When I first came to the District, having no reason to learn about hyperlocal government, I thought “ANC” stood for “African National Congress.” Upon learning more about the role of Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, I was impressed: How beautiful, I thought, to have such intensely local representation in a place otherwise robbed of electoral influence!

For many residents, however, first contact with an ANC is often much more negative. A liquor license battle over a beloved establishment, for example, or objections to the addition of a back deck that requires a signoff from the Board of Zoning Adjustment. Most often, ANCs make news by saying no.

There are reasons for this. As they’re currently set up, ANCs have basically three functions: One, to dispense grants. Two, to serve as a forum for complaints and a conduit of information. And three, to review new things (like proposed buildings, regulatory changes, and licenses) and render opinions to the relevant government agency.

It’s this last point where ANCs tend to make themselves most relevant. Developers wanting any kind of zoning relief must prostrate themselves before a board of sometimes very ignorant citizen legislators in order to gain their blessing and better their case before the city council or the Zoning Commission, each of which considers the local ANC to be the legitimate voice of any given community. In the best of times, this can result in a better project, when the developer and the ANC work together to address neighborhood concerns. In the worst of times, it can help stop a project altogether.

The problem is one of mandate. While groups like Main Streets, Business Improvement Districts, and civic associations have fundamentally proactive missions—to undertake projects that will improve their communities—ANCs are set up to be reactive, and they sometimes even react negatively to other groups trying to create positive change. This doesn’t preclude ANCs or individual commissioners from embarking on needed projects; ANC 2F’s Arts Overlay Review committee is a model of what an ANC can do to address difficult problems in their neighborhood, for example, and many commissioners are fierce advocates for their constituents’ concerns, from fixing streetlights to getting trash picked up on time.

But absent that kind of exceptional initiative, ANCs tend to sit on their butts and either rubber stamp or reject applications that come their way.

Matt Yglesias says the problem is institutional structure. Since ANCs have control over only a few things, he argues, they support strict zoning regulations that require more variances, thus increasing the value of their input on new building and new businesses. If parts of their real estate sales taxes went to a fund for use by the ANC, he muses, they might be more willing to say yes, rather than no all the time.

I don’t think the solution is simply to weight the decisionmaking calculus toward new development by extracting some sort of tithe from businesses. As Greater Greater Washington suggests, that presupposes that new businesses aren’t there to serve communities, but rather unwelcome invaders seeking to profit off their backs. What better way to set up an adversarial relationship from the beginning than to force a new business to pay tribute to the ANC?

Institutional design is important, though, and there are ways in which ANCs could be tweaked to make them greater assets to communities.

Firstly, there should be at-large commissioners for each ANC, just as the city has at-large councilmembers to balance out the ward representatives’ narrow, regional interests. At least, the chair of each commission should be elected from the whole sector; it’s quite bizarre to have a representative of one single member district be elevated to a position of such importance.

Secondly, ANCs could be required to undertake one large, sustained, proactive project every two years. The creation of a park, for example, or a new tutoring program, or a branding campaign—whatever addresses a big need that requires institutional support.

But the most critical way in which ANCs can be made more useful—and I’m sorry if this sounds trite—is simply to find ways to increase participation. It’s not like structure is the only reason ANCs tend to be anti-stuff, after all. There are plenty of anti people in every community, and when they’re the loudest voices, even the most perfectly designed institution will bend to their will. You really have no right to complain about an ANC’s activities if you’re not involved in the first place.

The first step in this process is already underway: Hyperlocal government was only waiting for the advent of hyperlocal media to become truly democratic. ANC issues are apparently too small to attract the notice of the city’s paper of record (the most the Post could muster this time around was a generic piece that said nothing of use about ANCs except that those running wanted to “improve their communities”). But neighborhood representative bodies can be perfectly paired with the burgeoning crop of blogs that have been covering them in a fair amount of depth. Some of the healthier and better-run ANCs are in places where blogs like Borderstan, Congress Heights on the Rise, JDLand, The Hill is Home, Georgetown Metropolitan (and Patch, and the Georgetown Voice) communicate to the broader public what happened at each meeting. Greater Greater Washington’s endorsements this cycle are actually a fairly important leap forward: Never before, that I’m aware, has such a widely-read news outlet that’s well set up for discussion devoted some degree of attention to every single race. On top of blogs, Twitter—most notably in ANC 5C—has been a way for those would can’t make it to meetings to still tune in to what’s going on in real time.

The other essential component is that ANCs must post agendas and relevant documents online at a well-functioning and easy-to-navigate website. ANC 6A is a model here: Each meeting has a package of letters sent, minutes taken, proposals reviewed, grants given, events planned. But other ANCs have little to no online presence, with no discernable way to find out what’s going to happen or what did happen at any given meeting without calling to harass the commissioner. There’s no point in having a representative body if constituents can’t find out what it’s discussing quickly and easily. (This applies to the city’s internet capabilities as well: Compare D.C.’s essentially non-functioning site to the one for New York’s Community Boards, which sets out everything you need to know about them in an attractive, easy-to-navigate format).

The city could also do more offline to increase awareness about every D.C. resident’s most direct form of representation. Every piece of correspondence from District government could include a short description of what an ANC is, and contact information for the local commissioner. Streetlight poles could have little tags that say, “You are in ANC X.” Washingtonians, from subletters to lifelong residents, should have no excuse not to know their rights.

Democracies never work without active participation. When the infrastructure is in place to give people who previously couldn’t be bothered a reason to get involved, ANCs can be a powerful force for positive change. Until then, they’re free to be as bad as we allow them to get.