The Fallacy of Input

The sin of city government

The sin of city government (such as Berkeley) is that it pretends to represent the people and to focus on the problems of the people while excluding the people from the political processes of doing so. Thus it bars its constituency from acting in its own interest. It pretends to reflect the thinking and needs of its neighborhoods, while excluding those very neighborhoods from integrating their thinking and needs into the policies that pretend to represent them. And it does this by calling on people to give it “input” on whatever policy the city is constructing, pretending that “input” is a form of participation.

From under the shadow of all those pretensions, policy emerges. And it works against the interests of those it is supposed to be “for” because they had no “say” in what the policy was supposed to do for them. No “say”? Though the people had been called (by the city) to “voice” their concerns and interests, they are condemned to do so from outside the policy making process.

Participation means inclusion in a process. One cannot participate in something from outside it. That distance makes one an observer, or an audience on what others enact – there, on the political stage. Their words have very little weight because they have no place in the process, no dialogue on the very matters that are of importance to them in particular. It is across such a disconnect that their words are labeled “input.” In effect, “input” symbolizes exclusion.

Nevertheless, the people have to live with the policies that are made in their name, even without participation in making them. It is a terrible paradox. The people have to live the conditions that policy imposes on them, while those who make the policy claim to represent the people, without the people’s participation. In other words, it is the people who represent, in their daily lives, what government does, rather than the government representing the people. Representation is inverted, and government becomes autocratic, self-centered, while arrogantly calling upon the people to represent it.

This same paradigm will be found in most other city government functions, such as committees, boards, and task forces. It is a paradigm of ethical corruption, not only because it pretends to be what it is not, but because it actively works against what it is supposed to be. It’s ethical corruption lies in substituting a corrupt structure for one that was designed to protect society against precisely that.

“Public Comment” in City Council meetings is a perfect example – both in its pre-Covid and post-Covid practices.

In each city council meeting, the law requires that council allow the people to speak about what the government is doing, item by item on the council’s agenda. In City Council meetings, prior to Covid, the procedure involved being at the meeting, lining up to speak on an issue of choice, and hoping that those to whom one speaks care about one’s ideas. Public Comment pretends to grant the people the right to “have a say” in what is at issue. But to have “a say” in reality means that one has a “seat at the table,” as it were. It means that one’s words not only represent real interests with respect to the issue, but enter into dialogue on policy in order to craft a policy that meets those interests. Should any aspect of a policy portend some detrimental effects on some people, or on a group, input will not allow anyone from that group to neutralize that detriment. In the absence of dialogue, one’s words amount to a form of “crying in the wilderness.”

A “seat at the table,” on the other hand, would mean that one had some authority. It is the authority of one’s statements “at the table” in dialogue with others on policy that constitutes “participation.” To have input, which implies an absence of dialogue, signifies that one speaks, and then goes to sit in silence.

Yet even the right to speak, in this marginalized (input) fashion, is abbreviated in the very act of being granted. Each person is constrained to a time limit. If more than 10 people wish to speak on an item at City Council, for instance, each is limited to only one minute. In other words, rather than being a right, “input” represents a begrudged concession to the public’s existence. The cogency and logic needed to make a case for meeting community needs gets lost in brevity. One is forced to speak in sound-bytes. Reducing a person’s thinking to a sound-byte is a form of silencing. Scant presentation of economic circumstances, individual motivation, and community reasoning are all one is left with. It means assuming the listener already thinks in the same logic as the speaker.

It is like telling a prisoner, “you can walk in any direction you like,” though the person cannot get beyond any of the walls of his cell. Like a prison cell, the “time-cell” imposed on input is a form of violence.

To be restricted to “input” is not only a form of violence, it also cancels one’s sense of responsibility for crafting common policy with others who will also be affected. In contradistinction to input, participation and the responsibility it valorizes, is a democratic right. Input pretends to be a right, but it is granted by invitation only. To exclude people from participation is a form of dictatorial behavior.

Since Covid, a dimension of solitude has been added to the fallacy of “input.” Speaking to a screen full of little screens, a speaker has no real knowledge of who else is in the meeting’s audience. In a live City Council meeting, one can speak to all the others while addressing the council. That gives each statement a greater political existence, a presence, and a community meaning. On zoom, all that is stripped away.

If democracy means government of, by, and for the people, then it necessarily has three dimensions, not only one. To pretend to do things “for” the people, while suppressing the “of” and the “by,” is an anti-democratic stance. “Of the people” means that policy addresses the real needs of each community. “By the people” means that it is those who will be affected by the policy that makes it. To excise the “of” and the “by” from the “for” means the system has substituted something else for democracy.

Democracy, on the other hand, would require that “participation” be substituted for “input.” Participation would mean that neighborhoods and communities, in dialogue with themselves, would have the power to define their own issues and propose policy resolutions. Indeed, the people who are beset by a problem would have the best understanding of how to resolve it.

It must be admitted, however, at this juncture, that this approach, this call for a substitution of participation for “input,” marks a serious political paradigm shift. “Participation” is based on autonomy rather than subservience. In this society, which teaches us to be satisfied with input, it is difficult to imagine how participation could be organized.

A concrete example

Over the last 5 years, the city has fostered and foisted what it calls the Adeline Corridor Plan. And during that 5 years, the neighborhoods around Adeline St. have had “input.” Their major demands have been for affordable housing and programs to stop the displacement of neighbors at the hands of rent gouging and gentrification. And they have had little influence over what is in the plan (some bike lanes were built). Now, the city is in negotiation with BART to build housing in the Ashby BART parking lot (having “neglected” to insist on affordable housing being built on any other sites along the Adeline Corridor). The neighborhoods, through a Community Advisory Group (set up by the city), have said loud and clear, that housing needs to be 100% affordable at the BART site. There is already a glut in market rate housing. But also, at the core of community demands on the city, affordable housing must be provided for the return of those forced out of town by rent and landlord policies. Indeed, people are still being driven from their homes through unconscionable rent increases. But the city only looks at these demands as “input;” it has actually responded with an insulting perspective that only 35% of the Ashby parking lot project will be reserved for affordability. And it does not address the idea that affordability means a maximum rent of 30% of a tenant’s income. The city avoids that with fudge-tables that list “below market rate” rents, which are higher than 30%.

The community is also demanding that the Flea Market remain where it is, and not be moved. This is based not only on its traditional location in that lot but also on the fact that a Berkeley court case gave the Flea Market the right to automatic permit renewal every year. Thus, the market has a high degree of security with respect to its continued existence – which it will probably lose if it gets moved to another part of the area – the city’s bland assurances notwithstanding.

What would participation look like? The short answer is that the communities would be given the right and power to draw up the proposals for development at the site in question. The long answer would address how that would be organized.

First step: The organization of neighborhood assemblies. In the BART station’s surrounding area (e.g. a three block radius), some 5 assemblies would provide the space for all residents to engage in common discussion on the issues. Each assembly would be free to address questions of development size, percent affordable housing, Flea Market administration, rent levels, and design, others of importance, and even the continued existence of the assemblies themselves as centers of local neighborhood power.

These assemblies could be originally organized by a committee of neighborhood groups (e.g. the NAACP, Healthy Black Families, Friends of Adeline, and others) working together with community churches (St. Paul AME, Church by the Side of the Road, Ebenezer Baptist, and others), to provide original resources and facilitate initial discussion.

Step 2: Each assembly would make decisions on the important elements (political and social) of BART station development, and send those proposals to a coordinating body. It would then elect one of two (or maybe three) representatives to the coordinating body.

Step 3: The coordinating body would meet, combine the various assembly proposals, integrating and harmonizing their ideas, and articulating a concrete project to be given to the city, after having been returned to the assemblies for ratification or modification. If serious opposition emerged, the process would return to step 1.

Step 4: Having received the coordinating body’s proposal, the city would then look for a developer to build it. Adjustments or modifications made by the developer would be taken back to the coordinating body, and to the neighborhood assemblies if necessary.

In sum, the autocracy of the city government would be inverted. A project written and developed by the community rather than a developer would be at its core. And it would be a developer that would be busted down to “input.”

In short, there are two principles that are involved at the foundation of participation as a process. First, participation in policy-making has to be organized at the community level. And second, democracy means that those who will be affected by a policy must be the ones who make the policy that will affect them.

Steve Martinot is Instructor Emeritus at the Center for Interdisciplinary Programs at San Francisco State University. He is the author of The Rule of Racialization: Class, Identity, Governance, Forms in the Abyss: a Philosophical Bridge between Sartre and Derrida (both Temple) and The Machinery of Whiteness. He is also the editor of two previous books, and translator of Racism by Albert Memmi. He has written extensively on the structures of racism and white supremacy in the United States, as well as on corporate culture and economics, and leads seminars on these subjects in the Bay Area.