This past November Austinites replenished our municipal democratic practices by shifting towards geographic districts and moving elections from May to November. However, much work remains to be done to ensure that city government is truly open to the community's diverse perspectives. A high priority for reform is the City of Austin's approach to lobbying and public input.
The city manager, city staffers, and council members are full-timers who work typical day hours (i.e. "9 to 5"). Presently, our policymakers routinely receive public input while the typical employed adult Austinite is working. One-on-one policy advocacy and lobbying also happens during work hours.
Even when public hearings are scheduled during evenings or weekends, these sessions take place at a specific place during a set time. If you can't get a babysitter, or you are out of town for work, or have a conflicting civic commitment, or can't afford/find the transportation to the location, then you are out of luck. While a few superstar citizens persevere, these barriers create a 'meetingopoly' that favors professionals compensated to navigate pet issues through the process.
In my experiences I've found that council members and civil servants are responsive to new voices; many are deeply sincere in seeking out exhaustive public input. The problem I am identifying is that it is very hard for people to successfully and consistently engage without it being their job.
Truly democratizing public participation in Austin requires adoption of proven reforms including:
- Increasing the importance of digitally-submitted public input
- Shifting from exclusively paying consultants to chat with NGO leaders and civic junkies towards actually engaging the average Austinite through citizen juries and deliberative polling
- Adopting publicly-financed clean elections
As an initial step, I've requested that the City of Austin adopt the White House's approach to digital petitions. This move will facilitate collective action, encourage the transition towards digital public input, and create easily-accessible, transparent accounts about where policymakers stand. Please join me in supporting this request here.