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Public engagement should treat people like they’re worth engaging.

Many citizens express a feeling that the city is not engaging with the public adequately to hear what the public wants.  And yet city staff are holding multiple public meetings on various issues each month.  Council meetings take public comment, including allowing comment on issues not on the agenda.  Every development project involves numerous outreach sessions.

The problem is that the vast majority of this outreach is poorly designed.  We ask people questions, without giving them the tools they’d need to come up with a meaningful answer.  What if we started from the assumption that people are actually smart enough to engage with policy meaningfully, and let them operate the same sorts of tools that the final decision-makers will be using?

You may have seen an example of this with the recent exercise in redistricting, where any citizen was able to submit a map through Districtr.  This same type of tool can be applied to the process of planning for adequate housing, and other conversations around growth and development.  Instead of using flat poll questions with no more than a few formulaic answers; or questions eliciting a few sentences of free text; this type of tool ensures that anyone that wants to engage with the problem at hand gets the opportunity to grapple with the challenges facing our city.

I’ve also seen case studies of doing this type of interactive design challenge as a group activity on a table-top map.  With a group of 10-15 participants at a time, from across the city, this could be an excellent exercise in building trust and community spirit.

I would like to see our city try new, innovative approaches to creating civic engagement.  I recently took a meeting with Dr. Alice Siu, the Associate Director of the Stanford Deliberative Democracy Lab (recently renamed, formerly the Center for Deliberative Democracy).  DDL has been developing a process called deliberative polling, in which you start by assembling a sample of the population that is random, but roughly representative of overall demographics.  Then you pay those participants to spend a day or so learning about and discussing a topic, with access to the same sorts of experts and staff that City Council would rely on.  After studying the issue, and talking with each other and the experts, then they get polled on their opinions about what should be done.  The goal is to try to understand what the population as a whole would say about an issue, if they actually had time to learn about it, rather than just reacting within a few seconds to a poll question.

Deliberative polling is a fairly new concept.  But it's been used in a few other countries, and a few US cities.  Dr. Siu told me that Chicago is the first big-name city to start working on a pilot.  With Stanford being so close to us, I believe we could find a way to collaborate on getting something started, at low or no cost to the city.  Find a grad student who’d be interested in structuring the sample and facilitating the poll, as part of their doctoral research; and then work with the Political Science department at Skyline College to recruit students interested in polling and government work to serve as the staff for the event.  Once we had something like this going, the Council could submit contentious questions, once or twice a year, and get back a serious answer from the public.

Maintaining this kind of process over time would cost some money — but would it cost more than running half a dozen public outreach sessions, where we hear from a slice of the public that skews richer and older than the actual electorate, and in which we fail to gather much useful feedback, while leaving participants still feeling confused and frustrated?

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Auros Harman for San Bruno Council
District 4 2022 FPPC # 1449270
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