Williams held four such summits, between 1999 and 2006, and they were generally well-received and can be fairly considered among the highlights of his eight years in office.
But can a straight reprise of what worked for Tony Williams work for Vince Gray, who campaigned on resurrecting the summits?
The Gray administration has hired the same outfit Williams did to run the summit, America Speaks, run by Clinton administration veteran and “deliberative democracy” specialist Carolyn J. Lukensmeyer. Their services do not come cheap; as the Examiner reported today, the costs are expected to run about $600,000. That’s in keeping with the costs of the Williams summits: The 1999 one about $500,000, with more than 80 percent of that paid for by private donors; the 2001 summit cost about $800,000, with taxpayers picking up the bulk of the cost.
Max Brown, who was a top aide to Williams, recalls the summits being worth the money because of the state the city was in at the time — only a few years removed from federal intervention and with the Control Board still active, he said, the city government was suffering from “a real lack of engagement with the public writ large.”
But Brown points out that the city has changed — there are more residents, services have improved, and everyday engagement is more consistent — so he’s wondering if the summits will change, too.
“I think there’s clearly value in engaging the public in a real material way,” he said. “But I think there needs to be a little bit more consistency in using that technology in a real consistent way.” How, he asks, can the city take advantage of new technology and new ways of connecting with constituents to “have a more ongoing dialogue with the public”?
But Neil Richardson, an executive at D.C.’s community college who helped organize Williams’s last two summits, said there’s not much reason to mess with a proven formula that helped the Williams administration craft budgets and respond to neighborhood concerns.
“In this day and age, when people are questioning what’s going on in the government, I don’t think there’s a better way to provide credibility for the government,” he said. “The process is a good one. Unfortunately, [the summits] are a little bit expensive, but they reap benefits.”
Gray spokesman Pedro Ribeiro, who said the administration is working on raising private funds to offset the costs, also said the tried-and-true format is the way to go.
“The idea is the same; people can come and express their views and have their voices heard,” he said. “It’s been a while since people from different wards could gather, sit down at a table, and talk about what matters to them as citizens of the District. ... There is still something about having individuals one on one, sitting in a room, that you cannot replicate with an online town hall or a tele-town-hall. You need face-to-face, one-on-one engagement.”