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Core Values for Public Participation

The International Association for Public Participation (IAP2) has issued core values for those who practice public participation. Developed over a two- year period with broad international input, IAP2 identified aspects of public participation which cross national, cultural, and religious boundaries. The hope is that practitioners will use these to make better decisions regarding the interests and concerns of potentially affected publics.

The core values include:

1. Public participation is based on the belief that those who are affected by a decision have a right to be involved in the decision-making process.

2. Public participation includes the promise that the public’s contribution will influence the decision.

3. Public participation communicates to participants how their input affected the decision.

For more information on additional core values, visit the IAP2 Web site at www.iap2.org.

As North Acres Wastewater Annexation Project Nears Completion, Street Conditions Present Conundrum for Team

Sometimes unexpected circumstances put projects in what seems like a no-win situation, with no choice but to choose the lesser of two undesirable options. The key is to communicate openly, frequently and accurately to affected stakeholders. In other words, we have to plough through using best practices to achieve informed consent. It isn’t always comfortable, but if we practice with integrity and forthrightness, we’ve done our job.

Such is the case with the North Acres Wastewater Annexation Project in northeast Austin. Neighbors were thrilled when the project team announced that repaving of streets on the south side of the subdivision would begin. Plans were to mill and overlay each street from curb to curb. But when the contractor began preliminary work to prepare the roads for milling, it was clear that the streets had little or no subsurface to deal with. That meant milling, which is the standard practice, would not be possible and the only options were to rebuild the streets from scratch (for which there were not enough funds in the project budget) or simply overlay the existing pavement with a layer of asphalt.

The resulting overlay reduced the depth of the curbs substantially in some places, and there was an immediate outcry from residents concerned about the both aesthetic outcome and the increased possibility of flooding. When the next big rain event created near-flooding conditions in a few spots, the team brought Watershed in to help find solutions.

The team, along with a representative from Watershed, attended a special neighborhood meeting to answer questions and update residents on the developing situation. They informed the group that if the remaining streets to be paved had the same substandard base, they would not do the overlay. Instead, they would have to do trench repair, so that the curbs and gutters would remain uncompromised. Needless to say, this prompted an outcry from residents of those streets, and the team had to explain that it was a choice between a less visually homogenous, but sound and smooth road versus the possibility of increased flooding.

Two weeks later, an even bigger rain event happened. And this time several homes were flooded. At a neighborhood meeting that week, neighbors wanted to know what would be done to prevent future flooding and when it would be done. Unfortunately, the team still had no clear answers. That meeting could have easily gotten out of hand, but it didn’t. And here’s why: 1) We began the presentation by acknowledging the severity of the situation and demonstrated sincere empathy for those who had flooding, 2) We listened to people’s complaints and let them vent, 3) We acknowledged that while we still had no permanent solution,  we promised to implement short-term measures immediately, 4) We promised to keep them informed of any developments in devising a long-term solution and 5) We wrote down any questions that could not be answered immediately, along with contact information, and provided answers within the week. The result was a meeting that ended with acceptance on the part of the residents that the project team was operating in good faith, doing its best to alleviate the situation and sincerely had the neighborhood’s best interests in mind.

Don’t Use that Word!

Introducing a new product or service to the community via a news release requires “sticking to the facts and skipping the hype”, according to the PR News staff, which is hosting a “Boot Camp” in Boston in September to discuss this and other topics in more detail. In fact, the group has come up with a list of 25 words and phrases that have become almost meaningless because of overuse. They advise PR pros not to avoid these words entirely, but to use them judiciously.

Here are the offenders: announced, authentic, award-winning, best of breed, cross platform, cutting edge, exciting, exclusive, groundbreaking, impact, improved, innovative, launched, leader/leading, leverage, next generation, new, proactive, proud to announce, revolutionary, solution, state of the art, unprecedented, up and coming and unique.

Invest In Your Home: Austin

By George Cofer, Executive Director, Hill Country Conservancy

Picture this:  What if the size of your family doubled every generation, but you all continued to live in the same house?  Would you simply ignore a leaking roof, a busted pipe, or a cracked foundation?  Probably not.

So it is with Austin.   Our home is now the 13th largest-city in America, having recently surpassed San Francisco.  Since 1890, Austin’s population has doubled every 20 to 25 years.  During just the next 30 days, we’ll gain nearly 2,000 new residents!

Every day, the strain on our city’s infrastructure and quality of life grows.  That’s why it’s time to invest in our home, and in our future.  You can do just that by voting to support all seven Austin bonds that will appear on the November 6th ballot – Propositions 12 – 18.

This is the first time in six years that a multi-purpose municipal bond package has appeared on the Austin ballot.  Importantly, approving all seven of the bonds will not raise the city property tax rate.  Not even a little.  That’s because as the city pays off old debt, it can issue new bonds without raising the rate.

The community projects funded by the seven bonds, totaling $384.9 million, were chosen from an initial city-wide “needs assessment” of more than $1.5 billion.  A citizen commission worked for six months to select these projects with a great deal of public input, and the City Council voted unanimously in August on the final package.

In a nutshell, here’s what each of the seven bonds will do:

Proposition 12 will invest $143.3 million in transportation and mobility, including road improvements for I-35, 51st Street corridor, MoPac, and provide for new and upgraded sidewalks, bikeways, and the 30-mile hike and bike Violet Crown Trail. Clearly, fixing Austin’s transportation mess should be one of our top priorities.  The Violet Crown Trail will connect Zilker Park, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and many central and south Austin neighborhoods and will be a key part of our city’s multi-modal transportation system.

Proposition 13 will invest $30 million in preserving open space and protecting water quality and quantity.  As Executive Director of Hill Country Conservancy, I consider these investments vitally important to our community.  Preserving the scenic beauty and natural areas around Austin, and keeping our water clean is good for our environment, our economy, and our souls.

Proposition 14 will invest $77.7 million in parks and recreation projects, including repairing and upgrading neighborhood parks and pools. A vibrant parks system helps make Austin a truly special and healthier city.  This bond will invest in parks in nearly every part of the city, including Zilker Park and three of the original downtown squares.

Proposition 15 will invest $78.3 million in building, repairing and renovating affordable housing in all parts of Austin.  As Austin has grown, housing costs have soared.  Prop. 15 will help build and repair thousands of homes for Austin’s low-income seniors, people with disabilities, and low-income working families.

Proposition 16 will invest $31.1 million in public safety improvement projects, including a new fire station and police substation. Austin has been ranked among the safest big cities in America, and we need to keep it that way by investing in the police, fire and EMS facilities we need to service every part of our community.

Proposition 17 will invest $11.1 million in health and human services projects, including repairing and expanding a women and children’s shelter. In my view, what really makes Austin stand apart is how our community comes together to help all citizens have a better quality of life.  This bond will help ensure that we continue to invest in affordable health and human services for all citizens in every neighborhood.

Proposition 18 will invest $13.4 million in library and cultural arts projects, including renovations to six neighborhood libraries and an expansion of Austin (Film) Studios. ? Austin will soon break ground on the new Central Library voters approved in 2006.  This bond will invest in neighborhood branches across Austin.  It will also help expand our city’s film industry, which brings us a broad range of benefits.

The bottom line is simple:  If we fail to invest now in the basic infrastructure of our home as our population grows significantly and critical needs increase, the result will be that we will pay more later to fix problems that will have grown worse, and our quality of life will suffer in the meantime.

Let’s not make that mistake.  Please join me, hundreds of other community leaders, and dozens of endorsing civic groups, and vote for all seven city bonds.  More information can be found online at our campaign website, www.LuvATX.com.

Be Prepared for the Inevitable Crisis

How long has it been since you’ve reviewed your organization’s crisis management plan? Or do you have one in place at all? Whether you work for a company as its public relations professional or represent a client on an important project, you undoubtedly realize that bad news can hit 24-7 creating a challenge made even more difficult by the relentless hunger of social media.

As Randy Pruett says in an essay for Dallas’s Pierpoint Communications, “What happens in Vegas stays – on YouTube, Flickr, Wikipedia, Twitter and Facebook.”

We can all think of many current examples where company reputations are either crushed or salvaged, depending on prior planning and the expertise and training of the leadership, employees and public relations team.

Here are several of Pruett’s key tips for avoiding public relations nightmares:

  1. It is crucial to get your side of the story out as quickly as possible. In a crisis, one member of your public relations team should respond to all inquiries. This avoids conflicting, inaccurate or incomplete information.
  2. Role-play different crisis scenarios before they happen. Be authentic and avoid brainless spin. Avoid speculation when you don’t have a clear direction.
  3. Tell your employees what’s going on in person versus in writing, if possible. Although personal meetings can certainly be recorded via cell phone, emails and internal memos definitely get leaked to the media, posted on blogs or appear in all types of social media.
  4. Communicate with clients and customers. As much as possible, business should continue as normal.
  5. Know that public relations has limits. PR alone can’t fix a 10,000-barrel a day oil leak or improve disastrous financials. But it can enhance your reputation in the long term by the way you handle a crisis when it strikes.
  6. Keep your public relations team in the loop and seek their guidance when choosing a course of action. They are your company’s first line of defense.

For a look at some interesting social media statistics go to Erik Qualman’s popular “Social Media Revolution 2” video and www.socialnomics.net.

New Library to be a Gathering Place for the Community

Austin is in the midst of a great undertaking, the creation of a new central library to serve its growing community.  Voters approved  funding for the project in the 2006 G.O. bond election, and library enthusiasts showed up en masse at the design input meetings that followed in order to share their vision of the form and functionthat our city’s main library-to-beshould take.  What has emerged from thislively interaction between citizens, architects and librarians is a building program appropriately and boldly named “The Library of the Future”, for the world has truly not seen its like before.  Will Austin’s new central library stand as sustainable, landmark architecture?  Yes, but there was little doubt of that outcome from the moment our Council picked Lake/Flato as the design architects for the building.  Will the new central library  serve as a destination for regional residents and visitors alike?  Based on what we know about the amenities to be offered, we would have to reply in the affirmative. Beginning with its location in the heart of the Seaholm Development District, Austin’s fast growing new civic/cultural center, those attractions include incredible views of Ladybird Lake, Shoal Creek and  our exciting urban environment from unique reading porches and the building’s Green Roof, a large and fresh collection of materials noted for its variety of downloadable items, easy computer access throughout the facility, an art gallery, a special event center, a café, and bookstore. Equal parking opportunities for vehicles and bicycles will be provided, as behooves a public building sited at the major intersection of Austin’s lakeside hike-and-bike trails, including the Lance Armstrong Bikeway. The qualities of design which truly define this building as “the Library of the Future”, though, will be the depth and breadth of its technology rich environment, the “future-proofing” of the building by insuring that interior spaces can be readily modified as library services change, and perhaps most significantly, the great number of meeting spaces provided in varying sizes and configurations.  The trends we track indicate that libraries are fast becoming that great third place between work and home where everyone in the community is entitled to congregate and communicate, leading to one of the more rewarding phenomena of modern life:  education through conversation.

On Monday, October 1, 2012, architects and staff involved in the New Central Library Project will make an important Design Development presentation to the Library Commission at the Austin History Center (810 Guadalupe Street), beginning at 7:00 PM.  Please plan to be in attendance and see the future.

John W. Gillum
Facilities Process Manager
Austin Public Library

Playing Well With Others More Important Than Ever

When Robert Fulghum published his book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten years ago, he set out to prove that the basic social skills we learned as children are the most useful skills we will ever learn. Now more than ever, those social skills are taking center stage in the professional arena. Learning to cultivate and maintain relationships through simple techniques that even 5-year-olds have mastered is critical to the success of any organization, corporate or public. In fact, organizational relationships can be nurtured in much the same way that we do our friendships. In the organizational world we call our friends stakeholders. But stakeholders are first and foremost human beings. And they require, expect and appreciate the kind of treatment our friends receive on a personal level.

What are those basic expectations?

That we behave authentically (aka, be ourselves).
That we tell the truth.
That we listen.
That we respond to questions and requests promptly and appropriately.
That we maintain a healthy balance of power in the relationship (aka, take turns).
That we respectfully disagree when appropriate, but give good reasons for why we do.
That we share.
That we use our common interests to strengthen our relationship.
That we have fun together.
That we stick up for one another.

This very basic approach to stakeholder relationship building not only humanizes an organization and keeps it grounded, it does more for positive branding than any public relations campaign could possibly do. Because it’s real. And because it is meaningful.  Sounds simple, right? It is. But it requires a bit of a paradigm shift, which doesn’t happen overnight. And it requires buy-in at every level of the organization, which requires training and practice. But once an organization truly begins treating stakeholders like human beings and behaving humanly itself, then it can begin to reap the kind of long-lasting rewards we enjoy in our personal lives when we surround ourselves with people we truly care about and who truly care about us.

Do You Support Single Member Districts for Austin?

By Terrell Blodgett, Mike Hogg Professor Emeritus in Urban Management, LBJ School, UT-Austin

Single-member districts for Austin city council members? Seems like I’ve heard that before. As a matter of fact, the idea has been turned down by Austin voters SIX times — that’s right, six times. And with good reason – and now it’s coming back up again. And – based on the slim turnout at meetings of the council-appointed charter revision committee, it’s still a minority of Austin voters who feel they are not well served by our city government.

Let’s look at some facts and figures. Right now, based on 2010 census figures, there is one councilmember for every 112,913 Austin residents. That’s considerably less than the ratio for our Texas House of Representatives. There, each of the 150 members represent an average of 167,637 persons and each congressman an average of 710,000 individuals.

Oh, you say you want your OWN councilmember. You want an area (district) where you vote for your OWN member of the council. Under what is reported to be the most popular plan floating around, the seven member council would be increased BY MORE THAN 50% to 11 members, 10 from single-member districts and the mayor elected at large as now. So, you have your OWN council member and you want something done – you have voted for TWO members – your district member and the mayor(if you voted for the successful candidates) out of ELEVEN. The other nine have absolutely NO REASON to support your position – after all, you do not live in their district, you have no vote in their district, and probably no influence in their district. SO, if what you want is your own personal council member to complain to, that’s fine, but if you want something done, you’re better off in the current situation because you have a vote for ALL SEVEN members of the council.

You say your area of town is not represented on the council. Unfortunately, that is sometimes true, BUT, there is no reason for Central Austin to control the council. There is no logical reason why the northwest, the Circle C, and the Southeast Austin areas should not be represented. The remedy – IT’S CALLED VOTING. If I were an activist in one of those neighborhoods, I would get with an activist from one of the other areas and say, “we’re going to put up a first-class candidate – you do the same and we will support each other AND VOTE.”

Finally, do you want representation or do you want results? If you want results – better services and facilities – a recent outside survey finds that we are getting better results from our city government NOW than the 13 other cities of 500,000 or more population, most or all with single-member districts. This survey, by a nationally-known survey firm, based in Kansas, that has been in business over 30 years, found that Austin ranked #1 in overall satisfaction compared to Dallas, Fort Worth, Oklahoma City, San Francisco, Seattle, Boston, New York, San Diego, Indianapolis, San Jose, Houston and Detroit. The firm conducted a statistically valid survey, receiving answers from each of six areas of the city. The company has worked in 46 states and designed and administered over l,000 statistically valid surveys in more than 300 cities and counties.

Resolving Complaints and Building Relationships

In the past I wouldn’t have thought of effective complaining as a relationship-building tool. That changed when reading The Squeaky Wheel: Complaining the Right Way to Get Results, Improve Your Relationships, and Enhance Your Self-Esteem by Guy Winch, Ph.D. Winch says that although we are chronic complainers, our complaints are seldom addressed. In fact we vent and grumble without expecting or getting results. However, knowing how to effectively complain can get problems resolved and, in the process, improve relationships, enhance self-esteem, and encourage beneficial change.

Here are a few of Winch’s ideas to make sure complaints get results:

• Complain to a person who can resolve the problem or offer a remedy. When we vent our frustrations to family, friends, and colleagues – rather than a person empowered to resolve the complaint – we may get emotional validation but not a resolution of the problem.

• Keep the conversational tone measured if the complaint is to succeed. Anger never makes a complaint more effective. Instead anger, sarcasm, condescension, and name-calling – however justified – deflect attention away from the content of the complaint and create defensiveness.

And if you happen to be on the receiving end of a complaint, use the opportunity to resolve the complaint and build client loyalty using an 8-step process.

1. Sincerely thank the individual for making you aware of the problem.
2. Explain why receiving the feedback is appreciated.
3. Apologize for the problem or mistake.
4. Take responsibility for the problem and promise to handle it immediately.
5. Ask for necessary details and information.
6. Correct the problem promptly or within the promised timeframe.
7. Follow-up with an e-mail or phone call to determine the level of satisfaction with the complaint handling.
8. Implement system changes or change procedures, if necessary, to prevent the problem from reoccurring.

For more ideas on this topic, consider Winch’s compelling book: Winch, Guy. The Squeaky Wheel: Complaining the Right Way to Get Results, Improve Your Relationships, and Enhance Your Self-Esteem. First edition. New York, NY; Walker and Company; 2011.


The City of Austin has invited the public to make comments on its new official web site. It’s expected to come out of “beta” this month, but in the meantime the City wants interested users to try it out and give feedback. On the right side of the web page, there’s a “Feedback” page where you can click to offer opinions, make suggestions and alert designers to needed corrections. Let them know what you think!