CASE

Interactive Community Consultations on Austin's Public Engagement Strategy

November 29, 2019 m.f.zadra
September 22, 2019 Scott Fletcher, Participedia Team
November 7, 2017 matthew4115

A month-long consultation including a 'virtual' town hall on the future of Austin City Council's public engagement strategy. In-person and remote/virtual channels of participation were used to allow maximal public interaction, deliberation, and real-time feedback.

Problems and Purpose

Austin, Texas has experienced rapid population growth and diversification prompting city councillors to explore different ways to engage a large, demographically varied public in the decision-making process. The City Council, led by community engagement consultant Larry Schooler, called a special town hall meeting and held a month-long multi-channel consultation before the City voted on a proposed public engagement strategy. The town hall used various forms of participation as a trial of potential ongoing engagement methods. As well, the combination of face-to-face and virtual participation was intended to allow as much real-time feedback and public participation as possible.[1]

According to the City's Mayor, the Town Hall and use of remote participation was an "opportunity for the council to receive suggestions and comments from the community with respect to a proposal that's been made. A lot of us ran in this election suggesting that we should change government, make it a little bit more thoughtful and deliberate if we could, to increase the meaningfulness of public engagement. And to that end right out of the box this council is trying to do that and to consider and set new rules for how we would deliberate and operate. It's the intent of this to increase the quality and the effectiveness of public engagement. "[8]

Background History and Context

Since being settled in 1835, town hall meetings have been an integral part of the political landscape of Austin. Located at 301 W. Second St, the Austin city council building hosts regular meetings between policymakers. Residents of Austin could view meetings online or on the TV using ATXN (the cities government access television station and web stream service), but were not empowered to participate in the discussions. Therefore, the issue facing Austin’s town council was the democratic deficit created by the lack of deliberation concerning policy choices.

Communications consultant Larry Schooler recognised the need for a parallel activity which could influence policy that was yet to be made. Schooler established open consultations between citizens and policymakers which would ensure deliberation on policy questions, informing the council's future policy preferences. Following the creation of open consultations, it was clear that the deliberative process was still not fully inclusive. The issue was that although a variety of citizens were offered a chance to deliberate, it was a very narrow cross-section of the population who attended, overwhelmingly Caucasians from a specific socio-economic background. Larry decided the best way to encourage other demographics to participate was to utilise the cities ATXN broadcast and web stream system[2]. Larry improved the consultative meetings by creating an interactive environment, one where citizens could respond to issues raised in real time via Landlines, mobiles, SMS, and the web; they did not have to attend in person. This mixed methodology was deployed during the week leading up to a City Council vote on the future of public engagement in January 2015. 

Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities

The city council was the sole funder of the interactive consultations and, therefore, funds were limited. Larry Schooler in his role as community engagement consultant was the driving force behind the scheme. Dissatisfied with the democratic deficit which he felt resulted in the preferences of the silent majority being ignored. This concern led Larry to design and implement special interactive consultations[2].

Participant Recruitment and Selection

Interactive consultations were organised to encourage the participation of underrepresented demographics (such as non-native speakers) in the policy process by making participation easier, cheaper, and more impactful. Unfortunately, the process of self-selection continued to skew representation[2].

As the Town Hall meeting was open, and other, virtual, methods of participation were accessible to all, as such, not a great deal of effort was made to select participants for these meetings actively. Potential participants were made aware of open consultations through earned media in the form of local press coverage, and social media, advertisements and fliers were also used. Advertisements and fliers were disseminated through the council’s facilities; these include public libraries, parks, recreation centres, health clinics and the like. In the later stages of development, Larry and his colleagues employed robot-calling to inform citizens in advance of an upcoming meeting. Participants did not incur any cost for attending, and participation could take place from any place where a landline, mobile, SMS, or internet connection were accessible[2].

Participation was popular with those demographics which did get involved, with many expressing, “a deep sense of gratitude that we did something like this, that irrespective of what the topic was or exactly how much of an interest they had in the topic, they were just grateful that we're going to get a voice”[2] .

Methods and Tools Used

Austin's interactive consultation process is best defined as a mini public. It is a, ‘protected' space for deliberation between a broadly inclusive and representative group of citizens, away from the pressures of everyday politics, in particular, the undue influence of special interests.[3] The January 2015 consultations involved question and answer between policymakers, experts, and citizens (present in-person or remotely). Online polls initiated by policymakers provided real-time feedback by numerous actors. 

The following is taken from a project an overview submitted by the City to the International Observatory on Participatory Democracy:

  • Virtual Town Hall Austinites could tune into the live broadcast on TV, radio or online via www.atxn.tv . Viewers could even provide commentary by tweeting #myatxgov or calling call 18884001932 (En Español: 18884009342.) All texted in or tweeted in comments would be displayed on a screen for in house attendees to see as well. Transcript of event available here: http://www.austintexas.gov/edims/document.cfm?id=224940
  • Speak Up Austin Before, during and even after the meeting, community members could provide feedback on forums established online regarding the specific changes to the Council Meetings on www.SpeakUpAustin.org 
  • Austin 311 Additionally, people could call 311 and share ideas about the #myatxgov project proposal or use the free 311 phone app and share their comments on the Community Project Feedback section prior to the voting on January 29th. In addition to the community members attending the meeting in-person, there were 3,943 residents (3,814 in English, 129 in Spanish) who accepted the invitation to participate by phone. Austin 311 feedback (available before, during and after the meeting) accessible here: https://www.austintexas.gov/sites/default/files/files/City-Council/Restructure_Feedback_Memo_311Comments.pdf
  • Speak Up Austin Forum (available before, during and after the meeting) accessible here: https://www.austintexas.gov/sites/default/files/files/City-Council/Restructure_Feedback_Memo_SpeakUpComments.pdf
  • Twitter Participation Report (available both before, during and after the meeting) accessible here: https:// www.austintexas.gov/sites/default/files/files/City-Council/Restructure_Feedback_Memo_TwitterComments.pdf 
  • Telephone Participation Report (from the live interactive Town Hall 1/22) accessible here: https://www.austintexas.gov/sites/default/files/files/City-Council/Restructure_Feedback_Memo_TeleponeReport.pdf 
  • Live Text-In Poll Report (from the live interactive Town Hall 1/22) accessible here: https://www.austintexas. gov/sites/default/files/files/City-Council/Restructure_Feedback_Memo_LivePollingReport.pdf 
  • Paper Survey Ultimately, the January 22nd special called Council Meeting ended up being a success by municipal standards with a full house and high levels of virtual engagement. 
  • In addition to all of the platforms coordinated by the City of Austin, outside community organizations and media outlets also provided event coverage (including, but not limited to): 
  • http://kut.org/post/cant-make-city-council-meeting-austin-now-offers-input-options-online 
  • http://www.austinchronicle.com/news/2015-01-23/public-notice-government-by-committee/ 
  • http://www.austineconetwork.com/event/austin-city-council-town-hall-meeting 
  • http://www.srccatx.org/2015/01/20/new-council-to-host-town-hall-jan-22-on-improving-public-engagement/ 

What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation

Held on January 22nd, one week until the Council was to vote on the proposed public engagment strategy, the 'virtual' town hall followed a standard process during which council members invited in-person participants to speak and ask questions. The questions and comments coming in through other channels - such as Twitter, SMS, and telephone - were either read out to council members during the meeting, selected by a moderator from the live feed projected on a large screen, or answered by dedicated call persons. [9]. Remote channels of participation were open from the beginning of January up until the day of the Council vote, January 29th. Some were more deliberative than others. For example, Twitter users generally submitted one-line suggestions using the hashtag #myatxgov while SpeakUpAustin Forum users were more likely to respond to previous comments and to interact with forum moderators. 

During the Town Hall, Larry Schooler outlined the numerous ways to participate as follows: "Folks will be able to participate the old-fashioned way by raising their hand and asking to be recognized and being able to come up and speak. But if you're watching this at home and you would like to participate, we have other ways for you to do so. You can call in to a toll-free number that's both in English and in Spanish. In English it's 888-440-1932. In espanol, [speaking in Spanish]. I hope I did that right. Si. You will also be able to text in your comments. There will be some poll questions that will be going up on our television screen here in a moment that you will see at home and you will see in the chamber and whether you're sitting here physically in the chamber or watching at home you will be able to text in your response in both to multiple choice questions and to open response questions. So whether it's via regular oldfashioned coming up to the mic and speaking, calling us up on the telephone and pressing zero to speak to a call screener to get on that way, texting or tweeting will hopefully accommodate every form of participation we can tonight."[9] 

Public feedback before, during, and after the Interactive Town Hall was largely in favour of the proposed participation strategy although many expressed concern with the process, viewing it as too 'thin' a form of deliberation on complex issues. As well, there were concerns over the proposed committee structure which would allow the number of public hearings to be increased by decreasing the number of council members having to be present during consultations.[9] Below are some examples drawn from various channels:

In-Person Comments during the Town Meeting

[Member of the League of Women Voters Speaking] " The league of women voters believes that democratic government depends on informed and active participation at all levels of government. The league further believes that governmental boys must protect the cen cen citizens right to know by giving adequate notice of proposed actions, holding public meetings and making public records accessible. The league is greatly concerned about transparency as well as the ability of the public to participate in decisions made by the city council. Transparency of public bodies means that everything you do should be available to the public."[9]

Twitter Feedback During and After the Town Meeting

Ivy Le: Pretty much agree with everything @chipr said at #myatxgov council meeting. Opening up data never did hurt a democracy. 

Joe Deshotel: Kudos to the new #atxcouncil for holding a town hall and taking questions via social media and by phone. #myatxgov 

Kraft I like the ideas to avoid regular marathon-length meetings. Okay to try, realize problems, and iterate. Better than current way. #myatxgov 

SpeakUpAustin Online Discussion Forum

Tim Thomas at January 15, 2015 at 10:11am CST Fewer meetings. Make each case open on the Internet and collect comments at each step along the way. Then council can read all the comments before voting on it. Allow online voting tied to address on each resolution before city council so they can guage public opinion the day of. It's very simple. Neither solution is going to ensure that everyone gets everything they want. But my solution involves a lot less wasted time. 

Katherine Ray at January 20, 2015 at 5:10pm CST As to Tim Thomas' suggestion, this sounds great, and it works for me since I have a computer, an iPad, and an iPhone. But what about the people who are less fortunate and don't have easy internet access? I think this solution limits input to the more fortunate in our community, and I don't think that's right or fair. 

Influence, Outcomes, and Effects

The January 22nd deliberation and week-long engagement which took place between citizens and policymakers/ experts was only consultative; the council did not have to implement anything which was suggested, although, during the January 29th meeting, both agenda items #23 and #26 - those directly affecting public engagement - were passed. According to the City's submission to the International Observatory on Participatory Democracy's Best Practice in Citizen Participation Award, " item #26 was passed that approved changes to the meeting procedures and council committee structures, with sponsorship by ten council members. In addition to this measure, item #23 was also passed which approved the creation of an Engagement Task Force which would measure the success of the new committees, current City of Austin best practices in engagement, as well as other cities engagement techniques over the next six months to ensure the lasting successful effects of the Interactive Town Hall." As the mayor outlined at the January 22nd 2015 Interactive Town Hall at the beginning of the consultation process: "we should change government, make it a little bit more thoughtful and deliberate [to] increase the meaningfulness of public engagement...and to consider and set new rules for how we would deliberate and operate. It's the intent of this [council] to increase the quality and the effectiveness of public engagement."[8] The passing of agenda items 23 and 26 turned this into a reality.

Ongoing Interactions

As a result of the January 2015 consultations, the passing of agenda items #23 and #26, and the implementation of a multi-channel city-wide engagement strategy, public participation through in-person and virtual forms has continued. Policymakers initiated polls on any issue, the results of which were displayed in real time, informing policymakers on the public consensus regardless of the number of actors involved in the deliberative process[1]. No established monitoring body is present but policymakers/ experts facilitate debate, trusting that citizens will speak and listen respectfully[2]. Many consultations have been held on various topics since 2015, examples of which are given below:

Recycling and Compost

One policy issue discussed was regarding composting and recycling, which according to Larry was a subject without broad passion. Despite the lack of widespread appeal, when a consultation took place regarding whether Austin resource recovery (Sanitation department) should begin curbside compost pick up and whether to increase recycling collection from every two weeks to every one week, over 1000 people had their say[2]. While this consultation took the form of a discussion/ Q&A between policymakers and citizens, this was not always the deliberative technique used. When establishing consultation regarding Austin’s aquatic facilities, Larry put a panel in place which represented a cross-section of the public, serving all demographics equally. This technique was used as it was imperative to get a broad section of society engaged. Larry has said that it would have been easy to focus on what swimmers want to do about swimming without considering the impact which ordinary taxpayers would face to support such projects. Taxpayers may prioritise other things such as wanting a pool in their neighbourhood opposed extending hours at existing pools. The panel format was not always favoured as other issues discussed, such as the recycling/ composting issue are far less niche, having a more significant impact on society overall and, therefore, less likely to attract a niche section of society[2]. What the implementation of a panel format demonstrates is the dynamics of public participation in the consultations, from voting for a policy choice to engaging in debate concerning a policy choice. 

At the end of the consultative process, there was considerable support for curbside compost collection but not for an increased frequency of recycling collection. Larry had this to say about how the deliberative process impacted the policy outcome, “The city did not put anything to a vote, but the consultation process was important for gauging people’s willingness to absorb additional charges and to what extent citizens wanted neither, one or both and what was more urgent, many said recycling was enough while their current ability to compost was limited for many reasons”[2] .The result being the implementation of curbside compost pick up.

Electronic Billboards

One consultative meeting regarding electronic billboards demonstrated this. Austin had banned traditional billboards some years ago. Therefore, the question of electronic billboards was a hot topic. Before the consultative process, Larry polled those involved to see who was in favour of electronic billboards. Larry found that the split was around 80% against to 20% for, by the end, those involved were more in support, with approximately 50% supporting and 50% opposing, a swing of 30%[2]. Deliberation on the electronic billboard issue resulted in more significant support for electronic billboards then there had initially been. Despite this gain in favour, the council did not decide to follow a policy route which would permit electronic billboards in Austin[2]. This cannot be considered as policymakers not being accountable to citizens as, despite an increase in those in favour of electronic billboards following deliberation, there was no majority consensus in support. In this case, Larry has said he would have liked to see further deliberation on the subject.

Aquatic Facilities

Deliberation on Austin’s Aquatic facilities also influenced the council’s policies choices. Consequently, we can see that deliberation in respect to Aquatic facilities and recycling collection both had a direct influence on public policy in Austin. While deliberation on electronic billboards did not produce consensus, the deliberative process did persuade citizens of the merits of diverse points of view, which is the goal of deliberation.

Analysis and Lessons Learned

Democracy was improved in Austin through the adoption of a more concerted public engagement strategy including interactive consultations which allow policymakers to hear the views and opinions of citizens for whom participation is made easy and convenient. As well, the consultation process, by allowing deliberation between citizens, affects the policy preferences of those citizens involved. While issues of representation and deliberation were seen in the initial week-long event and the first consultations as part of the new engagement strategy, Larry is confident that, over time, these can be resolved. One testament to the project's success is the favourable reception of both the interactive Town Hall and the ongoing public engagement process by citizens and the media[1].

Fung and Erik Olin Wright outline three general principles that empowered participatory governance abides by[4]. Although there are functional differences between empowered participatory governance and mini publics, the 3 three general principles of a participatory advisory panel’s offer a useful tool for analysing interactive consultation in Austin.

Firstly, a focus on specific, tangible problems[4]. The interactive consultation focused on policy issues facing Austin’s Citizens, such as questions regarding recycling policy and aquatic facilities policy. These matters were often identified via speakupaustin.org, a website where citizens create/share/vote on citizen-generated ideas[5]. The marriage of speak up Austin and interactive consultation is critical. It ensures that citizens set the agenda, therefore, issues discussed are specific and tangible to the people of Austin. Every Issue addressed, every consensus reached impacted upon Austins citizens directly.

Secondly, the involvement of ordinary citizens affected by these problems and officials close to them. Interactive consultation facilitated the participation of a significant sample of ordinary citizens with policy makers/ experts[4]. The use of technology made this participation far more accessible to all demographics than traditional forms of participation, removing many of the time and monetary costs associated with formal involvement. Unfortunately, self-selection resulted in the overrepresentation of white Caucasians. While this was somewhat addressed during consultations regarding the cities aquatic facilities, with the implementation of a panel format which broke the power of stakeholders, it did not stop specific demographics from engaging more often than others. Larry recognised the issue of representation, stating that in future he would use targeted mobilisation strategies to ensure the presence of social groups that are typically absent from political decision-making processes.

Thirdly, the deliberative development of solutions to these problems[4]. Matt Barr and Graham Smith discussed the merits of having, ‘institutional conditions in place for the emergence and sustenance of deliberative virtues such as respect and reciprocity and for considered opinion-formation’[3] The design of the Interactive consultation offered the ultimate safe space for discussion. Participants could engage from wherever they felt comfortable, curbing the dominance of those skilled in rhetoric. One criticism of the consultative process’ reliance on technology is that citizens who participate remotely, in the absence of face to face discussion, might choose not to engage in deliberation. A citizen may call in, make a claim, or raise a point but not deliberate past this initial engagement. A core ideal of deliberative democracy is the formation of considered opinion[6]; more could be done to encourage deliberation between those participating in the consultation process. This may be difficult as thousands of citizens can be involved in the process at once, but it would mean greater political equality and thus more legitimacy to decisions reached[7]. None the less, the result of interactive consultations in Austin has thus far been the enactment of favoured public policy, such as that shaping recycling policies.

See Also

Citizens' Relations Management Platforms (method)

References

[1] Poll Everywhere. (2017). Poll Everywhere. [online] Available at: https://www.polleverywhere.com/case-studies/engaged-citizenship [Accessed 7 Nov. 2017].

[2] Skype interview with Larry Schooler, community engagement consultant for the City of Austin, 24th October 2017

[3] Grönlund, K., Bächtiger, A. and Setälä, M. (2014). Deliberative mini-publics. Colchester, UK: ECPR Press, pp.18-25.

[4] Fung, A. and Wright, E. (2001). Deepening democracy. [London etc.].: Sage, pp.5-25.

[5] SpeakUpAustin. (2017). [online] Available at: http://speakupaustin.org/ [Accessed 7 Nov. 2017].

[6] Hansen, K. (2004). Deliberative democracy and opinion formation. pp.30-32.

[7] Fishkin, J. and Luskin, R. (2017). Experimenting with a Democratic Ideal: Deliberative Polling and Public Opinion. [ebook] Austin: Palgrave-journals, pp.285-295. Available at: https://www.uvm.edu/~dguber/POLS234/articles/fishkin.pdf [Accessed 7 Nov. 2017].

[8] Interactive Televised Town Hall. (2015). International Observatory on Participatory Democracy Best Practices in Citizen Participation Award. Available at https://drive.google.com/file/d/1O1Ey_OMskl-yJA_liWbcTyFj6y2nKaGu/view?usp=sharing

[9] SnapStream. (2015). City Council Special Called Meeting Transcript – 01/22/2015. City of Austin. Available at: http://www.austintexas.gov/edims/document.cfm?id=224940

External Links

Interview with Larry Schooler: https://www.indivisible.us/larry-schooler/

Austin Community Engagement Platform: http://www.austintexas.gov/communityengagement

Official Event Webpage: http://www.austintexas.gov/department/city-council/2015/20150122-spec.htm

Notes

Lead image: Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon | KUT https://goo.gl/vGjLZb