How to be heard

Photo by Eddie Seal

Ever been mad at government? Don’t answer that.

But have you ever spoken up? More importantly, have you ever felt heard?

Candidates for office are awfully focused on listening to prospective voters. Once those candidates are elected and in office, they don’t stop listening, but it can be much harder to get through to them — to weigh in on policy options they’re facing in a timely and meaningful enough fashion for it to affect their decision.

Odd, isn’t it? If you’re married or in a committed relationship, you’d probably prefer being consulted on decisions that affect you — where you’ll live, say, or where your kids go to school. It seems unlikely that a marriage or relationship would prosper if one person made major decisions without consulting another.

So, why do governments across Texas, at all levels, make it so difficult for those affected by policy decisions to affect those decisions? Most limit the public’s participation to public hearings (often held so late at night that it can be difficult for some to stay awake to hear the speakers) or generalized public comment periods, which often are monopolized by extremists spouting rhetoric unrelated to the government’s jurisdiction. These hearings and comment periods may matter, but if they occur right before a vote, it's hard to see how. After all, we expect our politicians to do their homework before voting, so why should we expect them to disregard that homework just because someone makes a nice speech?

This limit on public participation in many communities and state agencies means that a very select few participate — those comfortable enough and able to spend hours waiting for a few minutes to take a stand and make a speech, in public, often televised and/or streamed live. That significantly skews an elected official’s perception of public opinion.

The choreography also works against the public. We structure these events like we would a church, a courtroom, or a lecture hall — with elected officials aloft on a dais, their “congregation” of citizens all wanting their ear but seated for a sermon. That does not convey a spirit of dialogue with the public affected by decisions, an open ear to hearing their views.

Some cities, including Fort Worth and Austin, have decided that public engagement (often called public involvement, community engagement, etc.) needs full-time attention and a strategic approach — not just checking the box legally requiring a public hearing. Others, including Houston, New Orleans, and Seattle, have offices or departments of neighborhoods or neighbor engagement, designed to make it easier for residents to navigate City Hall and weigh in particularly on land use decisions in their area.

But why should government spend money on something it has not spent money on before? Chances are government will spend more if they don’t engage the public than if they do. Look at New Braunfels, which spent years in court and holding recall elections over a highly controversial can ban. Look at San Antonio, mired in traffic and hoping for transit improvements, shelving a long-planned streetcar after howls of criticism over insufficient chances for the public to weigh in. Elected officials touting themselves as fiscal stewards probably would prefer not to spend millions of public dollars on lawsuits and off-cycle elections.

So, what to do? Elected officials — and, more importantly, the public administrators who support their work — need training in cutting-edge ways to engage the public. Governments need a set of adopted public engagement principles that carry over from one issue to another. Public hearings can stay, but public workshops, where small groups discuss issues calmly with neutral facilitators, should happen much earlier in a public policymaking process—and include refreshments, child care, parking and transit options. Cities, counties, and school districts should leverage their television stations (the government access channels) to broadcast meetings where the public can weigh in via telephone, text message, or Twitter.

We lament low voter turnout year after year, but in doing so, we ignore more powerful civic engagement opportunities. Let’s explore this and improve Texas’ ailing civic health.

Larry Schooler

Senior fellow, Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life, UT-Austin