How to improve Austin’s public outreach and consultation process

This table tells you why we need to change Austin’s public outreach model.  But first, some context.

Katherine Gregor of the Austin Chronicle delves into some of the dissatisfaction about the diversity of participants in the City’s comprehensive planning process.  Highly-educated, center-city types provided the bulk of the engagement so far.  In my experience, this is a typical dilemma and rarely is it the fault of the consulting firm or city staff or community leaders overseeing the planning process.  Rather, it is the result of a flawed voluntary outreach model that planning and other public sector outreach always seems to adopt.

Under a typical voluntary outreach process, a consulting firm or city staff plan a series of outreach sessions across the city at public or community facilities, often with the involvement of community NGOs such as neighborhood groups, community development organizations, churches, ethnic advocacy, and so on.  These groups generate some turn out through their memberships with varying success.  Obviously, some residents turn out regardless of group involvement due to their affinity for civic matters or their self-interest in the matter discussed.

Voluntary attendance makes it virtually impossible to get truly representative samples of the public .  Moreover, even if somehow a representative sample is gathered, often times the participants have limited information or outright mis-information with which to discuss the topics at hand.

How could Austin solve the dilemmas of un-representative samples and potentially misinformed participants? Austin should consider ditching voluntary outreach and instead adopt a mash-up of citizen juries and deliberative polling.

Under citizen juries, a representative sample of Austinites would be paid to attend a formal consultation process that would present varying options and trade-offs to the jury.  The jury could receive non-representative information gathered through a voluntary outreach process, but the voluntary process would no longer be the main use of resources or considered to have the most moral authority.    A few components should be incorporated from deliberative polling – specifically the emphasis on providing information to the citizen jury participants from experts and framing the process as a set of choices.  Often times the results of public outreach are fluffy and abstract “we want more public safety” instead of “we believe the optimal number of patrol officers per capita is X”.

Texas has seen a fair amount of deliberative polling and one example stood out to me given the ongoing Austin Energy renewable generation mix debate.  In that use of deliberative polling, several Texas electric utilities tried to determine their consumers’ attitudes on climate change, renewables, and conservation.   As the table at the top indicates, there was a substantial change in how the consumers prioritized different measures when presented with concrete information.  Under a voluntary outreach model, the original under-informed opinions would have been taken as the will of the people. Notice how paying extra for renewables and prioritization of conservation experienced substantial shifts once presented with information in a deliberative context.  Any Austinite looking at this information should realize that  flawed outreach process can lead to seriously sub-optimal interpretations of public preferences.

FYI: The table can be found at Stanford’s Center for Deliberative Democracy.

UPDATE:  You can read Imagine Austin’s outreach plan here. There might be a random survey.  Hopefully, all of the data will be opened up to the public to enable some analysis and perhaps application development. Read this open letter to understand why.

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One Response to How to improve Austin’s public outreach and consultation process

  1. AmericaSpeaks should be able to help with this – they do effective (and cost-effective) diversity outreach, e.g. @americaspeaks: http://bit.ly/cV4foC

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