Thursday, February 16, 2012

What Opt-In Does

Nick Christensen does a write-up on how Metro councilors view Opt-In, a registration-required online survey tool.  I think this gets at what this service really does, and what it replaces:
Metro spent $76,000 on Opt In in 2011, generating  more than 20,000 responses – about $4.50 per completed survey.
By comparison, said a staff report for Tuesday's work session, Metro spent about $400 per open house attendee during the 2010 roll-out of then-Metro chief operating officer Michael Jordan's growth and policy recommendations; those numbers soar to $2,800 per completed survey at each of those open houses. The agency also spent $35 per attendee at the dozens of stakeholder meetings Jordan attended.
Opt-in is a new way of connecting with citizens, in a way that allows two way communication- both Metro and citizens learn from the interaction.  And look at the number of people reached, a recent survey had 4,000 respondents.  How many public meetings or open houses have you seen that attracted 4,000 people?  How about a meeting where 4,000 people got to get up individually and express their view?

Some councilors expressed concern that their hands would be tied by the surveys.  How could they justify a vote that went against "majority opinion?"   Even aside from concerns about the opt-in demographics, councilors have a pretty solid excuse:  Voters elected them, not a survey.

The people who should be nervous are the interest groups who make up most of the participants at conventional public meetings.  They are the people most motivated to attend, and most likely through pooling and coordination to have a representative available to attend a meeting at 9am on a weekday.  Most individuals don't have the time or interest for that.  That dynamic gives interest groups a dominant role in reflecting "the public", quite independent of how much popular support their positions actually have.  As Metro President Tom Hughes said,
"Public hearings are an avenue for getting public input, but they're imperfect at best," Hughes said. "They're usually repetitive, not very helpful and usually the people who show up are the people who are absolutely directly involved – you don't get a sense of what the public wants."
Opt-in offers a potential check on interest groups, it creates an opportunity for a truer test of the popular will.  Whether it fulfills that potential depends on participation.  If the only people who sign up are the same people who would otherwise be represented by interest groups, nothing changes.  So if you're a Metro resident not already signed up, please consider it.  Especially if you disagree with me.

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