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Can Austin innovate itself out of long meetings?

Thursday, March 30, 2017 by Chad Swiatecki

Given the recent tilt toward performance art at City Council meetings – those poor eggs! – and running times that are the longest among major cities in Texas, it seems like the last thing Austin needs is more citizen participation on civic matters big and small.

But changing the paradigm for how residents and stakeholders are able to interact with elected leaders, thus allowing greater levels of participation aside from walking up to the lectern for three minutes in a six-plus-hour meeting, was the focus of one of the many government track panels during this year’s South by Southwest.

The session gave West Sacramento, California, Mayor Christopher Cabaldon, who was the only featured speaker in “Swiping Left on Civic Engagement,” a chance to discuss trends in his city that are likely experienced by many cities across America.

Certainly, some of Cabaldon’s talking points will ring familiar to Austinites: too many citizen viewpoints are offered for the sole purpose of canceling out someone else’s opinion; citizen engagement is a hobby for a select group of residents who see adding to the running time of meetings as their civic duty; responsive government too often causes instability by tending to overreact; and a mentality of “how do we make sure nothing goes wrong?” becomes the guiding mission of elected officials worried about angering a vocal minority.

Cabaldon said he didn’t have many hard answers but that a move toward finding more casual ways to gather feedback and ask “fuzzy” (i.e., not yes/no) questions either digitally or in person would be a good step.

Asked after the session about the ways technology can be effective in developing a more well-rounded picture of residents’ wishes, David Edmonson, executive director of the Austin Tech Alliance, said the early work of Austin’s Innovation Office has shown promise.

“Austin’s Innovation Office is very in sync with Mayor Cabaldon’s line of thinking,” Edmonson said. “Their Design, Technology and Innovation Fellows program brings design principles to bear addressing difficult issues like Austin’s permitting process and how to improve recycling rates. It would be interesting to see how they might re-imagine local civic engagement efforts with the goal of getting community feedback that’s as inclusive and accurate as possible.”

The Innovation Office was included in the effort undertaken throughout City Hall to identify short-term answers for how to cut the length of Council meetings, which amounts to nibbling off small pieces of a very big dilemma.

Kerry O’Connor, the city’s chief innovation officer, said Austin’s participation in an international coalition known as the Open Government Partnership looks to combine technology, civic participation, accountability and transparency to provide citizens with better access to information and improve interactions at all levels of government.

O’Connor’s office is pursuing open government as one of a handful of pervasive problems afflicting Austin government. She said the inefficiencies created by limited or lopsided feedback become apparent pretty quickly.

“The international development community and philanthropists see the negative results of not having enough feedback, and they’re trying do something about it,” O’Connor said. “With our work on solving low recycling participation, we found that by asking open-ended questions, we could start doing pattern finding and find what the real problems were. There’s lots of ways to do stuff like that, but it takes lots of effort.”

O’Connor admits that the above solution works in cases where service delivery or use is involved, but the engagement problem becomes tougher around issues such as zoning changes that generate debate and heated opinions.

“Does everyone have to show up, or can we adopt user research to create better answers?” she said. “When we have to figure out new rules of the road, what types of citizen input and participation do we need?”

Photo by Trey Perry made available through a Creative Commons license.

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