Interactive Community Consultations in Austin, Texas

Interactive Community Consultations in Austin, Texas

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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 council, led by community engagement consultant Larry Schooler, funded the creation of open meetings and the purchase of "poll anywhere" technology required to facilitate the engagement of citizens [1].

History

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.

Originating entities and funding

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 meetings were open, they 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 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. Policy panels were also used to ensure a representative sample of citizens could deliberate on issues that had small but vocal support bases. 

Deliberation, Decisions, and public engagement

The deliberative process was informal, usually lasting one session, during which policymakers and experts questioned in-person and remotely-pressent citizens on policy preferences and vice-versa[2]. 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 was present. Instead, policymakers/ experts facilitate debate, trusting that citizens will speak and listen respectfully[2].

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.

The consultation process, by allowing deliberation between citizens, affected the policy preferences of those citizens involved. 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].

Influence, Outcomes, and Effects

The deliberation which took place between citizens and policymakers/ experts was only consultative; the council did not have to implement anything which was suggested, although it often did. 

Regarding deliberation on recycling and compost collection, 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.

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.

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

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.

To conclude, democracy was improved in Austin by the implementation of interactive consultations as it has permitted policymakers to hear the policy preferences of a considerable sample of citizens for whom participation was made easy and convenient. While issues of representation and deliberation persist, Larry is confident that these can be resolved. One last point to consider is the favourable reception interactive consultation has received in Austin, both by citizens and the media; this is a testament to its success[1].


 

Sources

[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] http://speakupaustin.org. (2017). SpeakUpAustin. [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].

External Links

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

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

 

Case Data

Location

Geolocation: 
Austin , TX
United States
Texas US

Purpose

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History

Start Date: 
Monday, June 29, 2009
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Ongoing: 
Yes
Number of Meeting Days: 
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Participants

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Organizers

Who paid for the project or initiative?: 
Austin city council
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