What does "open" mean?

When lying awake last night reflecting on various decisions made in cohousing and in my neighborhood community, I explored some questions about what is open and transparent in a world where everyone belongs to several organizations and tries to involve and represent a larger community.

What is required to truly inform and solicit information about the needs, desires, or preferences of “the community.” How does a group know when it is being inclusive and transparent? And accountable?

OPEN MEETINGS

"The meeting was open to everyone” is a common standard. But when the meeting was announced once on a neighborhood email list, scheduled on a week night at a time when single parents can’t attend, some people are not home from work yet, and people also have other meetings is it an open meeting? Or the meeting is held the first Thursday of the month but no agenda announced? Or anyone can attend, call us.

Then the agenda, if published at all, says, “Spring planting.” 10 people of the 14,000 that the landscape affects, show up and decide to plant Giant Sycamore trees in the middle of Cozy Lane to resolve water drainage problems. Cozy Lane is lined with small historic one-story bungalows. The Giant Sycamores replace traditional rose bushes because they will absorb more water and provide more shade. They can grow to 90 feet tall. A one story house is closer to 20 feet.

The group, having put much work into researching the water problem and the requirements of Giant Sycamores, moves forward. As representatives of the community, they spend many hours obtaining various permits from the city and funds from foundations. This takes months during which there are no other notices to the community.

Is that an open process? Is it wise? Does it invite people to get involved in local governance? Or contribute to building a stronger community? Or to understand and respect the group’s process and decisions?

Another example: everyone in a cohousing community, resident managed, wakes up on Monday morning to find the laundry closed down for two weeks with no announcement. When the people are dependent on the laundry say, “What?”, they are told that they all consented to the decision to replace the floor 6 months ago. They had to know it was going happen sometime.

When a neighborhood street is closed for repairs. Residents wake up to find they can’t get out of their driveways. The city says the signs were put up the day before. Does everyone go out everyday to see if there are any signs on the trees? Do they come home earlier enough at night to notice that there are signs? Does this build confidence in the department of transportation? Does it convey the message that the city cares about its residents?

WAYS TO COMMUNICATE

With all the means of communication — digital, print, telephonic, in person — communications seems to be getting worse, not better. People often chose one media and pay little attention to others. Face to Face (F2F) is becoming almost impossible for inclusiveness, but some still believe it is the only way. "The real way". Have a meeting and those who come, decide. Those who do the work decide. If you want to decide, all you have to do is come to the meeting.

Many people commute to work across town, or even in the next town. They belong to 1-2 organizations and work on projects for the common good. Does that mean they have no say in a decision by another organization that directly involves them on a daily basis?

In cohousing there is a tension between those who want to communicate by bulletin board and those who haven’t looked at a bulletin board since email lists became almost universal. Yes, email does give advantage to those who write easily. But F2F and bulletin boards give advantage to extroverts who like the "being there together” and thinking in groups — and those who work at home. Extroverts like gathering around or bumping into each other in front of all the notices and sign up lists. Others come home from work late and tired and want to be able to do things online from where ever they are during the day. Or check a forum or a website.

Meetings alone are not, and perhaps never have been, the best and certainly not the only way to communicate with people. Not everyone is on the neighborhood email list, but hundreds out of 14,000 will be. Everyone may be on a much smaller community email list, but not all will read. But they have an easy opportunity, and can go back and read a message they missed. That is more inclusive than 8-10 in a room together and whose conversations can't be heard. Conversations give an indication of direction and reasoning that may never get into the minutes.

EVIDENCE OF REPRESENTATION

In my neighborhood, creating a dog park required more tangible evidence of support than a decision to bulldoze a stand of beautiful cherry trees in a small neighborhood park.

In my cohousing everyone is on the main email list, or if they aren’t have a partner who lets them know what is going on. There are still times when people complain of not being informed, but there is far less exclusion. And far less opportunity for one person or a few people to push their own agenda in the name of the community. Or to be accused of doing so.

There are many online opportunities for F2F now. Zoom allows 30 people to talk together. There are webinars where one or a group of people can give a presentation and others can submit questions and comments real time typing on a chat forum that everyone can see. This allows people to participate from anywhere. In their cars, at work, in the lobby of the daycare center. Will they? Who knows? It is also time limited — it occurs at a set time. With our 24/7, global lives, this is a drawback.

Meetings as the only forum for input and decisions is not inclusive and not as open as possible. There are more flexible and accessible means of informing and participating.

Another bias of meetings is that they favor people with common views who like to work together. Those who disagree are seen as causing dissension and are not really welcome.

Research on groups has found that people who agree with each other like working together, but those who represent diverse points of view make better decisions. One problem with meetings is that they usually confuse the two. Those who like working together (operations) also make the decisions (setting policy or requirements). This means the only options are those the people who like working together believe are viable and to be necessary. When a harmonious group prepares all the material and presents all the options diversity is weeded out before a decision even confronts the group.

CONCLUSIONS?

1. Use an effective means of communicating that is accessible to everyone. Diversity is important to making the best decision possible given all the circumstances. People's varied interests are part of the circumstances.

2. Separate policy decisions, those that organize the community in the future, and operations decisions that organize the day-to-day community living. Everyone can be included in policy decisions so divers perspectives and knowledge inform decisions. People who like working together are able to do so and are free to make the day-to-day decisions.

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