"Public" Participation: A Look at Central West

Researchers at the UNC School of Government recently released the results of a survey (PDF) they conducted about Chapel Hill’s Central West Small Area Plan process. You might have seen some press and spin about this survey and the comments participants provided in the survey. But before we start extrapolating from these data, it’s important to make sure we understand who provided feedback on the Central West process and how those individuals compare to our community at large.

Making this comparison is particularly important to assess and understand the effectiveness of public participation efforts in our local government. After all, if public participation is primarily coming from specific groups of people and other groups are being left out of the process, that’s not true public participation or engagement -- it’s the privileging of certain groups at the expense of the rest of our community.

So let’s take a look at the demographic data of the Central West survey participants compared to the 2010 Census data for the town of Chapel Hill. Here’s what the age and race data look like:

As you can see from these data, the Central West survey participants were older and whiter than the population of Chapel Hill at large -- and by quite a lot. Survey respondents were 19.4% more white than the population at large. And while only 30.4% of the population of Chapel Hill is over the age of 45, 78.3% of survey respondents were. No one under the age of 22 participated in the survey, nor did any African Americans.

I don’t think it’s too much of a logical jump to conclude that this survey data tells us something broader about public participation at large. If you’ve ever been to or watched a public meeting in our town, you’ve likely noticed the majority of the people who speak during public comment look as these survey data suggest, and that the voices missing in town discourse are those of people of color and young people.

Looking through the survey results, I spotted the following comment from someone who identified as a young person:

"I found the public input process to be very frustrating, and it made me feel alienated from my neighbors. I am a younger resident of the impact area, and though there are a large amount of younger people and renters who are my neighbors, very few attended the meetings. Instead, the comment periods were dominated by older, more affluent citizens who are a minority in the population of the neighborhood, as well as the population of the town. In addition, the animosity and blatant obstruction of the minority on the steering committee was appalling, as was the Council's decision to appoint someone affluent to the public housing slot on the steering committee. Despite the process, I was impressed with the co-chairs of the committee for their ability to create a very good plan. In the future, the Town needs to be proactive in trying to engage underrepresented groups in public input, who generally support the density that the obstructionists are decrying."

Looking at the data, it certainly seems like this person was spot-on. What we should learn from the Central West process is less about the outcomes of that process, but rather that our town government must do more to design inclusive processes for all people in our community rather than cater public participation to just a select few groups.

In the past, we have seen some examples of more engaging processes, such as the initial Rosemary Imagined (now Downtown Imagined) events, which asked a core group of community members to take specific questions out into their social circles and neighborhoods, engage their friends, and bring back what they learned. Moving forward, let’s employ more of these engagement strategies and try some additional ones that we have seen work to garner input from a wide swath of our neighbors.

At the very least, let’s recognize traditional methods of public engagement don’t produce a representative sample of community opinion. And let’s remind our elected officials that, when making decisions, it’s important to consider the needs and interests of every member of our community, not just those who show up to meetings.


from one who attended these meetings, the above results are very accurate. Gary Kahn

Travis, this is a hugely important and timely post. Thank you. I would be a millionaire if I had a penny for every time I have told the 'powers-that-be' that sensible community engagement requires engaging with people in their comfort zone, not in the comfort zone of those wanting answers.

Whether it was advocating for youth facilities at the age of sixteen in my home town in England, meeting with constituents as a municipal councilor at the age of 23, attempting to increase democracy within Weaver Street Market Co-operative, or inviting views on the issue concerning me at the moment (citizen design of policing - http://citizenpolicing.com/), time and again I have tried to convince folks that it is incumbent on them to go to the people, not the other way around.

It really is not beyond the ken of creative elected and unelected public officials to find ways to engage with people who are not comfortable in crowds, in public, at times that are inconvenient to them, on camera, and the like. You raise the perfectly good example of asking folks to engage with their social circles, and then report back. It's not good enough for those same officials to say, well it's not convenient for me; ooh, I wouldn't want to go there; I'd rather stay behind my table, thank you.

Couple of caveats. If officials do find creative ways to engage, visiting bars, holding mini-meets in apartment complex offices, whatever, then folks, we have to find the time to respond and engage right back. You can't find the NFL more interesting, and then complain a month later you weren't asked.

Taking Weaver Street Market as an example, I stood for the Board of Directors four times as a Worker-Owner Candidate. I very quickly learned that fellow worker-owners had become very disillusioned over the years, and simply did not feel it was worth voting anymore. I undertook a long-term effort to try to re-engage fellow worker-owners.

I regularly visited units when workers were off-the-clock. I started a blog. I made my campaign to become a Worker-Owner Director a rolling, multi-year affair, more concerned with engagement than getting elected. I assiduously communicated with every new employee, to invite them to be Friended on Facebook. As a consequence of which I have about 60% of the workforce of WSM Friended on Facebook. A workforce of about 250 which, several years ago, had 100 worker-owners, and now has 192.

Even so, it pretty much remained the case that my fellow workers didn't want to take the time (their time, by the way; always off-the-clock, by-the-way, WSM management please take note!) to engage in 'official' exercises of feedback or to attend meetings. So, I would attend. And mention that fellow workers had passed their views onto me (which they had, and which they still do, regularly). Views which I tried faithfully to represent, even though I didn't always agree with them.

And there was the rub. Time and again, I would be told, sometimes quite rudely, that no-one believed I represented the views of anyone else. I was speaking only for me. I didn't care for myself. But it was a rather silly reaction, based solely on the fact that the people concerned didn't like me, or didn't want to hear the views being expressed. That said, none of this is about me. I merely use me as an example.

The point is this. If we are going to be more creative about engagement, then we have to be more creative about our response to sometimes rather weird engagement. But, this is not rocket science. We know the folks who appear at meetings, and who claim to represent the universe, when they represent only themselves. A few respectful questions about the nature of the representation will sort out the chaff. I mean, however much folks may not like me, I'm pretty sure that the body of people beyond the WSM Board and corporate office are reasonably willing to believe that I do speak to other workers. It's not a difficult difference to identify.

Once again, thank you Travis.

I was unhappy that the Town staff could not find anyone from the housing projects to serve on the Central West steering committee.  Reluctantly I agreed to serve at the urging of my neighbors for the unfilled public housing slot. This was a council decision.  Best efforts were made by the staff and Council to find a qualified applicant.  Considering the 30+ meetings invovled in such a process, it is not realistic to expect a parent and a person working several jobs to participate, a point that was made when I was appointed. Most people are just too busy to engage.  There are other ways to engage the comunity as one of your commenters said. The Town conducted a survey which was distributed widely (not the one referred to here)  to measure preferences on the proposed plans. The single most striking thing about those results was that people did not like any of the high density plans the staff put forward in the survey.  Yet the committee forged ahead anyway although in the end some compromise was found.  What the survey picked us is that people get discouraged and stop going to meetings if they feel their input is ignored.

I am not sure why OP would want to criticize citizens who do take their valuable time to participate in town processes.  As one would eexpect, people who come to meetings care about their community, are raising their kids her, and pay the lion share of the taxes.  Why are their views assumed to be wrong or misguided?

This is not the first time OP has commented on the now much in the past Central West process.  This post would have been more enlightening if you had interviewed someone who actually served on the committee and obtained their views.  While I found the process exceedly frustrating, I found some value in the experience.

Julie, you're right that a parent and a person working several jobs would have a hard time participating in something like the Central West process. That's exactly the point I'm making here. There are people who live and work in our community who simply cannot engage, and we need to do better about remembering that these people are important to our community and that we need to do more to include their needs and interests in our decisionmaking calculus.

Also, could you clarify what you mean when you say that the people who come to meetings "care about their community, are raising their kids her, and pay the lion share of the taxes"? Do you mean to imply that people who pay more in taxes are entitled to greater representation and influence in town government than other people are?

I agree with pretty much everything Travis said. It wasn't a good process. I think everyone would agree on that, regardless of what they thought of the outcome.

I would really like us to think about this from a solutions-oriented point of view. What can we change about our public input process to fix what was broken? It's fundamentally not good enough for us to accept that the people who weren't at the physically at the table (or podium, or whatever) should get left out of the process.

I'd suggest that if we're asking ourselves how to get more young people, people of color, and low income people to attend a long series of public meetings that we're not asking the right question. Meetings are not the equivalent of public input. Meetings are a tool for public input, but only one of many, and we're not using the other tools out there nearly well enough or frequently enough.


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