Categories
Politics

Nashville: Are Metro meeting attendees representative of the community?

It is said that decisions are made by those who show up. Let’s hope that Metro policy makers are looking beyond the sign-up sheets at public meetings for community input on their decisions.

There’s a growing body of literature on the shortcomings of public meetings in both process and representativeness. See, for example:

Public meetings are broken. Here’s how to fix them.

Who Is the “Public” at Public Meetings?

In Nashville, we have self-reported data on residents who say they have attended a public meeting about Metro business in the last year. Luckily for us, we fare quite a bit better than some of the communities in those articles in terms of race/ethnicity diversity at Metro meetings. Twenty-eight percent of respondents said they attended a meeting about Metro business in the last year. Sixty percent of those meeting attendees were white, which is a bit lower than the white share of the total population (65%).* Black residents were 30% of meeting attendees compared to 26% of the total population in Nashville. Metro meeting attendance was also generally representative of Asian and Hispanic residents.

While Metro gets relatively high marks for representative participation (or at least attendance) in terms of race/ethnicity, we need to improve public engagement in other areas. The most dramatic contrasts are in housing tenure and educational attainment, but several aspects of the survey results stand out to me based on my analysis of the data.

  • There is a thirty-point difference in the share of Metro meeting attendees with a bachelor’s degree or higher and the bachelor’s-plus share of the total population. In fact, a remarkable 35% of self-reported attendees had graduate degrees.
  • Unsurprisingly, homeowners are disproportionately represented at meetings about Metro business, 74% compared to 54% in the total population. Renters are 46% of Nashville’s population but are outnumbered three-to-one at Metro meetings.
  • Residents attending meetings about Metro business generally have higher incomes, but the gaps are not as large as I would have guessed given the differences in educational attainment. Thirty-seven percent of attendees at Metro meetings reported household income of $100,000 or more, compared to 27% for the total population. Middle-income brackets are within a few points of each other. Lower-income Nashvillians are, as you might guess, underrepresented at meetings. Residents reporting $30,000 or less in household income account for about one in ten attendees at Metro meetings, according to the survey results, compared to nearly one in four in the total population.
  • As you might expect from reading the literature or attending Metro meetings yourself, attendees do tend to skew older, but, again, the differences can be surprising depending on how you define the age cohorts. Younger people (age 18-34) are 38% of the total population in Nashville and 33% of meeting attendees, according to the survey results–underrepresented but not by as much as I would have guessed. Similarly, if you define “older” as age 55-plus, which I’m increasingly seeing in the literature and in materials from advocacy groups, then older residents are 31% of Metro meeting attendees and 30% of the total population, which is much closer than I would have guessed.
  • Studies mentioned in the articles linked above have found that men are disproportionately represented at public meetings and that is also true in Nashville. Fifty-three percent of respondents who have attended a meeting about Metro business in the last year self-identify as male, compared to 48% in the population.
  • Given the location of most Metro meetings, it also makes sense that attendees who live in the urban services district (USD) are slightly over-represented, 76% compared to 72% overall.
  • Finally, I don’t have a comparable statistic for this for the total population, but people reporting attendance at Metro meetings have lived in Davidson County for an average of 32 years. We can’t say for sure why newer residents are not participating in Metro business at higher rates, but I’ve personally witnessed their perspective being diminished as somehow less valuable compared to that of longer-term residents here in the land of “Nashville Nice” and in other places I’ve lived–and that’s not just me projecting.

Of course, attending a public meeting is not the only way to participate in local decisions. Forty-one percent of Nashville residents contacted a Metro elected official in the last year, according to the survey results. About one-half of those people also attended a meeting about Metro business. While I don’t have access to comparable data for other cities, 49% percent of respondents contacting a Metro elected official and/or attending a Metro meeting in the last year seems encouraging to me, even if it was just one call or one meeting. Knowing where we stand today is at least a starting point.

Demographics of people calling or emailing Metro officials appear to be very similar to those of people attending Metro meetings–67% were bachelor’s-plus in educational attainment, for example–so I don’t think we can say conclusively that meeting attendees are any less diverse than engaged people not attending meetings (although the survey sample is not large enough to parse results by presence of young children in the household, which can make attending evening meetings really tough).

I plan on doing a series of these posts because (1) it’s important people understand that what you hear in the echo chamber of city hall may not reflect the broader viewpoints of the community; and (2) I can’t locate the resident survey page on Mayor Cooper’s website so I assume it was taken down along with the rest of the material from Mayor Briley’s and Mayor Barry’s tenures; and (3) the survey results on Metro’s open data portal haven’t been updated since May 9, 2019; and (4) I’m concerned that means the survey won’t be continued.

Hopefully demonstrating how to use this data and why it’s useful for residents and policy makers will change their mind.

After all, I hear that performance management is en vogue again.

* Metro’s resident survey is administered to only the adult population age 18 or older. Unless otherwise noted population statistics reported here are also for age 18 or older.

Categories
Politics

My two cents for Mayor-elect John Cooper

Congratulations to Nashville Mayor-elect John Cooper, who won the runoff with nearly 70% of the vote last week. The word is he may be open to some input on what the priorities should be for the next four years. While, admittedly, my usually steadfast objectivity could be a bit compromised in this case, here’s my two cents for what it is worth to them.

First, when it comes to priority setting, luckily they don’t have to rely on my objectivity. In 2018 we launched Nashville’s first recurring, random-sample resident survey, a performance management tool most communities of this size have had in place for a long time. The survey collects data from 400+ households each quarter (MOE +/- 5 on a quarterly basis and +/- 2.5 on an annual basis) and results are posted on Metro’s open data portal for public use.

The usual suspects–public education, police, affordable housing, streets and sidewalks, and public transportation–are consistently represented as high priorities, but note some of the differences in rank order and value across groups. For example, respondents who have lived in Nashville for less than five years are nearly twice as likely to say that public transportation should be Metro’s highest priority compared to respondents who have lived here for twenty or more years. Despite making up the majority of WeGo ridership, only 6.0% of low-income (< $30,000) respondents and 4.7% of black respondents think that public transportation should be Metro’s highest priority. Affordable housing, by contrast, gets 26.6% and 32.6%, respectively.

None of that likely comes as a surprise to transit advocates or political candidates and campaign staff with access to expensive polling data. But polling data isn’t usually in the public domain and open to scrutiny; thus it can’t provide the common set of facts needed to openly debate and reach consensus on controversial issues. I’m hoping Mayor-elect Cooper is serious about pushing Metro, and the city, in this direction. Increasing Metro’s investment in the resident survey to get a large enough sample for council district breakouts would be a good start.

Second, there needs to be more public engagement in Metro’s budget process. There’s a question on the resident survey about satisfaction with Metro’s budgeting and stewardship of public funds. The campaign rhetoric from Cooper’s side painted a dire picture of majority, widespread discontent on that front. In reality, 41% of respondents are dissatisfied with Metro’s management of public funds, according to the survey. Now, while 41% is not a majority, it is significantly higher than the 19% of respondents who are satisfied, so, you know, well-played and all. But that leaves 40% who say they either don’t know or are neutral on Metro’s financial management–and that’s an information gap that shouldn’t be wide enough for politicians to exploit. But it was a smart strategy. The column in the table above marked Highly Engaged includes respondents who have contacted a Metro elected official and attended a public meeting in the last year. This gets to the difference between political polling focused on voters and performance management surveys focused on all residents, but it’s probably safe to assume that the Highly Engaged crowd generally maps to voters. They are 20% of the survey sample and 58% of them are dissatisfied with Metro’s financial management.

We need to reverse that trend. Engagement should yield more confidence in Metro’s budgeting and stewardship of public funds, not less. There are several approaches worth considering. The City of Austin, for example, starts holding community meetings several months in advance of the proposed budget. Check out this summary of Austin’s FY 2019 budget engagement process and consider how it compares to Metro’s standard approach. Other communities have experimented with participatory budgeting. Results are mixed, but it’s worth considering in Nashville. It would be a logical next step in the evolution of nonprofit direct appropriations and the Community Partnership Fund.

Finally, Metro and the city of Nashville need an economic development strategy. We touched on this in our meetings of the Tax Increment Financing Study and Formulating Committee, but it was a bit outside the narrow scope of that effort. To be clear, Metro’s economic development staff is, and has been, top-notch. They are professionals in every sense of that word. But we are deploying subsidies–the “tools in the toolbox”–without a clearly articulated, consensus position on what we are trying to accomplish. In strategic planning terminology, we are deploying strategies (the how) without clearly defined goals (the what), and we’ve entirely skipped over the call to action (the why).

We have to fix that by engaging the community to help develop clearly defined, measurable goals for inclusive, equitable economic development that improves living standards for residents. That should be the goal. I’d encourage Mayor-elect Cooper to check out Austin’s economic development policy. We revamped it about ten years ago to include a publicly available cost-benefit analysis of every proposed deal–a common set of facts–and multiple opportunities for the community to weigh in before a contract was approved. It even earned an award for transparency from a leading anti-subsidy advocacy group, Good Jobs First. Restoring trust starts with transparency.

Congratulations, again, to Mayor-elect Cooper and his team. Here’s to a more data-driven Nashville.