Panorama, as seen from Bend from Pilot Butte Neighborhood Park, Oregon

Bend from Pilot Butte.

When Envision Bend, formerly known as Bend 2030, recently went before the Bend City Council to ask for money, it got probing questions from councilors about its plan for public outreach.

Envision Bend, a nonprofit, wants to help develop a community vision for Bend, as it did before. Councilors wanted to know how it would ensure there would be sufficient outreach so it would be a vision of the community. Not a vision of the Envision Bend board or partners. Not a vision of the public already engaged in local politics. But a vision that encompassed all of the city, including homeless people, people of color and people whose first language is not English.

Councilors did approve giving Envision Bend $50,000 conditioned on seeing a plan for that outreach.

Laura Fritz, Envision Bend’s executive director, did not have all the answers about outreach. That’s in part because her organization is looking for funding to get the process started — to hire a consultant to help develop the plan. And she said it wouldn’t be a fixed plan. It would only be smart to have a plan that adapts and learns better ways to ensure it is gathering community input from across all the community.

Frankly, that’s about the best answer she could give. When it comes to cracking the code of community involvement and ensuring you find a truly representative sampling of what the community thinks and wants, you never know.

When the Deschutes Public Library board announced it was going to follow through on its plans to take the bond money approved by voters and build a large, central library on the north end of Bend, some people were upset. Some wanted a more decentralized vision for the library or a central library located in the middle of Bend. Others just simply had not heard about the district’s plans. That’s despite that the district developed its plans over 6 years. It held many meetings that included some 6,000 community members in one way or another. And still many people hadn’t heard that’s what the library had planned.

Bend city government has tried different things to increase community involvement. It ramped up its social media. It paid a consultant to help teach neighborhood associations how to get more involved. It tried office hours with a couple councilors available to meet with the public. It formed public committees with broad membership to talk about priorities for water/sewer and roads. Councilors meet with neighborhood associations, other groups and individuals. There are emails, phone calls. And what do councilors and city officials hear? They do get some praise for their outreach. They are also told they are not listening.

Now government meetings are more accessible than ever. You can watch and listen to them on your phone. There’s reporting in The Bulletin and in other local outlets. And we’d still be surprised if many families settle in for an evening of rapt attention to reviewing what local governments did today. There are usually just more important or more entertaining things to do.

Pollsters will tell you that if you want to understand how people feel about a topic, the old-fashioned phone survey of dialing random people cannot work so well anymore. Many people are sick of getting unsolicited calls, text messages and emails. Pollsters have taken to recruiting diverse groups of people and focus groups and actually compensating individuals for taking the time to give their responses.

We don’t doubt the commitment of Envision Bend to trying to help the whole community discover its vision for Bend’s future. Councilors, though, were right to be so demanding, so insistent on seeing a plan before handing money over. The city and Envision Bend don’t want to be in a position when the vision document is produced with people just not believing it is legitimate.

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(7) comments

Paul Conte

The editors seem to excuse the city staff for the failure to engage more Bend citizens in decisions.

The “bottom line” is accountability for the outcome. If numerous impacted and unhappy citizens don’t show up until near the end of a process or even after a decision, the staff has failed. There’s no excuse in “But we ….”

I’ve been part of grass-roots efforts that have engaged hundreds of citizens and resulted in unanimous and unanimous-less-one Eugene City Council votes to approve new zoning ordinances. At the end of these neighborhood-driven, not staff-driven, processes, fewer than you could count on the fingers of one hand expressed opposition. Even they didn’t claim they “weren’t” heard. Three neighborhood organizations that were involved received national recognition for our success.

The recent failure to generate broad, meaningfully citizen engagement in the deregulation of single-family zoning provides examples of what staff continually does wrong.

First and foremost, staff neither are “neutral” brokers nor acknowledge they are advocates who want to see a particular outcome. From that basis flow all other errors.

The second fatal error is that staff self-evaluate based on the actions they take, numbers of meetings, polls provided, etc. But there’s no serious examination of why the way they managed a meeting resulted in a seriously low turnout.

The third fatal error is that staff doesn’t understand the three critical factors in getting broad and balanced input from neighborhood organizations: 1) Neighborhood members must believe their engagement can make a difference, 2) The neighborhood must be required to have bylaws and conduct processes for decision-making following “good governance” practices (not just dismissed after the fact), 3) There must be robust means to inform members and for members to participate in discussions prior to decision making. (Covid-19 has made this very difficult because Zoom is such a really poor and limited means of productive discussion for average citizens.)

[Continued …]

Paul Conte

And then there are a number of “best practices” for engagement. The principle of “iterative and incremental” engagement is bedrock. The “classic” staff meeting -- Presentation by staff (only); “table exercises” and readout; and dot-voting – is flawed on many levels. As a result, many citizens feel a staff-announced meeting is “a waste of time” or “my opinion won’t matter.”

An iterative approach requires at a minimum, the separation of presentations and discussion with polling/voting. Our successful work never jammed all three into the same meeting. To make folks feel truly “empowered,” they need to get up to speed and interact with both subject-matter “experts” (and not just staff) and their fellow citizens. Then they need time to reflect and perhaps explore other sources of information before they reconvene (ideally) or are polled.

Dot-voting is notoriously the wrong tool for groups that aren’t already formed up as an operating organization. Dot-voting is designed to assist a group that has shared knowledge and needs to winnow down some alternatives for future action.

Well-designed and tested surveys are a much better way to gain a full understanding of the group and the individuals. (Many well-designed surveys include an option under some or many questions: Do you have a different response than posed by this question? ______________

Well, that’s a start. But the staff must be accountable for performance, not good intentions.

BuckeyeDuck

Hmmm, so a citizen who doesn't pay attention to the what's happening in their community and/or doesn't care and then starts to complain about a process that's been going on for awhile gets a free ride and it's still the fault of staff and the city. Sounds like a non voter who bitche$ about a result. Or blames the other party

Paul Conte

What an ignorant response. I haven't missed a primary or general election since I could vote, and I've been active in several local campaigns. I would bet 100-to-1 that I've put 100 times more work into public processes than you have. People do care. And, for the reasons I cite (and others) they have legitimate complaints about how staff intentionally or unintentionally mismanage Goal 1 Citizen Involvement.

Skittish

buckeye's comments are par for the course and is only capable of criticizing without ever offering any of his own insight or knowledge. I on the other hand thought you gave a lot of insight and need to re-read a few more times to get a basic understanding of what you are trying to impart. Thanks for the true diversity of thought.

BuckeyeDuck

Bwahahahaha. Thanks Southlake.

BuckeyeDuck

Did I say you missed an election here or elsewhere? Nope. Are you perfect at everything you do? Nope. Am I? Nope. Neither is the city government, yet you're all in to blame them on not doing enough (and they've done a fair amount). It's called civic responsibility I believe, and if people aren't paying attention, it's not the city totally at fault as you contend. Get off your high horse down there in Sunriver.

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