A Very Different Kind of Citizen Involvement

January 17, 2011

I’ve been following with interest a new development at Metro, an ‘optin’ public opinion panel.

I signed up last week and would encourage you to as well. But it’s different.

The traditional model of citizen involvement in planning looks like:

  • Notification by mail and electronic media
  • “Open house” style meetings and written reports to inform the public on the background facts, issues and choices
  • Written comments, meetings and sometimes more formal public hearings to gather input (sometimes filtered through a citizen advisory that attempts to be representative of various constituencies affected)

A public opinion panel is a different approach – as I understand the program it will attempt to pre-establish a large panel of folks who it is hoped will respond in the future (probably electronically) to some kind of survey instrument. If a sufficiently large base is built and is responsive then part of the benefit is to be able to create a respondent profile that is representative of the community, demographically, racially, age-wise, income-wise, etc.

I must admit, this gives me pause. The traditional process has more opportunity for the participants to shape the questions and politics, and allows for advocates to channel their passion into the process. But it also asks for a big time commitment from citizens to be effective, and risks vastly overweighting input from ‘the usual suspects’ and possibly giving better response to ‘the squeaky wheels.’

The opinion panel approach is likely to be more representative, but also more dispassionate (good and bad?). It also puts a lot of responsibility on whomever is writing and vetting the survey instruments.

I don’t know yet how Metro is going to use the opinion panel, I suspect it will be an added input, not a replacement for the traditional process.

I’ll look forward to seeing this experiment progress.



  1. I thought they did a poor job of explaining that you would be asked some really sensitive personal questions, and justifying why they needed it and how they would use it responsibly. I actually understand and am generally supportive of moving beyond public meetings (since even I have a hard time getting to public meetings and I place a high value on civic involvement), but I wonder if this is the right alternative. Hopefully/presumably it will be used along with other methods.

  2. I share Chris’s and Jessica’s concerns, but I think it’s exactly the right direction governments should move.

    I tend to agree with the OpenPlans folks that the U.S. public review process is broken, though it may be better in Portland than elsewhere.

    The mark of success here will be whether these electronic “open houses” can attract much broader involvement (say, 10x? I’d love to know their targets) than physical ones. If they don’t, they’ve failed.

    Residents and organizations near a project location can still be very helpful in honing plans for a project, but that’s a different function.

  3. The trade something like Optin offers is you get access to more people but who are less interested and perhaps less opinionated. When it comes to any given issue most people don’t care strongly one way or another, that’s why politics resorts to such broad brush strokes. I also agree strongly with the comment that whoever writes the questions can significantly influence the responses through the phrasing.

    I’d like to see someone unaffiliated with Metro put together a non-partisan site to collate blog postings pertaining to specific questions, giving people easy access to a range of views. Sort of what the election pamphlet does… That will help contextualize issues and questions and reduce the influence of whoever writes the survey.

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