UNC releases report analyzing public participation in Chapel Hill 2020

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Ruby Sinreich's picture

What have we learned?

I don't argue with these recommendations (A-D, below) in general, but the report seems to generally brush off the criticisms from participants as naive or uninformed. It didn't seem like that in my reading of the survey responses in the report's appendix.

A. Process planning: Early and clear articulation of the trade-offs among different citizen engagement values in order to reduce frustration and set realistic expectations;B. Process implementation: Establish a clearer link between citizen input and drafts of the plan to show where and how certain views are included, edited or set-aside;C. CH2020 next steps: i. Report to CH2020 participants and the general community about steps taken to implement 2020 action steps;ii. Build internal capacity and model the desired community outreach via “staff inreach”;D. Supporting non-governmental civic action: i. Identify one or two projects where non-government resources and expertise can take the lead; andii. Invest in sustained and innovative community outreach and participation efforts. 

Interesting feedback from the theme group co-chairs:

1. Best parts of CH2020 - Strong agreement on: The process encouraged a high level of sustained citizen participation; The process created new opportunities to inform and involve citizens; The process benefited by hiring the outreach coordinator who could focus on innovative and time-intensive ways to interact with residents. The town staff were instrumental in the success of the effort, while still sustaining their regular duties;2. Most co-chairs found the work more satisfying than their past experiences with town issues, or organized planning/consultation processes, and gave various reasons: More open; Conclusions “less guided” than in the past;  Wider range of participants;  New perspectives;  More interaction and exploration;  Worked with town staff they had not worked with previously;  Got to know community leaders and key town staff.3. Challenges encountered Some participants came with a narrow agenda and tried to control the process; High time demands of being a theme group co-chair; Low attendance at some meetings; Lack of clarity about the expectations for participants, particularly indistinguishing between offering ideas or making decisions; Lack of clarity on what should be accomplished at each meeting; The openness and flexibility of the process was initially inviting but became more frustrating as the deadlines approached.  Did not come close to producing a comprehensive plan.  

I was frustrated to read this from the 2020 co-chairs:

For outreach efforts, it was very important to involve the “under 40 crowd” through strategies such as: Social media Tavern Talks “Tap Brian Russell” (a Theme Group Co-chair) and other young professionals involved in CH2020 for their ideas 

Not to quibble but Brian Russell is 42, a former business owner, a parent, and a homeowner. Not exactly the target "young" demographic. He (and I, and people like us) are just a link to a whole world of people that don't know or care about local government, some of whom are coincidentally under 40.Sorry if I'm too snarky but this has been a pet peeve of mine since I am often the youngest person in the room (or I am treated that way). This was great when I was 20, not so much as I turned 30 and 40.And from the general public (127 respondents), I noticed that there are often around 20% negative responses, but the report didn't seem very interested in why this was. It's easy to write off the bad experiences as just poor communication or unrealistic expectations, but I think that's a very high amount of dissatisfaction for a process that needs to serve the entire community.

Most respondents thought the outreach to diverse segments of the community was good to excellent (72%) and about one out of five found it less effective (22% replied “fair” or “poor”). A majority (79%) felt the discussions were respectful. On information sources, 71% used the town website, 57% viewed the CH2020 blog, and 54% used the newspaper to learn about CH2020. About a third received information from a coworker, friend or neighbor, and of the 23% who noted other sources, common avenues were emails, OrangePolitics.org, and Chapelboro.com. For seeking and receiving information, 63% found it easy or very easy, 14% found it not easy or very hard. Thirty-seven additional comments noted many points, a prominent one was along the lines of “The web site was not that well laid out and it could be difficult to find what I was looking for.”  A contrasting view included comments such as “There was a lot of noisy complaint about 2020 so it was good to have info A large majority (83%) had reviewed the content of the CH2020 Comprehensive Plan report, with between 47% and 58% reviewing at least one draft, and 71% reviewing the final version.[...]For “the best part of your involvement in Chapel Hill 2020” 63 comments covered many topics, ranging from the value of meeting and working with people interested in making Chapel Hill better, to “There was no best part. I had no feeling that my ideas were wanted.”  Some commonalities focused on speaking and being heard, presenting and listening to different viewpoints, and positive interactions with familiar and new people. Approximately four respondents thought there was no highlight and their input was ignored or the “town's approach was disingenuous at best.”The “most important thing” learned from 69 respondents ranged widely. Some of the more common points: Community involvement – was not heard or was not genuine (9 comments) or was hard to do, but was worthwhile, or has had a good impact (5 comments) Diversity of viewpoints: yes, there was a good effort and fairly good outcome (3 comments); or was not done well, “only loud voices prevail” or was disappointing (5 comments) Developers had a large influence or greater influence than citizens  (5 comments) The plan outcomes was too general, lacked coordination or was negatively biased (5 comments) Demographic and economic changes are generating needs that are important for guiding Chapel Hill's vision for a positive future." (4 comments) People care about Chapel Hill (3 comments)As for future involvement, the multiple choice responses had a fairly even distribution. While 57% thought they would be more likely or much more likely to be involved, 27% were neutral and 17% (one out of six) are less likely or much less likely to be involved. Comments from 38 respondents had one general theme: certain input, goals or action steps were not included in the draft or final plan. This result left these respondents discouraged or upset. A respondent noted, “I tried hard to provide useful input, but none of my suggestions made it into any plans or recommendations.”  

The actual interviews and survey responses in the appendices seemed to raise a lot more concerns than were reflected in the report. However the survey results are difficult to follow/reference as there are few headings and no page numbers.This was an interesting remark almost certainly talking about me. Of course I don't see my own beliefs as controversial but if they are, what is wrong with that in itself? (And in fact they have been validated by local voters quite a lot lately).

Despite statements to the contrary the process was open to all.  The leaders of the community outreach endeavor, however, did not allow the 'process' to be hijacked by local special interests only interested in pursuing a controversial agenda that is inconsistent with the will of the local electorate 

And there were a number of criticisms and concerns, some from the leaders and quite a lot from the public, expressed in the open-ended responses to the survey. For example, there were many comments something like this one: "Most of the people at the meetings I attended seemd to be older, white people, but I know the Town made many efforets to reach out to minorities and younger people." Does anyone think this might skew the results of the process? In fact, reading through the responses from the public, I think we might actually have LESS shared vision and values now than before 2020 started. People certainly have very fixed and very different ideas of what it was and what happened. Some complained that the process was dominated by people who want nothing to change, and others said it was all manipulated by real estate developers. And 17% of repondents said they are now less like likely to "be involved in future discussions and plans for community needs."I was pleased to see that if you look at how people said they got information about 2020, OP or unnamed blogs/web sites were mentioned repeatedly.So, any reason to think this report won't go on the same dusty shelf where the rest of the Comprehensive Plan resides? Did I just waste my Saturday night reading this thing? (Don't answer that last one, please.)

Ruby Sinreich's picture

A glaring omission

Oh and one thing that is missing entirely from the report: any mention of the Chapel Hill 2020 Outreach Committee! I joined the committee just as 2020 was getting started and began to have concerns that it lacked the leadership to substantively reach beyond the typical middle-upper class, middle-upper aged activists who usually have the time and energy for this kind of thing.After pointing out this potential deficit, I was appointed to be a third co-chair of the Outreach Committee. But about 2 months later, I was asked to resign for tweeting that "Someday I want to go to a meeting where straight, white affluent men don't have the assumption that their ideas are a gift to the world." Which is still true. I think the Outreach Committee's absence from the report about outreach speaks volumes to its effectiveness. Sadly, my concerns seem to have been quite well-placed.

Ruby Sinreich's picture

Another CH2020 Participation Survey

Apparently unsatisfied with the results of the survey results released two months ago, the town is now doing another survey on the same topic, again with support from the School of Government

According to the Chapel Hill 2020 Comprehensive Plan, the Town aimed to create the 2020 plan as “a ‘people’s plan,’ based on extensive public participation.” This survey will help the Town better understand the impacts of its public engagement from participants’ point of view.  - http://www.townofchapelhill.org/index.aspx?recordid=5750&page=22

Please do take this new survey if you have a few minutes. Some of the questions are not very well-designed but it makes ome very pointed inquiries about whether people felt the town was actually listening: http://bit.ly/VCDSbx