There’s a growing disconnect between the warp-speed pace at which most people lead their lives and the more deliberative pace with which policy-making occurs in the public sector. Particularly with today’s 24-hour news cycles, it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that the democratic process, at least as we’ve known it, has failed. Here’s why:
A little more than 20 years ago, local governments began introducing computers into their office operations. It seemed pretty impressive at the time. Local officials would proudly show visitors the PCs that one or two staff members had sitting atop their desks. And publicity photos depicted municipal office workers peering earnestly into their monitors.
That was then. Today, essentially everybody is in front of a screen for the better part of their work day. And so are most of our constituents. At the outset, we believed that computers would provide us with significant advantages such as easier record keeping, faster work turnaround, and lower cost. And we were right, up to a point. But the expectations of our residents – fueled by the growth of the World Wide Web – rose even faster.
Now, computers and computer-like mobile devices are everywhere, and we’ve become accustomed to that. As a result, people expect to find whatever information they need, transact whatever business they have, and secure whatever decisions they’re looking for, all with just a few keystrokes. Our patience for extensive deliberations, and our attention span for going through the sometimes lengthy processes required by law before enacting new ordinances, are increasingly out of step with public expectations.
For example, amendments to Pennsylvania’s Constitution – which is already three times longer than the U.S. Constitution – require passage in the state’s House of Representatives and Senate during two consecutive years before they can be submitted to the electorate for a vote. Even in routine legislation, the sequence of committee referrals, reporting, multiple considerations, appropriation and Governor’s approval in lawmaking is painstakingly slow, although that probably helps to prevent rash legislation.
Here in Cranberry, the process is a bit more streamlined. But major decisions still require research, consultation, public input, consensus building, and reconciliation with other ordinances and operations – all essential steps for making sound decisions and defensible laws. So it was just this month, after four years of work, that Cranberry’s elected officials finally adopted an updated zoning ordinance for Freedom Road – one that truly reflects what’s happening there and can guide the Township in sustaining it as a healthy area in the future as well.
It was an arduous experience – both for residents and our Township Supervisors. But I’m convinced that its outcome ended up being far better than anything which might have been decided in haste – something which is awfully easy to do today. Instead, it was a process that our Board of Supervisors insisted be undertaken in a deliberate, careful and thoughtful manner.
So I’m pleased to report that the democratic process still works – it’s just that working well, in contrast to the rest of the world we’re in today, sometimes means working slowly.