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Why is Palo Alto politics so stubbornly pre-Internet?

Uploaded: Jan 7, 2015
Most meetings I attend are insignificantly different from similar ones in the 1970s and 1980s, both meetings conducted by City Hall and those by various civic group. It is as if the Internet Revolution hadn't occurred.(foot#1)

By the Internet Revolution I mean the radical change in the accessibility of information and the subsidiary changes in how information is made available. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking of the Internet Revolution in terms of various applications and technologies, so indulge my setting the stage by presenting previous revolutions in information accessibility. I also want to provoke the reader into considering what practices are simply artifacts of constraints of earlier technologies.


Note: Many of the readers will find this very familiar, but there are also many in Palo Alto who came to use the Internet without thinking about these changes.

Analogies: Earlier information revolutions
Since I expect the reader to be easily able to compare these to the current situation, I won't cover that here.

The most prominent are the printing revolutions, starting with the printing press (Bi Sheng and Johannes Gutenberg) with later stages being the photocopier and the personal computer printer. Each dramatically lowered the cost of making copies, with that making the information contained within available to more people. But these revolutions also increased the speed with which copies could become available.

Public libraries are an oft-forgotten revolution because they didn't involve a change in technology, but rather a change in values about what should be funded. They greatly expanded the availability of information, both by having it be physically available and at an even more reasonable cost.

But being available is not the same as being accessible: Does it really matter if the information is there if you can't find it? Although reference librarians could provide some help, hunting down information was often laborious, error-prone and littered with dead-ends. The algorithms underlying web search were essential to making all this newly available information accessible.

Another sequence of revolutions involved broadcast: newspapers, radio, television. Although they were once important sources of information, they suffer from limited ability to target their audiences (coarse-grained and inflexible) and being ephemeral?largely dependent on what people might (mis)remember they heard or read.

Another series of information revolutions related to collaboration at a distance, such as postal mail, telegraph, telephone, Fax? Each of these had severely constrained bandwidth, where you had to tradeoff interactivity against exchanging detail (think telephone conversation vs. exchange of Faxes vs. overnight parcels). In this case, it wasn't the Internet technology that was the revolution, but the infrastructure that provided the bandwidth.(foot#2)

Changing Economics, Changing Attitudes
In the slogan "Information wants to be free", "free" is usually interpreted as both meaning available and no-cost (itself a kind of availability). Note: That debate is off-topic here. The basic insight is that there is immense value to having lots of people contributing lots of information and making it available quickly, but while the collection is valuable, the value of many of the individual components is so small that it is impractical to directly compensate the contributor.(foot#3)

There was the readily apparent virtuous circle where more content attracted a larger audience, which in turn attracted more content. But more importantly, the larger potential audiences changed how people structured the information. For example, with judicious use of links, a Web page could provide a resource for people already familiar with a topic, serve as an introduction for people new to that topic, and various stages in between.


Painfully ineffective meetings
Here's the typical meeting I go to. A substantial portion of the meeting (beginning or end) is consumed with announcements, not uncommonly a quarter of total available time. These announcement not only could have been handled by email, but should have been: Making an oral announcement at a meeting minimizes the chance that the announcement will be forwarded to others (effort required by the listeners to create their own composition of the announcement plus reluctance because they aren't sure that their notes are accurate and complete).

A productive and efficient meeting is dominated by those aspects that benefit from face-to-face interactions. To achieve this, the people responsible for the various agenda items need to distribute in advance materials that provide both background and a structure for discussions at the meeting, thereby allowing the attendees to come to the meeting better prepared. Instead, far too many of the meetings I attend are dominated by a lecture format that pre-dates the photocopier revolution. The presentation of the background materials, and answering basic questions, chews up most of the allocated time, and what little discussion occurs is so disorganized as to be of little use.

The fault lies with both the discussion leaders and the attendees, creating a vicious cycle that is hard to break. The discussion leaders who do prepare and distribute information ahead of meetings quickly find it to be a waste of time: They find that many of the attendees won't have read it. An all-too-common excuse is "I don't bother to read any email that is more than a paragraph", apparently expecting that the background for a hour-long discussion of a complicated issue can be compressed into a single paragraph. And the unprepared attendees are routinely accommodated, rather than held accountable. So the discussion leaders quickly learns that they will have to orally present the background material at the meeting, so why go to the (considerable) extra effort of preparing such written materials? Similarly, the attendees learn that it is a waste of their time to read the preparatory materials because they will be presented again at the meeting.
Note: This represents a regression to before the photocopier/personal printer revolution which greatly expanded the use of preparatory materials.

Aside: For those that don't follow discussions on education, lectures have recently been found to be even more ineffective than previously thought.(foot#4)
Having questions about the background materials answered before the meeting have benefits beyond saving that time in the meeting. Such questions often provide an opening for another participant to engage in his own extended lecture/rant on a peripheral/irrelevant topic. At Council meetings, it is not uncommon for Staff to reply to a simple question with such a bloated answer that members of the audience complain "They are filibustering."

Insular meetings: Ignoring the wider world
As the Internet made it easier and easier to have virtual meetings, over both distance and time, there was a shift from it being possible when necessary to being desirable. Yet in meeting after meeting here in Palo Alto, when I ask for materials to help me pass on information to those who weren't at the meeting but would be interested, I have repeatedly be rebuffed with "If they were interested in the topic, they should have been at this meeting."

Election campaigns highlight this tendency and attitude (my experience from various campaigns over the years). For example, in the recent election, roughly 22,000 ballots were cast and the winners in the City Council race received over 8,000 votes. But this math escapes too many campaign workers: they argue for committing outsized resources to events for the small number of people?from tens of people to somewhat over 100?who are interested and motivated enough to show up, but without any thought, much less effort, on how to leverage that to scale up to the numbers needed to win.

Staff Reports
The structure and content of Staff Reports is intimately intertwined with the conduct of meetings at various steps along the process in City Hall. Former Palo Alto Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson told me that the current state of staff reports dates back to the 1980s as a response by that City Manager to complaints from Council that they weren't get enough information for their decision-making. But being inundated with too much information can be just as obstructive as getting too little. It speaks to the relative power of the City Manager position that changes have come so slowly and grudgingly.

At Monday's Council meeting, in supporting Greg Schmid to be Vice Mayor, Council member Greg Scharff praised his knowledge and diligence by saying the Schmid cited items at "page 410" when he (Scharff) had "only gotten to page 200". I continue to be dumbfounded that Council members tolerate this situation of important information being buried deep in reports. The only explanation I ever got was that there wasn't a Council majority willing to take on then-City Manager Frank Benest over this (and I got that explanation repeatedly from different Council members over the years).
Note: In her comments after being elected Mayor, Karen Holman identified as one of her priorities "improving staff reports ? balanced and complete ? better presented." I would encourage residents to make their support known to Council members, otherwise, more years of the same problems.
Aside: Back when it would have value, various activists would take staff reports and use Post-It notes to flag and annotate the important information scattered throughout staff reports. When City Hall transitions to PDFs, some of the more technically adept would do the electronic equivalent, adding bookmarks and comments. But that was a poor substitute for a competently structured report.

Internet surveys: An example of the technology without the revolution
Virtually all the surveys I see on the Web are firmly mired in constraints imposed by earlier technologies, telephone-based ones and paper-based ones, either door-to-door or mail. Two of the hardest aspects of creating a good survey are having both questions and answers that people will understand. For those earlier surveying technologies, every word was to be treated as expensive, resulting in surveys where people clearly misunderstood their responses.(foot#5) How often have you seen an survey on the Web that allows you to click on a question to get a more verbose/descriptive rendition? Or to give you a quick summary/reminder of the pros-and-cons, or benefits-and-costs, of the various alternatives you are being asked to choose between?

I plan to address other aspects of this pre-Internet behavior by both City Hall and residents in an upcoming (next?) blog post.

---- Footnotes ----
1. Although I had been planning to write this piece for some time, I was convinced by the Council meeting of January 5. This was supposed to be a brief meeting to swear in the new Council members, elect the Mayor and Vice Mayor, and then have a reception to honor the new Council and to mingle. When I left at the two hour mark, more than half the attendees had already given up, and the meeting was still droning on (I hear it went on for a third hour).
This meeting would have been immediately recognizable to an ancient Greek. The City Manager spent over half an hour reading a report into the record?no follow-up was intended. I found it ironic that a static video display during this unnecessary oral presentation read "Technology and the Connected City". Although many members of the audience availed themselves of their Smart Phones to do something useful or entertaining, Council members had to listen, and even with years of practice, they couldn't conceal their boredom and impatience. Following the actual business of the meeting, it was a string of speakers honoring the departing members.
Aside: Even the US Congress has enough sense and consideration to not inflict such acts on a captive audience: If its members don't simply insert such speeches into the Congressional Record, they talk to an empty chamber (and possibly C-SPAN).
Humorous note: The video screens in the Council Chambers could easily have been used as teleprompters, but the swearing-in followed the ancient practice of "repeat after me". A more modern approach would have been to have the oath of office in a window on the laptop connected to the video screens. Each Council member could have gone to the laptop and clicked on the "I agree" box (without having scrolled down to read the whole oath).
Aside unrelated to the Internet: A mercifully short portion of the meeting was introducing officials in the audience. This was partly an example of "taking attendance" and partly being "on autopilot". The useful reason for such introductions is so that members of the public can recognize them at the reception in order to go up and talk to them. However, since most of the audience couldn't actually see the officials being introduced, and the reception was so late that most of the public had left, this was a double fail.

2. Infrastructure, not technology: For example, most people who started using email after 1990 assume that it is delivered almost immediately and is highly reliable. Not so when the Internet (proper name, infrastructure, common protocols and technologies) was only the internet (concept, collection different technologies that could exchange information). Except for the lucky ones such as those on the core network (the ARPANet), it was email, not USPS, that was "snail mail": It was slower, less reliable and much more complex (common example: UUCPNet). However, it was revolutionary because it changed the economics of distributing information: the distribution costs were minimal and since the information was already in electronic form, it needed little or no transformation to be used with computers.
Similarly, the WWW would have been impractical: How many people would be clicking on links if it would take 2-4 days (or more) for the requested page to show up?

3. One of my most valuable lessons in economics/business came during a course in Computer Operating System (1970 at MIT). In an aside, the professor mentioned a computer system that precisely billed users for each resource they used, for example, it billed not just for the amount of paper printed, but the amount of ink used. In response to users complaining that they were being billed much more than at similar facilities, the OS was audited and they found that over half the computer's time was spent on accounting. They replaced the billing algorithm with a much simpler one, and while the billing was no longer as "fair", everyone was paying less.
Lesson: Pay attention to transaction costs?they can kill you.

4. Lectures more ineffective: Research paper: Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics, Scott Freeman et al., 2014-06-10, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA).
A large range of reporting of this research result and follow-up discussion can be found with simple web search.

5. Example of a survey questions being misunderstood: The Palo Alto Library Department conducted a (telephonic) survey to determine what services residents themselves used. However, the questions were so parsimoniously worded that many respondents clearly misunderstood that they were about their own usage. How do I know this? A majority of Palo Alto residents queried said that they had deficient reading skills and wanted the Library to provide them with literacy programs. They were answering the unasked question--that they thought that providing literacy services was a good idea.

The Guidelines for comments on this blog are different from those on Town Square Forums. I am attempting to foster more civility and substantive comments by deleting violations of the guidelines.

I am particular strict about misrepresenting what others have said (me or other commenters). If I judge your comment as likely to provoke a response of "That is not what was said", don't be surprised to have it deleted. My primary goal is to avoid unnecessary and undesirable back-and-forth, but such misrepresentations also indicate that the author is unwilling/unable to participate in a meaningful, respectful conversation on the topic.


 +   3 people like this
Posted by Jessyca, a resident of another community,
on Jan 8, 2015 at 8:36 am

You make many excellent points. As a proficient member of the digital age, I agree with almost everything you've said. But in my experience, one of the reasons certain civic institutions maintain "old school" means of distributing information and having meetings is that they are responsible for providing accessible service to ALL of their constituents. Not just the ones who use the Internet and have an email account. My mother lives in Palo Alto and she refuses to have an Internet connection because she doesn't want to be overloaded with information and technology?a perfectly reasonable point of view considering how many of us younger folks are trying to figure out how to shut off the devices as much as possible?should she be excluded from Palo Alto's civic process because she can't get the information via email? She pays her taxes like everyone else...

 +  Like this comment
Posted by Sea-Seelam Reddy, a resident of College Terrace,
on Jan 8, 2015 at 10:07 am

I do agree this time with Doug.

PA City Hall has not been high tech yet. It is some thing the city should consider upgrading bandwidth; servers; storage etc.

We can be better by spending using new technology.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Douglas Moran, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Jan 8, 2015 at 3:51 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

To amplify on Jessyca's comment:

In many government bureaucracies, there often is the false dichotomy between providing near-absolute equality and doing nothing. This is a matter of the culture and disincentives, not laziness...

For example, in 2004 residents discover that the City's telephonic alerting system was no longer effective (vendor problems). As an interim measure until a new system could be acquired, neighborhood leaders suggested using neighborhood email lists as one of the ways of distributing alerts. City Hall rejected this, saying that not everyone would be on these lists. They rejected the idea that getting the alerts to some people who would then alert others had any value. (If interested in details, from 2004)

This false dichotomy is present in Jessyca's comment. Not being able to get notifications and details of City activities by email does not preclude her mother from getting that information in other ways. For example, before City Hall starting putting the packet of reports for Council meetings on the Web, you had to go to City Hall to pick up a copy and that copy typically became available around 4pm on the Friday before the Council meeting (on Monday night), meaning that if you wanted a copy of the packet to read over the weekend, you had a very narrow window to get to City Hall. Would anyone argue that the packet shouldn't be on the Web because it "excluded" those that didn't have Web access (ignoring the exclusivity imposed by having to physically go to City Hall to get the packet).

Early in my career, the US Navy was one of my major customers and a significant part of the development of new technology was concern for "disadvantaged systems", that is, ones that wouldn't be able to take full advantage of the new technology, be it because of unfavorable location, space limitations, or position in the upgrade ("refit") queue (which was often many years long). My experience was that it typically wasn't that hard to accommodate "disadvantaged systems" because often that "disadvantage" was simply a lesser capability that reflected a lesser need.

My neighborhood association board faced this situation in the late 1990s when one member (of approximately 15) didn't have email. The solution: Another board member would print out the emails and leave them in a block on her porch to be picked up, which later evolved into a board member FAXing the emails to the hold-out.

 +  Like this comment
Posted by pat, a resident of Midtown,
on Jan 8, 2015 at 8:50 pm

Thanks for writing about this topic, Doug.

One way of getting info to folks without internet access is through utility bills.

The city still does the annual National Citizens Survey on paper, even though it would be less expensive to do it online.

On the plus side, see: Palo Alto Increasing City Transparency with Open Data Portal Design RefreshWeb Link

 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Not accidental, a resident of Midtown,
on Jan 10, 2015 at 1:48 pm

It has been speculated that the ever-increasing length of council packets has the effect of discouraging readership (no question that it does), and that it is intentional.
Less citizen understanding generates less input; less participation makes smoother sailing for the staff. And easier for the new PR blitz.

 +  Like this comment
Posted by How can this be, a resident of Midtown,
on Jan 12, 2015 at 9:23 pm

Palo Alto has been declared to be the one of the most digital small towns in America!

City of Palo Alto Named as a Leading Digital City for Second Year in a Row
Cloud-first and mobile-first approaches, more than 50 online services and use of social media contributed to the win.

Web Link
"The city also continued to win heavy praise, and prestigious national awards, for its efforts with technology and environmental sustainability. The Center for Digital Government named Palo Alto a "leading digital city" for the second year in a row in its population category, an award that recognizes the city's panoply of new online services and digital tools featuring real-time data."

 +  Like this comment
Posted by Suggestion, a resident of Stanford,
on Jan 17, 2015 at 10:16 am

I think part of the source of this problem is that the employees in the city are too protected.

What I mean is, most corporations of the size of the city have far more employee turnover, and as a result import exposure to successful application of technology via new employees. Sometimes that exposure will go nowhere, if there is a significant NIH culture, or culture of fear of change or failure. But lots of little cultural changes and adjustments happen for the better when new ways to use technology are revealed by employees who have worked in more aware environments than our city government organizations.

So I think a way to move forward is to weaken the long term attractiveness of the city jobs; pay competitively but remove the benefits of staying for a long term.

Once upon a time it was of great benefit to learn the ropes, bring experience and judgment to bear on a city employee role. It is now a detriment. It means pre-silicon ways of thinking get internalized, politics reigns over effectiveness.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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