Engaging with Austinites
Charting Our Impact
This past week has been a test in tenacity for Nicole and I. Uncovering and articulating opportunity areas for Austin’s civic engagement was an illuminating challenge last quarter, and charting a path to meaningfully address one or more of those areas is an entirely new challenge this quarter. Constraints of size (we are just two people!), city government’s bandwidth, and supporting people’s current philosophies have pushed us to cast new molds for how our idea might take shape.
This post takes you along the week’s journey of inspirations and experiments.
Experiment A: Spontaneous Street Conversations
What we tested
We started off by testing the next important assumption for our Pulse of Austin vision: will people, without prior notice, leave their homes to join a street-side discussion?
Hypothesis: Five neighbors from one street will join us for a ten-minute discussion.
How we tested
On Sunday at 4:30pm, we placed a table and chairs in the street at 4th and Pedernales, with beer, tea, and snacks to share with neighbors. As a conversation starter, we set up our board from last week that reads “Austin makes me feel… ____ and ____”, and we left last week’s responses posted below the whiteboards. Once we had the station set up, we knocked on each door on the street.
Participation: 7 people total – 4 who live on the street.
- 9 doors we knocked on did not answer at all.
- Only four doors we knocked on opened, and three people from two of those households joined.
- One neighbor walking his dog crossed the street to join.
- Three men riding by on bicycles circled back thanks to the promise of snacks and beer.
- Many cars drove by slowly to check out what we were doing, but we had no engagement with any drivers.
Hypothesis result: failed. We only engaged with four people who live on the street, rather than our five anticipated participants. Additionally, we were not able to get everyone to convene at once for a group discussion; instead, conversations happened sporadically as neighbors came and went.
For those that did come out, nmeighbors spoke to us about their relationships with other people on the street and Austin at-large, and what connections they would value.
“If there were an event with the other neighbors on the street, I’d go. I like to feel like part of a community.” – Kara
“I probably wouldn’t [join for a mediated neighborhood discussion]. There would need to be a time limit on it…
…I see people shoot heroin around the corner and people walking on the street talking to themselves. I don’t know what to do about that. Is there someone I should tell? I think if you got people together over an issue like that, I’d come out for it.”– Adam
“I meet people when walking my dog, since I work from home. Not having an office to go into makes it hard to meet people.” – Shawn
“Since I walk around a lot, I meet most people in the neighborhood that way.” – Kara
“I mostly only know people from work or from before moving to Austin. Actually, my New Year’s resolution is to get out and meet more people.” – Emily
- People often do not answer the door when you knock. They do not feel comfortable, or they do not want to be bothered.
○ “I won’t answer the door if I am here by myself, especially if it’s a man”. – Kara
○ “You get some weird people knocking on the doors during the day.” –Adam
- Since door knocks do not work, we need to change our concept of an invitation. What format should it take, and how much prior notice would optimize turnout?
- Having a follow-up mechanism is important. People like to share, but they are not always ready to in the moment; giving people time, space, and flexibility is important. We witnessed this with Shawn, who left a note in Kaley’s mailbox the next day answering the “Austin Makes Me Feel…” prompt and offering to host an event.
- We need to craft a clear exit point for any type of in-person engagement we host. People lingered when they did not understand if the experience had ended.
- There is a strong desire for stronger neighborhood communities – at least among the people we spoke with. We recognize that there is likely some selection bias here based on who decided to come out and speak with us.
Experiment B: Structured Civic Coffee Chat
Building off what we learned in experiment A, we wanted to test our new hypotheses.
What we tested
- When given advanced notice and a clear 15-minute time commitment, how many people will join for a moderated discussion around civic issues?
- When hearing others’ opinions and stances on civic topics, will people account for those perspectives and perhaps change their stance? We believe that the more conversations people have in a safe environment, the more likely they are to become open to new perspectives and start thinking with a collective mindset.
Hypothesis 1: We will invite 15 people, and of that group, five will join us for a discussion (33% engagement).
Hypothesis 2: We will see at least three instances of people changing their answer after hearing someone else’s point of view.
How we tested
At 4:15pm on Tuesday, we handed out invitations at Lazarus Brewery for a 15-minute chat in the living room area. We held the chat at 4:30pm, giving 15 minutes of advanced notice.
With our participants, we facilitated a discussion-sparking game of A vs. B. First, guests voted on what topic they cared more about: housing (A) or transportation (B). That vote then segued into 4 “this or that” style questions related to transportation (the category that won round #1).
Participants used their lettered placards to vote, and then people optionally discussed why they chose their answers. Finally, everyone was given the option to change their answer based on what they heard.
We ended up inviting 25 people, rather than 15. Of these invitees, we received five participants (20% engagement).
Hypothesis 1: Semi-Failed. While we got the five participants we anticipated, the engagement percentage was 13 points lower than we hypothesized. This is the metric that will truly matter as we scale our idea.
Hypothesis 2: Failed. Three people changed our answers to one question after hearing people’s opinions, but two of the three were us. All of our participants kept their responses, but there was some verbal concession to other people’s points of view.
- People like to share their opinions – we have seen this across all our platforms we have tested.
- Most people’s top policy consideration is what will most benefit their personal situation.
- Our participants were intrigued about where we had performed this activity and where we were going next. Isolated events do not work on their own – again, we need follow-up with an easy path for continued engagement.
- As it stood, this experiment was an activity. How might we make it a product?
The Lingering Questions
What is our sustained impact? What change are we driving?
What kind of change are we expecting people to make? The city to make? Ourselves to make?
Currently, we are reconnecting with the research. We want to push this project further, and a philosophical approach of connecting neighbors to each other is not the only way to create change. How might we provide value in a more concrete manner for the residents we spoke with during our research that experience real and immediate challenges?