City Public Meetings (AUS0004)
Action Plan: Austin, United States Action Plan
Action Plan Cycle: 2017
Lead Institution: City of Austin Office of Innovation
Support Institution(s): CS Partner: Christopher Kennedy, Leadership Austin
Policy AreasCapacity Building, E-Government, Public Participation, Records Management, Subnational
To help Austin community members better navigate issues of concern, and to make city decision-making processes more understandable and accessible, we commit to furthering transparency and accountability by gathering, sharing, and analyzing data on the activities during public meetings to recommend opportunities for efficiencies and effectiveness. Short Description: Conduct an open analysis of city public meetings for increased understanding, accessibility, efficiency, and effectiveness. Leads: Civil society partner: Christopher Kennedy, Leadership Austin Government facilitator: Sabine Romero, City of Austin Office of Innovation Project Brief: This project answers these pain points from our civil society partners: 1. How might we solve for late night governance (given that city council meetings can regularly go beyond midnight), a situation which is neither transparent nor effective in considering impacts of decisions, and which makes it difficult for the public to understand how and why decisions are made? - Vision Zero ATX 2. How might we increase general understanding to help people navigate issues of concern? - ATX Hack For Change research 4.1 Desired Outcomes: 1) Public understanding of the activities at public meetings is increased through access, both in person and electronically. 2) Council communication is improved with through new practices built on shared understanding of what works 3) The effectiveness of each meeting is increased, with a clear progression through debate. 4) Establish meaningful options for informational and decision flows that will have the effect of making public meetings more accessible to the public 5) Create a better understanding for citizens on how initiatives are funded and how departments use resources from the General Fund and other budgetary sources. 4.2 Exploration Questions: 1) What is the current route for decision making at the city, as implemented by the new 11-member council? 2) How is this a better route than previous approaches? 3) What lessons have been learned from the first two years of experience? 4) What does the public want in a more effective process? 14 5) What might we learn from previous meeting transcripts - what patterns might we identify in what makes meetings proceed for a long duration?
IRM End of Term Status Summary
4. City Public Meetings
To help Austin community members better navigate issues of concern, and to make city decision-making processes more understandable and accessible, we commit to furthering transparency and accountability by gathering, sharing, and analyzing data on the activities during public meetings to recommend opportunities for efficiencies and effectiveness.
1. Clarify Phase. Expected deliverables: Research plan for interviews with stakeholders and members of the community and assessments of meeting recordings and transcripts; Draft of data format for publishing information about activities during public meetings; Storyboard of the city discussion life cycle.
2. Framing Phase. Expected deliverables: Report on meeting process themes and patterns; Report on synthesis of interviews with stakeholders and community members.
3. Conceive/Prototype/Test Phase. Expected deliverables: Backlog of possible solutions for achieving the desired outcomes; Identification of a council issue for testing possible solutions for achieving desired outcomes; Feedback from stakeholders and community members about how different solutions performed.
4. Plan/Build Phase. Expected deliverables: Recommendations for formalizing solutions that have proved effective during testing; Refined storyboard of the city discussion life cycle; Data format for publishing information about activities during public meetings.
Overall Objective & Relevance
The City of Austin’s fourth OGP commitment addressed the efficiency of city government public meetings and public engagement in the decision-making process. Currently, city council meetings run very late, often ending in the early hours of the morning on the following day. Government officials and community leaders agreed that this type of “late night governance” decreases transparency and inhibits members of the public from fully engaging with and understanding the decision-making process. The commitment set out a plan to collect, publish, and analyze data on public meetings. City officials and their civil society partners would then use this information to make recommendations for improving the public meetings process.
Like many of Austin’s OGP commitment’s, the commitment to improve city meetings involved four key stages. City officials and their CSO partners planned to use qualitative interviews with staff and stakeholders to generate new insights into the city meetings process. They would then synthesize their research results and create reports for city staff, CSOs, and other stakeholders. These results would inform the selection of a specific city council issue for testing solutions for more efficient decision-making. After a testing period, city officials and their CSO contacts would collaborate on a set of recommendations to city leaders for solving the issue of inefficient city meetings, including “data format[s] for publishing information about activities during public meetings.” City of Austin OGP Subnational Action Plan, page 15.
Austin’s fourth commitment addressed the OGP values of access to information and civic participation. The commitment aimed specifically to increase understanding of and access to information on public meetings. The publication of city meeting data in a usable and understandable format could empower citizens to engage more easily with their local representatives. By increasing meeting efficiency and solving the issue of late night governance, city officials could make it much easier for citizens to have their voice heard on key issues.
Specificity and Potential Impact
Austin’s fourth commitment was highly specific. Milestones were objectively verifiable, timely, and easily measurable. Each milestone marked the production of resources that were key to the commitment’s success, including research plans, reports, data publication, and recommendations for city government.
This commitment had the potential to create a moderate change within city government. Austin’s city council meetings are notoriously long and convoluted. Streamlined processes for conducting and documenting city meetings could make government more accessible to the public and have the potential to inform more transformative commitments in the future. While this commitment sought to solve the notorious issue of late night council meetings at city hall, the action plan was not written with the intent to prescribe measures for change. Rather, the commitment was designed to allow approaches to council reforms emerge, identify strategies for improving efficiency and make recommendations to the city council. Improving these processes could have a strong positive impact on the status quo.
Austin’s fourth commitment aimed to streamline city public meetings and make recommendations to the city council to make meetings more efficient and effective. This commitment was managed by the City of Austin’s Management Services Department with support from the Innovation Office, Law Department and CSO partner Leadership Austin. The IRM researcher considers that it was substantially completed.
The commitment team met monthly to study past city council meetings and council work sessions and identify opportunities for increased efficiency. Sabine Romero (City of Austin Innovation Office), interviewed by IRM researcher, 21 September 2017. City staff conducted extensive background research on city council meetings, compiling statistics on lengths of meetings, number of items consider, number of public comments on each item, and other information that could inform public meetings changes. Staff presented these findings and an initial series of recommendations to the city council in March and April 2017. City of Austin Innovation Office. Council Meeting Efficiency and Deliberation. Staff Recommendations. http://www.austintexas.gov/edims/document.cfm?id=273632 Key recommendations included: publishing meeting agendas two weeks in advance, establishing standard schedules for meetings, utilizing an online message board to discuss items ahead of meetings, and reducing the amount of time available to any one speaker during public comment periods of council meetings.
Council members and city staff agreed that these changes could help prevent late night meetings and avoid decisions on key issues during less accessible hours. Civil society leader Carmen Llanes Pulido, Executive Director of the community organization GO! Austin / VAMOS! Austin, agreed that late night decision making is problematic, but she also highlighted the difficulty that many Austin residents face when trying to attend council meetings. “One of those late nights that we had residents testifying [at a council meeting], one of the residents was one of those people who works odd hours and works two or three jobs at a time… and actually was able to stay late and give testimony,” Llanes Pulido told the Austin Monitor in April 2017. McGlinchy, Audrey. Sleep researchers cheer on Council members as they consider ways to avoid late nights. The Austin Monitor. 20 April 2017. https://www.austinmonitor.com/stories/2017/04/sleep-researchers-cheer-council-members-consider-ways-avoid-late-nights/
During the implementation period, the city council enacted some changes to public meetings. City of Austin Innovation Office. Public Meetings Discussion: Council Meeting and Committee Resolutions, 2/9/17. https://opengovpartnership.bloomfire.com/series/3202374-commitment-4-city-public-meetings/posts/2821991-public-meetings-discussion-council-meeting-and-committee-resolutions-2-9-17 For instance, in February 2017, the city council reduced the number of council committees from ten to five. City of Austin City Council Resolution 20170209-034. http://www.austintexas.gov/edims/document.cfm?id=272092 At the same meeting, the city council formally directed the city manager to make recommendations “to improve Council meeting efficiencies and deliberation.” City of Austin City Council Resolution 20170209-035. http://www.austintexas.gov/edims/document.cfm?id=272093
In May 2017, the City Council modified the meetings process to institute the recommended changes. City of Austin City Council Resolution 20170518-015. http://www.austintexas.gov/edims/document.cfm?id=277608 The changes took effect in August 2017. The commitment team observed the following five regular meetings, documenting start and end times of meetings under the new procedures. The commitment team also met with council staff to assess the impact of the adopted changes. The commitment team found that the changes had created only a limited impact and that most factors contributing to late night meetings had not changed.
Based on research conducted as part of this commitment, city and CSO officials were discussing a series of opportunities and suggestions for improving access to and efficiency of public meetings. These include establishing remote district offices to increase citizen access to council meetings, developing a city wiki that informs the public of the history and background of council issues, developing and electronic council agenda status board at City Hall, and continuing collaborative efforts between civil society and government to address holistic issues with public meetings processes. City of Austin staff, interviewed by IRM researcher. 2017. These recommendations align with the first deliverable in the fourth milestone. At the time of this report, the additional recommendations had not been formally introduced to the city council and were still being discussed by city staff.
Early results: did it open government?
Access to Information: No change
Civic Participation: No change
When this commitment was designed, city staff and civil society partners lamented the inefficiency of city public meetings, which often ran late into the evening. Civil society partners identified “late night decision making” as an obstacle to transparency, civic engagement and accountability, explaining that the current meetings system presented “a situation which is neither transparent nor effective in considering impacts of decisions, and which makes it difficult for the public to understand how and why decisions are made.” City of Austin OGP Subnational Action Plan, page 14. Government officials and their CSO partners designed this commitment to increase efficiency, access, and understanding of public meetings. The commitment, if fully implemented, was expected to have a moderate impact on open governance in Austin.
By the end of the implementation period, the commitment had created some minor changes in government practice. However, the IRM researcher did not discover any evidence that the initial implementation of the commitment had created any of the outcomes expected by the commitment team. The city council enacted several changes to meetings procedures based on the commitment team’s recommendation, such as limiting the amount of time allowed for speaking on agenda items and posting agendas ahead of meetings. rules could be changed quite easily without citizen approval. Meetings continued to run late into the evening, with one recent city council meeting ending at 2:56 a.m. The final note in the meetings transcript captures one council member confessing “I’ve been up almost 24 hours now. This is too long.” When another commented that the council had broken a new record for long meetings, the mayor responded, “I think we did, unfortunately.” City Council Regular Meeting Session Transcript – 26 April 2018. Page 229.
Similarly, the initial changes enacted by city leaders did not create new opportunities for civic participation. Members of the public who wish to engage at city council meetings are still subject to limitations identified during the commitment design process. City staff identified a series of opportunities for improving access to public meetings that have not yet been taken up by elected officials. The IRM researcher concludes that there has been no observable change to city public meetings with regard to access to information or civic participation.
Improving city meetings to increase civic engagement is an important, ambitious goal for the City of Austin. City staff should complete the implementation of this commitment by drafting formal recommendations, publishing them in a publicly accessible format, and publicize those recommendations through direct citizen communications and local media. While the city council enacted changes to the meetings process, these were largely autonomous. Recommendations from Innovation Office staff may supplement the council’s changes and inform further improvements to public meetings. City staff should also work with civil society organizations to design and implement an evaluation of the meetings changes made by the city council. Further research could identify the impacts of these changes and inform future action plans.
Links to further evidence
Community Climate Resilience Pilot
AUS0006, 2019, Environment and Climate
Inclusion in Court Contracting
AUS0007, 2019, Infrastructure & Transport
Public Participation In City Anti-Displacement Efforts
AUS0008, 2019, E-Government
Public Safety Data Analysis
AUS0009, 2019, Capacity Building
AUS0001, 2017, Capacity Building
Equity Assessment Tool
AUS0002, 2017, Capacity Building
Open Governance Operating Board
AUS0003, 2017, Public Participation
City Public Meetings
AUS0004, 2017, Capacity Building
AUS0005, 2017, E-Government