The answers of the two candidates for select persons to the question of how to improve citizen participation in Town Meeting exposes an important problem in improving the function of town government: proposing solutions without understanding the root cause of the problem.
A Japanese business model for improving the quality of products, the “5 Whys,” addresses this. Once a defect in a product is exposed, the question asked is why did this occur? When the answer is revealed, once again the question is why THIS occurred. The process is continued until the root cause is understood. An example of this was the breakdown of fans being produced. Why? The bolts of one component were being overly tightened. Why? The workers on the production line had no guidance of how tight to make the bolt. The answer was to suspend the wrench from the ceiling so that it could not be tightened beyond the proper point.
Improving the town website and the use of bookmarks may be the best solution to improving citizen participation but many people do not use computers or know how bookmarks function. This may be true for elderly citizens. Voting by mail may be an excellent approach to improving participation in Town Meeting, but not if this does not address the root cause of the problem.
In addition, two minutes allowed at Town Meeting for each citizen to present his or her argument may be inadequate, especially for complex issues. Do citizens know the tax consequences of approving the additional $7 million for the middle school?
It is certainly time-consuming and expensive to seek the root causes of problems but proposing solutions without knowing these can be ineffective and a waste of time.
Norman Weinberg MD FACP