Thursday, March 31, 2022

Richardson's Public Engagement is Broken

Active Transportation Plan Landing Page Clip.
Credit: City of Richardson


On March 2, 2022, I attended an open house run by the City of Richardson requesting input on its Parks and Open Space Master Plan and its Active Transportation Plan. (defined below.) Smart move. Have two public input sessions in one place.

These are sessions in which our knowledgeable, professional staff and paid consultants take input directly from the public.  
When entering the bounds of the Richardson Heights Recreation Center Gymnasium, I noticed that the staff and consultants outnumbered the public in attendance. The people using the gym equipment in the next room outnumbered the people in attendance. What went wrong? 
More after the jump.


The number of people using one room of one recreation center outnumbered the public giving input about all recreation and parks facilities and Active Transportation facilities for the entire City. This situation should provide us with an objective measure that the City did not get its level of engagement right. 


Since we are in parks and recreation, let's go with the dreaded baseball metaphor. My impression above is a swing and a miss. 


On the same day that the Parks Master Plan and Active Transportation meeting was held at the Heights Recreation Center, what popped into my mailbox? It was Richardson Today. "Perfect!" I thought. "There will be a story describing these input sessions and encouraging the public to attend!" On the front page, there was no mention of these events. "Wait a minute! What about the event list?" Nope. On page 9, we learned about art exhibits and events at the Eisemann Center but nothing about public engagement. Called strike after the batter doesn't swing. Strike two.


There was a mention of the Active Transportation online survey on the front page. It was at the very bottom and "below the fold," as they say. It was below Wildflower announcements and who was named as Cottonwood Art Festival Featured artist. There is no mention of how a non-connected person without web access or who doesn't know what a QR Code is can participate. The batter looks and takes a ball, another swing, and a miss. The batter strikes out.


I like to be honest, perhaps to a fault, so I start with a confession. I did not plan to attend either public session held on successive nights: March 2 and 3, 2022. I admit this. I attended because I was encouraged to do so by an elected official. (Points in the public engagement plus column go to councilperson Arefin Shamsul for reaching out.) I was not going to attend because, before this event, I believed that Richardson's Public Engagement efforts were broken and that my input would be barely worth my effort. This event and how it was approached reinforced my beliefs. Richardson can change that if they want, but it is up to them. (Fielder Shamsul fields the hit and tosses it to first for the out.)


I do not precisely have a short resume for public engagement in Richardson. I was President of a neighborhood association for five years and on its board for about 11. I lobbied on behalf of many matters with the City in that capacity. I have served on committees and appointed boards in an official and unofficial capacity within the City involving environmental issues, parks, bond elections, public art, and signage over many, many years. (I'd have to do a lot of math to get an exact amount.)


What is wrong with Richardson's public engagement? In short, the same thing is bad with public engagement in most cities concerning planning efforts like these. At a high level, it asks the wrong people the wrong questions in the wrong way resulting in ineffective means of gathering consensus.


The issue of problematic public engagement and input is known throughout the United States. You might go to these public sessions where options are given and "storyboards" are shown. The facilitators ask for your opinion. By the way, I have some professional experience in planning where I have been that facilitator. I am not knocking the facilitators who are themselves professionals, and almost all of them want to see results that benefit the public interest.


In these events, you might be given a colored sticky dot to place on a "visual preference," or you might be handed a sticky post-it note to write a comment during a charrette process. I know seasoned professional (who shall remain anonymous to protect the innocent) who works with private developers in front of government officials and often on high-money projects. He told me a story about colored dots and sticky note comments from his early career. He said his mentor at the time called these sticky notes "snow cards" to denote they were a "snow job," given that many of the outcomes were probably already decided. He also said using the sticky colored dots has been described as a "Russian election." I should be more careful when using this metaphor, given the current state of affairs.


The national non-profit Strong Towns that bills itself as "dedicated to making communities across the United States and Canada financially strong and resilient" by taking a common-sense bottom-up approach to municipal issues has published multiple pieces on problematic civic engagement. They have titles such as "Most Public Engagement Is Worse Than Worthless" and "Stop Asking the Public What They Want." Some of the issues raised describe Richardson.


Let me be clear again that this is not a knock on those staff members involved in this public engagement. By quoting the professionals above, I am not suggesting the City of Richardson is pulling the wool over anyone's eyes. We are fortunate to have current Parks Director Lori Smeby, a significant upgrade from our previous Parks Director. The same kudos applies to Assistant Director of Parks Shohn Rodgers, who has demonstrated immense dedication to our great parks. Both were in attendance. Using our baseball theme, these are base hits with runs batted in (RBIs). [Editor's Note: An astute reader said I should have said Smeby and Rodgers are from the big leagues. That is correct. The Richardson Echo regrets that metaphoric omission.]
Let me also be clear that I am not criticizing that we are updating the Parks Master Plan and changing our non-auto-oriented part of our transportation plan into an Active Transportation Plan. Updating the Parks Plan is not only wise but necessary for funding. In full disclosure, I worked professionally in Active Transportation, albeit for a very short time. You can guess correctly that I fully support having a great Active Transportation Plan (or ATP). You can call the intentions of these efforts multiple base hits (doubles, triples).
The subject here is effective engagement and is not merely limited to this effort. While writing this piece, the City produced its surveys for the library renovation and City Hall. While better than the Active Transportation Plan survey, they still suffer from ineffective engagement. That said, the City offered paper copies to residents of these recent surveys. Our analogy says our pitcher is throwing some strikes.
In case you have not read the survey yet, the Active Transportation Plan is a plan which covers all non-automobile-oriented human movement. That is biking, walking, scooters, skateboards, and the like. (If any skeptic doesn't think skateboards are transportation, I challenge you to spend your lunch hour at UTD.)
Here is a single page of that survey. Click the picture to get a full-size version. (Source: City of Richardson and compiled by the author.)



Notice the dizzying array of choices. By my calculation, this page alone has over 400 quadrillion possible combinations. How we can take anything meaningful from it is beyond me. The survey also uses technical lingo like Automated Vehicle Technology, Micro-mobility, sweeping, refreshing, sidepaths, etc.

Chuck Marohn of Strong Towns quotes Steve Jobs:

It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.
— Steve Jobs
An apocryphal narrative about Steve Jobs and the iPod is occasionally spoken among product designers. I don't know its origin. (Who remembers the iPod?)

If you asked someone if they wanted a box with a hard drive inside that had a touch screen that could hold thousands of songs that you could hook to a computer where you buy songs with little headphones attached, they would predictably tell you they did not need such a thing.

If you asked them if they wanted to hold every song they loved in their pocket and listen any time; you might get a more positive response. If you showed them an iPod then they would "get it."

Our public engagement is mainly like the former paragraph asking if you want a box with a hard drive. We need to to be more like the latter. Furthermore, it should always serve the public interest openly and easily including future residents not yet born.

Ultimately public engagement is driven from the top down. Well, what about the top-down?

As fellow blogger Mark Steger points out in his piece on City Council goals one goals is "Promote avenues for public engagement and input." Steger also points out that the Richardson City Council doesn't want your help redistricting and that its goals were set in what he calls a "Chamber of Secrets."


The latter is particularly irritating if you believe the first duty of an elected body is to serve the public interest. I emphatically believe that. The Council's sessions that set these goals were largely unavailable and inaccessible to the public. They were unnecessarily in an upstairs conference room and not recorded for later reference. It was behind that gate. There was no signage directing people to go there with no recording of the meeting.

Stairs at City Hall the night
of the Council Goals Session.
Photo Credit: Mark Steger


The photo above is of the stairway leading up to the "Chamber of Secrets." I borrowed it from Mark Steger's blog. I asked him when he snapped that photo, and he said it was about 7 PM. In other words, during the arrival window of citizens who might be there to observe the people's business, they are met with an unwelcoming barrier saying "Staff Only."

How is someone with a mobility issue going to navigate this? How is someone simply arriving at City Hall, knowing the meeting was in the building but not understanding where it takes place, supposed to navigate to that room? Given that we were still in the middle of the COVID epidemic and we were not at a point of "opening up" as we are now, then how would someone who is immunologically compromised, had COVID, or who was quarantined because of exposure be able to observe the people's business? Their business.

How is any of this signaling to the public that the City Council is interested in genuine public engagement? When discussing these goals and tactics (finally) in a public meeting on the record, they did say a few things:

Joe Corcoran said, "...I would like to recommend adding or looking at is always finding a way for our police department to engage in new ways with the public." Notice he didn't say the council should find better ways to engage citizens.

Jennifer Justice said, "I think that the tactics are really good from an engagement standpoint. I don't know how you create a tactic for input. You get input when you need it." It baffles me how one can think there was engagement in a closed-off, unrecorded, and largely inaccessible meeting and that was "really good."
I could quote all council members on something here, so this is not limited to the two I have mentioned. None of what the council finally said when they voted on these goals gave us a glimpse of the substance of their debates. None of that showed us ideas proposed by a minority of the council but rejected by a majority.

That is why public engagement is essential and is vital to elected officials. Rather than hide from criticism, they should welcome the vulnerability of criticism because, in the end, they may use that art of politics to turn what is a minority viewpoint among timid elected officials into a majority viewpoint that serves the public interest. (There is that phrase again.)

They should also drive it from the top and insist it be superior.

I have done a lot of critiquing on public engagement in Richardson. What about solutions, you might ask? That is the subject of an upcoming post. Until then, Richardson's public engagement is broken.

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