The Conversation Corps initiative trains community members to facilitate open dialogues on topics and issues identified by three public agencies as worthy of public input. The feedback generated during dialogues is transmitted to decision-makers who use it to inform policy.
Problems and Purpose
Conversation Corps is a join intiative to "engage the people of Austin in meaningful civic dialogue focused on public issues, hosted by community volunteers across the entire city" (Conversation Corps, 2017b). The project is lead by non-profit Leadership Austin who train members of the community to host public dialogues on topics identified by the project's parterns the the City of Ausin, the Austin Independent School District, and Capital Metro. The results of the dialogues are recorded by the trained host, sent back to Conversation Corps, and shared with the decision-makers of the partner agency. How the agency used the feedback generated during the community dialogue on each topic is monitored by Conversation Corps and communicated to all participants.
Background History and Context
Austin is the capital city of the state of Texas, and whilst it remains a vibrant and diverse city it is also ranked as one of the ‘most segregated large U.S. metros’ (Florida and Mellander, 2015). As a result, the citizens of Austin voted in 2012 to reorganise the structure of Austin City Council into 10 individual districts which each elect a council representative. However, the council found that marginalised groups who are used to not being heard, are unlikely to immediately become engaged in the decision-making process. As a result, the Conversation Corps were formed to help people understand how they can become involved and share their opinions. Their mission is to ‘engage the people of Austin in meaningful civic dialogue focused on public issues, hosted by community volunteers across the entire city’ (Conversation Corps, 2017b)in order to give everyone an opportunity to participate.
There are three primary objectives of the project (Conversation Corps, 2017a, p. 2):
1. Give Community members skills needed to lead and participate in meaningful conversations
2. Create opportunities for anyone and everyone to participate in dialogue
3. Connect community dialogue with decision makers
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
Initially, the idea of creating the Conversation Corps was produced by the City of Austin’s Communications and Public Information Office. However, there are now a number of key stakeholders involved and funding for the project is provided by each of the partnering agencies with the City of Austin, Capital Metro and Austin ISD each contributing $15,000 yearly (Conversation Corps, 2017a, p. 4).
Participant Recruitment and Selection
Information about the Conservation Corps and how citizens can participate is disseminated through the three partnering agencies by Leadership Austin, a local non-profit organisation that has been contracted by the City to administer the whole programme. In addition, community members can sign up for a newsletter to hear from the programme directly. This will inform them about ongoing opportunities in the programme and how their feedback is being used to make change.
The programme aims to recruit the widest spectrum of society into the programme and ensure that ‘everyone has the opportunity to participate in important conversations about our community.’(Conversation Corps, 2017b). In order to achieve this, the subsequent stages of the programme will look to ensure that conversations are held in locations which are accessible for the most marginalised members of society and to continue to partner with other societal entities such as ‘Goodwill Industries of Central Texas’ (Conversation Corps, 2017a, p. 3)to engage with both clients and employees.
Methods and Tools Used
Program participants are required to attend a free, scheduled half-day training workshop on dialogue hosting either. Training sessions are held regularly by Conversation Corps or a special training session can be scheduled if the requesting participant has a group of people wishing to take the training together or in the case that they are unable to travel to the training location (Conversation Corps, 2017b). Once trained, participants go out and lead one hour conversations on topics chosen by Conversation Corps public partners. The dialogues are often held in public places such as coffee shops, libraries and houses of worship. They do not look for a consensus, only the key topics discussed during conversation which are reported back to the Conversation Corps team for transmission to the public agency who chose the topic under consideration.
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
Topics of discussion are negotiated beforehand by the Conversation Corps team with their three partner agencies: the City of Austin, the Austin Independent School District, and Capital Metro (Austin's public transport authority). The entire process of engagement between the Conversation Corps project team, the public, and partner agencies follows a five-step 'feedback loop':
- Participant training
- Dialogue hosting
- Reporting to Conversation Corps
- Reporting to Partner Agency
- Reporting to participants and the public
Anyone interested in giving feedback to the three public agencies that partner with Conversation Corps can sign up for a half-day training workshop where they learn how to host a dialogue. The training focusses on facilitation skills.
After undergoing training, participants are ready to host a conversation. To do so, Conversation Corps provides participants with:
- "An overview of the topics our partner agencies would like to discuss with the community; there are often several topics available at the same time for hosts to choose from.
- A facilitator guide that walks you through the conversation you will facilitate.
- A form to use for submitting a conversation summary back to us.
- Options for where to host:
- Public venues such as cafes, houses of worship, libraries and community centers
- Community organizations who meet regularly and would like to include a conversation as part of their meetings
- Large events where we can set up a “pop-up” conversational space (booth, etc.)
- Your place of work (during lunch, after hours, etc.)
- At the dinner table or other gatherings of friends, family and neighbors" (Conversation Corps 2017b)
Reporting to Conversation Corps
After the dialogue, hosts will submit what they heard during the dialogue back to Conversation Corps using a form provided by the project team.
Reporting to Partner Agency
The Conversation Corps team takes the dialogue reports to the relevant partner agency who use the feedback to develop recommendations for the key decision makers.
Reporting to participants and the public
The findings from the conversations on a topic must be effectively compiled and then transferred to the relevant partner agencies. In order to share how these agencies plan to use this information - the recommendations that result and the possible policy influences - the results are published on the ‘Conversations’ page of the Conversation Corps website. In addition, the results are sent out through a newsletter and through social media feeds such as Facebook and Twitter. Finally, for those who do not have access to these forms of communication, they can call 3-1-1, Austin’s 24-hour Citywide Information Centre (Conversation Corps, 2017a). The programme aims to continue to increase partnerships with other community organizations and local businesses to expand the methods in which information can be shared and who it is subsequently shared with.
All of these forms of communications provide information on the topics that have been explored in the past and the outcomes, along with current topics that citizens could be involved with. This provides the opportunity for partner agencies to increase transparency and to show those who have taken part that their voices are being heard. In order to close this feedback group, it is also important to receive as much feedback as possible in order to guide the future programme decisions to improve efficiency and increase engagement.
Influence, Outcomes and Effects
The Conversation Corps initiative has received a number of awards for their work in public engagement. In 2017, the project was a semi-finalist for Harvard’s Innovations in American Government Award and a 'Special Mention' for the International Observatory on Participatory Democracy "Best Practice in Citizen Participation" award (Harvard University, 2017; IOPD, 2017).
In the first phase of the project, Conversation Corps managed to reach all 10 city council districts hearing from more than 700 voices about 14 different topics. The programme has had a number of positive impacts on Public Policy since the programme began in January 2015. The programme helped to inform decision making in a wide range of topics such as affordability plans and use of City parks.
One example of an ongoing conversation is the AISD Facilities Master Planning looking at school facility construction over the next 25 to 30 years(Conversation Corps, 2017c). In this topic guide, they outline why this topic is important and how the feedback will be used by the AISD to incorporate their feedback into an existing master plan and to further refine the options available.
There are also several examples of past conversations which can be discussed. For example, in June 2015 a set of conversations focused on mobility in the city by discussing transport solutions. These conversations were utilised to create a report presented to the City Council Mobility Committee in November 2016. In addition, the responses were used in a study to radically improve the bus service in 2025 and a mobility plan looking at how to efficiently move people in and out of the city (Conversation Corps, 2015a). A second example, in May 2015 they held 13 conversations and 42 voices were heard in regards to the topic of budget priorities. Citizens were asked to rank a number of budget items for the City of Austin, Capital Metro and AISD. The reports from these conversations were compiled and delivered to the decision makers in each of these organisations to help dictate budget decisions (Conversation Corps, 2015b). Whilst the voices do appear to have helped dictate several reports, it is difficult to see if this subsequently had a large impact in changing decisions that would still have been made without the additional consultation.
In addition to the policy implications, there are also several positive impacts felt by the actors in the programme. Conversation Corps has primarily led to increased collaboration across actors, this has resulted in participants feeling more connected to their fellow citizens but also to the decisions made in their local community. Despite that policy decisions ultimately may not align with the opinions of some participants, they still feel greater levels of engagement with the decision-making process as whole.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
The Conversation Corps are helping to create a participatory society (Pateman, 1970)by trying to engage the community in face to face conversations about issues that matter to them. These citizens are at the front line of the effects of policy decisions and the programme is providing the means that their voices can be heard by key decision makers in local government.
The Conversation Corps programme understood the need to assess the quality of the experience to drive improvement and decided on three factors to consider (Conversation Corps, 2017a):
- Are the supporting agencies satisfied?
- Are our volunteers feeling supported and successful?
- Is the experience meeting the expectations of the participants?
These assessments were conducted through several methods such as regular meetings with all partnering agencies, regular surveys completed by the volunteers, and finally post-conversation surveys completed by the participants themselves. However, it can be argued that feedback through this mechanism is biased as the respondents are close to the process. In order to address the bias the programme also consults with those not directly involved in the programme and this also helps the organisers to understand ways in which to increase participation.
Despite the increasing number of democratic innovation awards presented to the programme, the Conversation Corps has gained little media attention reducing the programme exposure to citizens. As the programme continues to grow there may be an increase in news traction. However, this may continue to not be the case as democratic innovations are not being considered ‘newsworthy’ despite the profound effect on society.
There are many lessons that can been learnt from the Conversation Corps programme. Firstly, in order to meet the goals set out by the City of Austin, the model that had been drawn at the initial stages of the programme required significant changes from the original vision in order for the programme become viable. Similarly, implementation literature shows us how difficult it is to implement effective policy. ‘The implementation process itself creates a new reality and changes the system, often unanticipated problems or counter-cyclical consequences emerge’ (McLaughlin, 1987, p. 175). In policy implementation, we can see a bargaining process where there is a gradual policy evolution as issues such as resource challenges interact with predicted outcomes and policy aims and for a policy to succeed often actors must remain dynamic and respond appropriately.
Another lesson learnt was that the management of the programme found that despite citizens having extensive opportunities to participate in conversations, they continued to see low attendance in many areas. Whilst they have heard from over 700 voices, this is still small in comparison to the population of the City of Austin. They subsequently concluded that the conversations were still not accessible enough. As a result, in future stages of the programme there are plans to increase the number of local businesses involved in the process leading to greater engagement from those who interact with these firms.
One possible criticism of the Conversation Corps attempts to create a participatory society is ‘To what extent are citizens able to influence the political decision-making process?’ (Smith, 2009, p. 33)Whilst participation from citizens remain on the local scale with partner organisations collecting the conversation reports and feeding this into large scale decision making processes. There are still questions over if the programme truly achieves its goals of engaging and empowering citizens when there is a disconnect between citizen opinion and the decision-making process. One respondent to the conversation in regards to budget priorities decided to refrain from ranking any of the lists provided by the partner agencies as ‘she feels disenfranchised from all three, & she felt that no one is going to listen to how she ranked them.(Conversation Corps, 2015b)’ This continues to remain an issue for the Conversation Corps and whilst the reports have filtered into the decision making process, it is sometimes difficult to see a direct tangible impact.
Finally, the Conversation Corps is also beginning to utilise ‘E democracy’ to increase overall participation primarily through the effective dissemination of information. Not only utilising a website but also through social media and online newsletters in order to inform citizens and increase transparency. However, there also appears to be an opportunity to utilise ‘E democracy’ to a greater effect in order to reach an even greater number of citizens for conversations, possibly by hosting some of these conversations online (Smith, 2009, p. 143).
Kitchen Table Conversations (method)
Conversation Cafes (method)
Conversation Corps (2015a) June 2015: Mobility. Available at: http://conversationcorps.org/content/june-2015-mobility.
Conversation Corps (2015b) May 2015: Budget Priorities. Available at: http://conversationcorps.org/content/may-2015-budget-priorities.
Conversation Corps (2017a) 11th ‘Best Practice in Citizens’ Participation’ Award Award Application Form. Available at: https://oidp.net/distinction/docs/record03.en.pdf.
Conversation Corps (2017b) About Conversation Corps. Available at: http://conversationcorps.org/content/about-conversation-corps.
Conversation Corps (2017c) AISD Facilities Master Planning. Available at: http://conversationcorps.org/sites/default/files/AISD Facilities Master Plan.pdf.
Florida, R. and Mellander, C. (2015) Segregated City: The Geography of Economic Segregation in America’s Metros.
Harvard University (2017) Conversation Corps. Available at: https://www.innovations.harvard.edu/conversation-corps.
IOPD (2017) Best Practice in Citizen Participation. Available at: https://oidp.net/distinction/en/.
McLaughlin, M. W. (1987) ‘Learning From Experience: Lessons From Policy Implementation’, Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 9(2), pp. 171–178.
Pateman, C. (1970) ‘Participation and Democratic Theory’, The Democracy Sourcebook, pp. 40–48.
Smith, G. (2009) Democratic Innovations, Democratic Innovations: Designing Institutions for Citizen Participation.
Lead image: Conversation Corps | Flickr https://is.gd/ivuIRB