The idea was to debate how well the District does at ground level, the countless points where citizens touch their government or are touched by it. But a panel of community leaders had far more on its mind than simply garbage collection or the police.

Assembled by The Washington Post for this series on city services, the panel delved deeply into poverty, federal control of the District and even journalism, all issues that many of the 13 panel members said help determine the quality of government and the quality of life in the nation's capital.

There was no consensus. Instead, there were harsh critics and vigorous supporters of D.C. government. Sometimes, there were anecdotes about living here that would be familiar to any resident. And sometimes there were sweeping analyses worthy of academic journals.

For union official David Chu, the issue of city services is overshadowed by the fact that "there are ways in which we have two cities in the District." One is the city of the well-to-do and educated, he said, and the other is the city of the poor, who suffer from inadequate health care and housing.

"A relatively large portion of the population is relatively powerless, it's relatively invisible, it's relatively unorganized and doesn't have a voice that needs to be at the table," said Chu, the research director of the Service Employees International Union, which represents 7,000 workers in the District.

Raymond Dickey also saw a larger issue: decentralization of government. It is so hard to get decent services, said the advisory neighborhood commissioner from Ward 5, that efficiency is only possible by putting more city offices in the field, closer to residents.

"Because when you call downtown to some offices, I think, you get switched three, four, five, six, seven times before you actually get the kind of answer" you want, Dickey told the panel.

A community newspaper editor agreed. "The obvious structural change is to decentralize the government," said Sam Smith, editor of the Progressive Review. "The only way you start to get the human . . . into government is to get it down to the point where people have to be human. As long as they can think of you as an item -- line 17 on form SR 62 -- that's the way they're going to react."

Harry Robinson of Howard University wondered whether the city has serious problems -- or whether its residents just think it does. While every resident can cite unhappy anecdotes about dealing with the city, the District operates far better than most cities, said Robinson, dean of the school of architecture.

"I would say if you got to New York and call a policeman, you might wait six days," said Robinson. "But if you call {here} and there's a problem that involves burglary or personal harm, the police are there."

D.C.'s biggest failing, said Dorn McGrath of George Washington University, is not trash or clinics or streets but planning: "This city does not have it." Because of "appalling" planning of development, residents have no idea what will happen to their neighborhoods and their property values, he said.

"For example," said McGrath, director of the university's Institute for Urban Development, "you can pick up the paper and you can discover that we're going to do an underground convention center now, just like that. No plans, no background for it."

But Evelyn Washington, an advisory neighborhood commissioner from Ward 6, said the city's biggest failing was The Washington Post, which "has not been a friend of the city."

"The negative approach of the major paper of this city, in my feeling, is to turn {away} those that would be wanting to do things," said Washington, who called the city "a gold mine" compared with other cities.

Whatever problems the District has with city services, said the Rev. Dean Lewis Moe, might stem from the fact that it does not have full control of its own destiny.

"As long as you've got senators from South Carolina and California and North Dakota and Arizona making decisions about this people and what we do in all of these areas, and as long as the funding . . . is imbalanced -- more being taken out than taxation coming in -- we can't get the services," said Moe, pastor of Grace Lutheran Church in Northwest.

Another minister, the Rev. Albert Gallmon of Mount Carmel Baptist Church, said that most city services were good.

Except for schools: "I am not getting my dollar's worth from the school system," said Gallmon. " . . . I refuse to live in a town where I must seek out private education."

And except for city workers: "Across the counter, I run into more abuse than I've ever run into, in any city."