Why I opted-out of Opt In

As a citizen advocate, I spend a lot of time telling my local governments and government agencies what I think. I’m familiar with the various stages and forms of public involvement processes — sitting on committees, going to project meetings, asking questions, raising concerns, writing comments, addressing decisionmakers. So originally I was a big fan of Metro’s Opt In concept — hey, Metro is asking for our opinion! They’re sending us emails with quick surveys, making it easier than hunting down comment forms on each project webpage (if the project even has one), or searching for the right physical address or phone number to contact. I joined Opt-In with such rosy thoughts at first, but I lost them relatively quickly as I saw that the demographics of the survey were clearly out of whack with the region (involving the most involved, like me, further, rather than engaging new populations) and the surveys were often poorly designed. The final straw for me was the recent poll on regional transportation priorities, which BikePortland covered, especially the fact that the survey writers defended the survey setup:

Jim Middaugh, communications director for Metro, defends the survey. “We’re attempting to provoke a bit and help decision makers get a sense of where different segments of the population are on these things.” On Twitter, he responded directly to criticisms by saying that the “Forced choice” the survey presents is a “technique to get at underlying values.” And he added that, “Metro gets that things aren’t black and white.”

“We’re trying to see how people are leaning… If you put a grey zone in there, it’s not as informative.”

I’ve been through enough public involvement processes to have seen that some of them are shams, sometimes even when the people involved are well-intentioned. And forced-choice, or its cousin “limiting project scope”, is the most common type of sham. It disallows certain types of input from the start, and the result can be used to suggest things that are not reflective of people’s real opinions. That’s exactly what Metro seems to be up to with Opt-In. They choose the topics, they design the surveys with the possible questions, and in many cases, they are, apparently deliberately, pushing people away from common ground and reasonable middle views. They’re push-polling, not gathering public input.

I opted not to complete the recent TriMet budget survey for the same reason. Same deal: at first, I was excited. Online budget survey — new and shiny! Engages people who wouldn’t otherwise! Maybe, but it’s clearly designed to get the answers they want. They start out by claiming poverty and the best of intentions, and follow that with union-bashing (and I say this as someone who is frustrated with the union negotiation situation right now; I don’t have a lot of sympathy for the union’s position, but it’s not exactly classy of TriMet to present it the way they do). Only then do they proceed to the survey options. Raising parking revenue is given one option of a “nominal” fee at crowded lots, for $100,000. No market-rate parking, not even a non-nominal parking charge. But they have no hesitation suggesting that we raise fares by $0.25 or more and/or force anyone transferring to buy a $4.20 day pass, discouraging trip-chaining and multimodal travel. Let’s definitely impact low-income and multi-modal inner-city users, not the suburban users who drive in to the big MAX lots! Let’s definitely not talk about increasing the taxes that bring in the majority of Trimet’s budget! Sorry, I’m not going to buy into that at any level, not even to legitimize the idea by participating.

For anyone who’s willing to stick around, hit “no/neither/disagree”, and write your comments in, I salute you. But I’m opting out of these particular shams.