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City of Austin reaches out to unengaged citizens

Friday, July 1, 2016 by Cate Malek

Austin residents who have tried to get their voices heard by City Council know well the frustrating experience of sitting in a meeting for sometimes as long as 10 hours waiting for the chance to speak for their allotted three minutes.

While the process is daunting for most residents, for some it has made the prospect of interacting with the city nearly impossible. In an attempt to reach out to communities who aren’t engaging with local government, Council has been implementing a number of tools that allow people to give feedback without coming downtown to attend a formal meeting.

“Those affected by a decision should be able to affect that decision,” said Larry Schooler, public engagement manager for the city.

Since 2009, Schooler’s office has been rolling out a number of strategies that allow Austinites to participate in meetings in their own neighborhoods or homes. In some cases, trained facilitators are sent out to lead community discussions or position themselves in high-traffic areas, such as parks or festivals, to ask the opinions of people passing by. Another strategy is to send people home with a meeting-in-a-box, which contains all the materials necessary for them to host their own meetings at home.

Particularly effective have been online forms of engagement, such as SpeakUpAustin, an online forum that now has over 6,000 users. The city of Austin also has TV Town Hall, where Austin residents can respond to Council meetings by phone, text or Twitter.

Schooler describes it as “American Idol meets talk radio.” In one particularly heated discussion on recycling pickups, more than 1,000 people called in, with more posting tweets.

The feedback from these alternative forms of engagement is then given to the members of Council, who are meant to incorporate what they have heard into their policy.

“We want to make sure this isn’t check-the-box engagement,” Schooler said.

These strategies are especially intended to reach communities that have traditionally felt they have no power over Council decisions. Communities that Schooler named as priorities include low-income communities, youth and elderly communities, and people who don’t speak English as a first language.

There is still more work to be done. At a Human Rights Commission meeting on June 27, commissioners asked Schooler if he had been able to recruit facilitators from diverse areas of Austin.

“We could always use help in recruiting new hosts,” he responded. The engagement office currently relies on around 100 or more volunteers but is working to increase that number in order to expand its reach.

“I understand some of the reasons why (the public) has chosen not to engage in the past. I understand how inconvenient it’s been or how uncomfortable or how tense it may have been,” Schooler told the Austin Monitor. “I want them to know that it’s become so much easier to join the conversation than ever before.”

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