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Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Focus Groups

One of the ways that the Montgomery County Executive has to coopt citizens who might otherwise organize outside the system for change is through its advisory boards and committees.

These groups have no actual power to set policy, regulations, or laws, they can only ask questions and pass along their opinions to those who can. Richard Jaeggi (in the February Silver Spring Voice) calls them focus groups, a characterization that seems largely on point. While noone is suggesting that unelected volunteers be given the keys to this large county, one has to wonder how much impact they actually have.

To some extent they are worse than toothless, though. These voluntary bodies are steered by County employees to come to pre-ordained conclusions, and often suffer from one-sided and incomplete information. This means that the County Executive gets the cover of presumed "public support" for its policies while not necessarily considering the ideas of its advisory boards.

In a county of around 900,000 people it seems strange that citizens have such a tenuous link to their few elected officeholders.