of
the 9-1-1 Center. It ain't about world peace!
(Greg Nelson participated in the birth and development
of the LA Neighborhood Council system and most
recently served as the General Manager of the
Department of Neighborhood Empowerment. Nelson now
provides news and issues analysis to CityWatch.)