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If you don’t vote, your opinion doesn’t matter. And sometimes you shouldn’t vote

(This post is related to management I promise! )

Robert Cruickshank over at the California HSR Blog whines about Palo Alto’s “undemocratic” democratic process:

In short, it is becoming increasingly clear that Palo Alto’s planning and citizen engagement process is a failure, distorting true public opinion by favoring a small, vocal elite at the expense of a silent majority whose opinions are much more supportive of new density and new transportation solutions – but whose voices are rarely ever included in the city’s planning process.

Of course, our democratic process requires energy and participation. There are lots of people who chose not to vote because their vote “will not be effective”.

Most people are uninformed about this issue, do not ride transit, or have no idea how to build transit effectively. Their opinion should not count as much as the people who are taking the time to inform themselves and to be involved.

If someone is not involved, their opinion is probably uninformed and negative.

Meetings to planning a company project can be just as bad.

Uninformed people should not be part of the process(see below). In
an old Inc. article, Joel:

When was the last time you scheduled a meeting and invited eight people instead of the three people who really needed to be there simply because you didn’t want anyone to feel left out?

When was the last time you sent a companywide e-mail that said something like, “Hey, attention coffee drinkers: If you finish the pot, make another!” even though there is actually only one person who violates this rule (and she’s your co-founder)?

When was the last time you got into a long discussion over the color palette for the new brochure with a programmer, who has nothing to do with the brochure but sure knows that he doesn’t like orange?

These are symptoms of a common illness: too much communication.

However, I disagree with Joel’s assertion that only people whose vote counts should be allowed to attend meetings. Decisions with no visible process result in no buy-in. While a company is not a democracy, and a city is not a company both should learn from each other.

What a company can learn from a city:

  1. Process does matter. Process means consistency and reliability in how decisions are being made. People know how to voice their opinion. They know that there is a means and method for voicing their opinion. Instead of voicing opinion in an adhoc, disruptive manner – they can wait until the allocated time.
  2. Only some people get a vote. Many people can show up to a city council to express their opinion, but only city council members get a vote. In company meeting, discussion can include everyone – but predecided ( and preannounce! ) who’s vote will be counted. For example, if a developer is trying to decide who to best implement a feature. Only his/her, the CTO’s, QA’s and customer service rep’s votes are counted. Others who are not involved, do not get to vote. They can express their opinion but they are not a decision maker (for this issue). Only people expending effort or where the decision has a material impact on their job should be counted.
  3. Representatives get “elected”. Allow some self-selection in the process. Try to allow the lead representative to be selected by people other than managers. If a developer selected to be the lead in a project makes a decision, this makes it easier for the decision to be respected.
  4. Make the discussion observable and inclusive While only some people get a vote, allowing others to learn from the process of making a decision prepares those observers to step into their own decision-making role. It also allows them to take knowledge from one decision-making group to another.

What a city can learn from a company:

  1. Require an energy expenditure to participate. A meeting should only be open to people who have attended the last 5 meetings.
  2. Allow adhoc representation. Allow people to represent adhoc groups. For example, allow a person to collect 10+ signatures of his neighbors giving him/her proxy authority to voice their collective opinion. Require that this adhoc representative keep the people she is representing informed of the progress and results. (With power should come responsibility).
  3. Allow weighted voting. In a company, the CTO’s vote counts more than a lowly developer. When voting for a company’s board of directors’, shareholders have a vote based on number of shares not a one vote per shareholder. In a city planning process, the “vocal” minority may represent no one other than themselves. Let the “vocal minority” collect proxy signatures to indicate how strongly their “silent” neighbors (who can’t participate) trust the “vocal” people to represent the “silent” majorities best interest. The more signatures, the more strongly a “vocal” representative’s vote/opinion should count. Allow certain signatures to be more valuable than others based on the issue. For example, distance to a housing project, transit user’s opinion on a transit project, etc.


Lastly, learn when you should not vote or participate.

  1. If you personally do not have any direct, meaningful, unique knowledge: don’t participate. Observing is o.k. – voicing a “I agree” content-free vocalization is not o.k.
  2. If you don’t have the time to stay involved: don’t sign up and then drop out.
  3. If an issue has no one who cares: then the decision can be made by a single person. Others should insist that that single person make the decision. The sole decision-maker should not need the CYA of a “group vote”.
  4. If you cannot expend effort on the solution, then don’t vote. Note that “effort” does not mean “coding” or “making”
  5. If the decision will not effect how hard your job is, then don’t vote. If the decision does meaningfully effect your job then you must participate and must vote.

There is this temptation to dismiss the concerns of Customer Service or QA people as being less important than that of the development team. This is ass-backwards.

A Customer Service rep will have to deal daily with a bad development decision. Their job satisfaction, their ability to deliver happy customers is daily determined by developers decisions. They must be allowed to participate and must be given a strong voice.

Posted in how to, management, political.

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