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September 2015: Community Engagement

The goal of Conversation Corps is to increase and enhance community engagement in Austin, making it easier for people to influence the decisions that impact them. The program launched with our initial conversations in March 2015, and one of the resounding themes from those conversations centered around the concept of community engagement in and of itself. “How do we know we’ll actually be heard?” is a question we heard over and over again. During the month of September, our partnering agencies decided to go deeper and hear more about the ways we can ensure that the processes for sharing ideas to influence decisions is characterized by trust, respect and appreciation. We wanted to hear about what inspires people to be engaged and how we can make sharing your voice a rewarding and positive experience.  Read more background details here.

Conversation Feedback Summary
When asked about their personal approaches toward solving community engagement problems, participants commented on better outreach solutions, recognizing the limitations some communities have, and suggesting better involvement opportunities for civilians and people who have resources. Many conversations focused on offering more meeting places in the community, which could help bring awareness overall. Participants also expressed the concern about how the attendance in these events are lacking participation across the board. Other conversations focused on trying to bring awareness through advertising on buses, and having special guests visit the conversations so that real representatives are able to hear the public themselves. Some participants also suggested gaining information and intelligence from registered neighborhood associations, having ambassadors transfer and gather information, and offering multi-lingual inclusive dissemination of information and feedback. Some also suggested that there should be better social media participation and interaction that could collect data through electronic surveys. Overall many of the suggestions shared by participants focused on better communication of all types when trying to inform the public of engagement opportunities, especially better word-of-mouth.

Many throughout the conversations expressed the limitations they feel when interpreting what community engagement meant to them. A major theme focused on race, and how many different ethnic groups feel limited in becoming involved in the community because they are afraid, frustrated, and feel helpless in engaging with the community. They feel as though they are targeted and are racially profiled. Another barrier expressed was that the community is unaware of events taking place because they don’t speak English. They want to make sure there is better communication toward multilingual communities so that they are also able to make an impact on their communities  as well. One other limitation was not being able to reach those who don’t necessarily have the correct resources to become informed about conversations taking place. Reaching lower socioeconomic neighborhoods is vital, as well as realizing that not every citizen has access to a computer, telephones, or cars, so they are unable to know about the event or are even able to go. Overall participants want to make sure everyone is respected and given a chance to be equally heard and have equal opportunities to be involved.

Participants also want to feel as though their feedback and information is actually being used from the conversations. They want to feel as though they are making a difference and the engagement feels personal to them. Most attendees want to know if their feedback is given to a council member, or other leaders related to the conversations. They  expressed that the input should not be solicited if a decision has already been made, but instead present opening questions. The data should be put into context, focusing on what has been done and what can happen next. The participants also want to feel as though the feedback they offered during the conversations were used, knowing if they made any impact and building trust in the process so that they can stay engaged, and reduce frustration and incivility.

The feedback shows that participants want to be involved, they want a sense of belonging and to make a positive impact, and they want to gain better knowledge about how they can continue to engage in their communities. Below are compiled themes that arose followed by a link to the full report. 

People want opportunities that:

  • Are accessible, convenient & relevant
  • Lead to new understanding
  • Make them feel connected
  • Create impact
  • Give them access to people in power
  • Help preserve history & culture

Lack of participation results from:

  • Fear and frustration
  • Not feeling heard
  • Lack of awareness that opportunities exist
  • Not enough notice of meetings  
  • Language and cultural barriers
  • Cost to participate
  • Lack of reliable, safe and affordable transportation
  • Internet access

Read the full report here

How discussion feedback has been used
Feedback from September's conversations is currently being used by the Task Force on Community Engagement. The purpose of this Task Force is to review best practices and make recommendations to the Austin City Council regarding the City's community engagement program. To-date, the Task Force has completed significant work, including surveys and interviews with various parties that have an interest in community engagement with the City. They are developing a list of specific recommendations guided by that research and fact-finding, centering their recommendations around five specific themes: 

  1. Make information clear, relevant and easily accessible.
  2. Make it easier for people to give input in ways that are convenient, accessible and appropriate for them.
  3. Explain how input will be used and show how that input had an impact on the decision made.
  4. Ensure that everyone who cares about an issue or is impacted has the opportunity to engage.
  5. Ensure that City staff have the support, training, tools and resources to do engagement well.

The Task Force anticipates providing it's final report and recommendations to the Mayor and Council on May 3.