Barricades to Civic Engagement
in Austin, Texas
Over the course of 8 weeks, my colleagues and I at the Austin Center for Design, set out to understand how the residents of Austin think about local government and how they form a connection to it.
The initial research phase was purely generative, but working in partnership with the City of Austin, we hoped to uncover new ways the city could increase civic engagement and access the voices of more Austinites. For the purposes of this work, we defined civic engagement as the act of giving input to the city’s governing body.
Government at the local level affects everyone’s daily lives - from how we access nature, educate children, travel to work, or experience growth. Overall, civic engagement in Austin is low. Despite the city’s efforts to connect with new residents and increase equity in the engagement process, they are still hearing from the same small pool of residents over and over. City employees will plan an engagement for months only to reach less than a thousand people in many cases. These low numbers (in contrast to the population of Austin as a whole) are discouraging considering the amount of time and effort it takes to reach people. Furthermore, because city decision makers are not accustomed to hearing from their constituents, they are not held accountable for the decisions they make.
My team and I recruited particpants in our design study by organically positioning ourselves in places we might encouter individuals that are outside our existing networks. We rode buses, visited libraries, went to city hall, and even knocked on doors. We diversified our participant group by location within Austin (North, South, East, West) as well as income level and ethnicity. Additionally, we included subject matter experts in our study to better understand how people within the city at instututions like the University of Texas approach this topic.
We conducted Contextual Inquiries and utilized Participatory methods to uncover why people think and behave the way they do. During Contextual Inquiry, we spent time in people’s home or places of work to learn how local government does or doesn’t fit into the context of their daily lives. During Participatory Design, we utilized low-fidelity tools like photographs, stickers, simple charts to help particpants represent how they think and feel about certain issues or processes.
Why aren’t more people joining the conversation?
After speaking with a total of 60 participants, we identified a few key barriers that block residents from becoming engaged.
The first is that there are many people who live entirely unaware of how the governmental functions operate around them. They don’t think about local government at all. They do not realize the impact local governmental policies have on their daily life, nor do they feel like there is a place for them to join the conversation. They view local government as unimportant, an entity that works in the background that they have no control over. Furthermore, many people have no idea how local government is set up or how decisions get made, creating yet another barrier to becoming involved.
Secondly, people that do try reaching out to the government often fail or lose motivation due to ineffective channels to connect.
"I think about national issues, but not local stuff."
- Chris, East Austin resident
She’s not alone. When Austin made the switch to a 10-1 council in 2012, the city informed the populous in all the ways they knew how, but many people close their ears to local politics. “I don’t feel like I have a place in local government,” said Mike. Unfortunately this disconnection means people are disempowered when it comes to solving problems in their city.
More often than not, the people that we met during our research didn’t have much to say about local government at all. “I think about national issues,” said Chris, “but not local stuff.”
But not only do people not think about it, they don’t understand how it’s set up. “I have a representative?” Laura was surprised to learn that Austin is divided into 10 distinct districts with a representative for each.
"I have a representative?"
- Laura, East Austin resident
For those residents that do think of bringing their issues to local government in order to get them addressed, the lack of guidance on how to do so is often debilitating.
A woman we met named Kathy wanted to contact the city about an issue with dangerous traffic near her grandchildren’s school. Even after she found an email address, the blank canvas of the email form left her stuck and she never sent the email.
Later on, when Kathy happened to meet her council member at the library, she felt unsure of how to approach him. “How does this work? How do I go about this?” she questioned herself.
“I tried writing the city before, but I didn’t know if they would think it was a good letter.”
- Kathy, North East Austin resident
Currently, the ways in which residents can give input to the city are through surveys, public input meetings, by email, or by speaking at city council.
Surveys are often lengthy, causing many people to abandon them before completion. Public input meetings don’t account for people that work or have family obligations (or that frankly don’t like attending meetings). Emails sometimes go unanswered. And lastly, city council meetings often don’t leave residents with the feeling that they’ve been heard.
Take Jennifer for example. When she decided to go speak at city hall to inform the council of a water issue in her neighborhood, her journey was marked with many setbacks along the way.
After signing up two weeks ahead of time, taking off work to go down to city hall, she has to stand at a podium while a camera films her and projects her face onto a large screen. Further still, she's given only 3 minutes to speak in front of the council members, and her speech will be cut off by a loud buzzer if she goes over her time.
At the end of the experience, Jennifer’s passion had been sapped and she felt deflated. “I wondered if they even want to hear from us as residents.” she confessed.
"I wonder if they even want to hear from us as residents."
- Jennifer, West Austin resident
The fact that Austin residents are so disconnected from their government and that the ways to connect are misaligned with human behaviors, gives us great opportunity to innovate. How can we first help residents become more aware and connected? Then give them the confidence they need to effectively participate? And lastly, how can we improve the channels so their voices make an impact?
There is a real opportunity to empower Austin residents to begin collaborating with local government. Within the city there are employees who work full-time to get resident input on new projects and initiatives, how can we support their efforts and provide them with fresh voices?