IdeaMapr interviewed elected and appointed officials in municipal government to uncover the main challenges in leveraging public input to make informed decisions. We found the following three crises in public input that creates a dilemma where public officials are overwhelmed with efforts to gather public input, yet still do not possess a clear picture of community needs.
Public officials (City Council, Boards, and Commission members) are overwhelmed with public feedback and struggle to record, reply to, and act on this feedback. For some governing bodies, this feedback comes in waves that are produced by particularly contentious or impactful agenda items. Other bodies struggle with a continuous stream of public feedback. This feedback comes into their offices in the form or emails, phone calls, in-person meeting requests, and even physical mail. Every office or official seems to develop their own method for coping, but few create a sufficient process that will keep their head above water. They may be able to redirect requests to other offices or take notes on paper to be filed somewhere or move emails into ever-expanding Outlook folders, but no one is able to draw a clear picture of the input they are receiving from the public, which sections of the community it comes from, its connection to relevant agenda items, and its historical context within the city. Whether officials are prepared or not, it comes. Officials also have to take into account public feedback that was gathered by department staff (planning, transit, etc) or other boards and commissions earlier in the process. They have to trust that the earlier engagement processes were rigorous enough to glean a fair picture of the community’s priorities, but this trust does not come naturally. Also, even though staff and governing bodies may have done everything they could, there may still be people who come up to say that this is the first time they are hearing about this project. “Engagement and outreach is well intentioned but you have to think about what was not gathered. Is that a fair depiction of what the community feels?” Genoveva Rodriguez, Council Member Ora Houston's Media & Communications Liaison
Government and citizens are overwhelmed from gathering feedback and participating in engagement projects. Seattle’s Department of Neighborhoods recently posted about discovering that they were holding too many public meetings and exhausting their community with too many requests to participate. Often this exhaustion occurs because the same people are the ones participating in community engagements again and again. Also, these people are the ones who are likely to participate in other neighborhood groups, such as neighborhood associations. Government and other neighborhood groups are going to the same well again and again and it becomes easy to exhaust that resource. Government officials and staff spend more and more time trying to get people to participate in town halls or coffee with the Councilmember but there is a limited amount of resources - both financial and time to spend on gathering input. Stephen Oliver, Chair of Austin’s Planning Commission recognized that City staff and consultants are limited in the amount of time that they can spend gathering input on a project because they still have to have time to “deliver the product”. If they had unlimited resources, there are things they would do differently, but they have to do the best with what they have.
Even though everyone is overwhelmed with the process, there are still not enough people participating to get a clear picture of community priorities. Another downside of going to the same well again and again is that the same people are being heard from again and again and their views only represent a certain percentage of the community. Most people do not participate and gov is not getting their input if they don’t participate. In many cases, the group least represented in feedback is the people who will use services most. The cost of not involving people is mostly paid by the people who don’t get to participate. Government is making decisions that will affect their lives but they don’t get to be part of the discussion. “People are affected by the choices we make and we need to get out in the community to find out from the people who know.” - Genoveva Rodriguez
Addressing these Challenges
Make engagement more efficient to relieve the burden on gov staff and participants. Efficient engagement means creating opportunities for people to participate online. Not everyone has access to technology or is tech-savvy, but improving access for the people who can participate online reduces the need to spend precious resources trying to get those people to attend in-person events. Less time spent gathering input leaves more time “to make the product” as Stephen Oliver put it. Also, increasing online engagement reduces the burden on those who usually attend in person.
Gather input in a way that is more efficient for using the input to produce insights. Government doesn’t need more input, they need better input that is generated in a way that is easier to pull insights from. Austin’s Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo said that the type of input that helps her are specific concerns and ideas for mitigating them: “if someone says, I want you to increase the funding for x, it needs to be tied to a reduction from something else”.
Deliver that input faster to decision-makers and the public, so that it can be processed in time to impact decisions.
Report on how input was incorporated into decisions and comment on why those decisions were made. This closes the feedback loop at helps to demonstrate to participants the value of their contributions.