Austin should use technology to better engage the public on complex policy proposals, by providing greater information, education, transparency, opportunities for digital public comment, and access to real-time information. We have made great strides in upgrading our digital services and making open data available to the public but challenges remain. As the public’s adoption and usage of technology has increased so have their expectations.
As a first step, we must first ensure that mediums for public engagement are serviceable and well designed (including for mobile devices). The City of Austin’s website has not evolved since its refresh earlier this decade – it needs updating. If a resident is unable to find information about a critical issue or navigate the site to find access to an online form for city services, they can become frustrated. That frustration can erode trust in government.
One of the most important things we can do as a city is to support the digital services transformation effort already being undertaken by the Communications and Technology Management Department, including the Digital Inclusion Strategic Plan adopted by Council to equitably improve inclusion across the city, and connecting those efforts to how we communicate and elicit stakeholder feedback regarding significant policy proposals. We must consider the needs of everyday Austinites who may not have the time, capacity, or background information to absorb and process the intricacy of some of these issues. Accessibility is a major consideration to ensure residents with disabilities, language access issues, or lower levels of literacy can navigate the site with ease.
To help residents better be engaged and informed about critical issues we should consider at least these guiding principles:
- Public information should be provided in clear and simple language that is devoid of government terminology or acronyms
- Communications should incorporate more media to help illustrate the issues rather than memos. Examples include tutorial/explainer videos, infographs, or short podcasts.
- Information should restate fundamentals and “scaffold” so that those who may not have a foundational understanding of the issue can understand the fundamental elements of an issue, and then elevate to additional layers of information that highlight the nuance of the issue.
- Residents should have options of how to provide feedback that aligns with their time and capacity, whether it’s a detailed survey, ranking their preferences, recording a video, etc.
- Clear and simple tracking systems should be utilized so residents can see where a policy proposal is in the process of being administered along with when, how, and where they can be involved. An example of this can be found in SpeakUp Austin but we need to make it more widely used.