The Ballroom Speaks

October 29th, 2006

I’m not sure why I keep attending UNOP events. I guess I just feel compelled to see what they’re going to pull next – it’s certainly not from a sense that I’m “participating;” there’s only so much use that can come of asking people to rank their nebulous Needs and Goals (or Hopes and Concerns as was the case yesterday), and only so many times it’s worth asking. For the record, UNOP, I think crime is bad, flood protection is good, and some affordable housing, schools and hospitals would be rather nice too, if I’m allowed to have that many preferences. So I attended yesterday morning’s Community Congress #1 at the Convention Center’s La Nouvelle Orleans Ballroom, where I was treated to presentations on some of the citywide data that’s been collected and analysed to date, and to the first instance of AmericaSpeaks’ involvement in feedback collection.

Hearing some infrastructure, housing, health care, etc statistics was of some interest – not least because it’s the first substantive product made public from the citywide component of the plan. As someone mentioned at the last CSO meeting, it would have been nice if they’d posted all or some of it for citizens to view and digest before being asked to provide feedback on it, but they promise it will go on The Website (for posterity, apparently). Wait and see…

The debut of AmericaSpeaks, the organization “brought in to support the New Orleans planning effort because of concerns that many displaced New Orleanians, especially low-income African-Americans, have no voice in recovery decisions” and to collect data and citizen feedback, was of some interest as well. I hope they have some fancier tricks up their 21st century sleeves for putting the $3 million they expect their endeavor to cost ($2.3 million already committed by mysterious private foundations they decline to identify) to use in future meetings – one of the first things they demonstrated to the ballroom using their wireless, real-time polling gizmos was that we were decidedly not consistent with the pre-Katrina demographics in race, income, geography or age (curiously, they made a specialpoint of emphasizing that the 15-19 year old age group was dramatically underrepresented, and we should take care to consider their interests – under-14 year olds apparently need not worry). What they intend to do to address the imbalance isn’t quite clear to me. They did note that the Congress would be broadcast on cable access channels in the “diaspora cities” and that viewers there would be able to provide their feedback via the UNOP’s toll-free number, but the staffer who answered when I called hadn’t heard anything about that yet.

Maybe the real outreach component of AmericaSpeaks’ program hasn’t begun in earnest – most of the press surrounding AmericaSpeaks’ involvement revolves around the ultimate December 2 Community Congress, so it’s not impossible. I think it would be of enormous benefit to New Orleans to work with an organization that’s capable of locating enough respondents, both here in town and elsewhere, to make up something approaching a representative statistical sampling of pre-Katrina residents and to gather their feelings on how our recovery should go. Unfortunately, not only is it unclear how displaced residents will be reached, the UNOP is losing the audience it’s already had. Among the ways in which an AmericaSpeaks 21st Century Town Meeting (registered trademark) is supposed to be superior to the old-fashioned public hearing is that the public hearing “primarily engages the ‘usual suspects’ – citizens already civically active on specific issues,” and yet there we were, the usual self-selected suspects, diligently reporting to be put through our paces. And that group is rapidly de-selecting – I see fewer and fewer of the faces I know to still be active in their own neighborhoods and in general recovery-related activities. I guess even morbid curiosity wears out after a while.

How to accurately sample a population of which more than half is displaced may be one of the many stretches of uncharted territory New Orleans is faced with right now, but how to compose survey questions to elicit worthwhile, unambiguous answers isn’t. Polling is a pretty well-developed industry. The Usual Suspects may provide an incomplete data set, but they’re by and large an earnest bunch, who give recovery matters a lot of thought, and their responses as individuals count as much as anyone else’s. So what was made of their sacrifice of three hours of a beautiful Saturday morning? Not much, as far as I could tell. I’m not sure how the questions were crafted – I’m sure UNOP told the AmericaSpeaks people what they wanted to ask, but my impression of how AmericaSpeaks conducted the polling suggested that they were more involved than mere readers and tabulators, and anyway, I’d expect an organization that purports to specialize in citizen-led contribution to decision-making to have some expertise how best to craft that opportunity to contribute. A lot of the questions were of the no-brainer variety: it won’t come as much surprise that I’m not the only New Orleanian who thinks hospitals are important. And when issues aren’t so trivial, it isn’t so trivial to design a statement so it can be rated on a 1 to 5 scale – but it isn’t rocket science either. Anyone who’s ever had to answer “on a scale of 1 to 5…” (which is just about everyone) has run across the dilemma conditional situations. It may not be possible to eliminate that entirely, but you can go a long way with a little common sense. I wish I’d saved the 5 page paper questionnaire we were asked to complete, or better yet, just not turned mine in for all the good it’ll do, so I could quote some of the howlers verbatim – one example off the top of my head:

On a scale of 1 to 5, 1 equalling “reason to return to New Orleans” and 5 equalling “reason not to return,” rate the following: adequate levee protection.

Does that mean I’ve returned because I think the levee protection is adequate, or does that mean I would return if it were? After presentations that included current and projected levee status, which is allegedly back up to its pre-Katrina level and undergoing further improvements, I really don’t know which to assume. It didn’t get any better on the rest of the pages.

Also eyebrow raising were a couple instances when AmericaSpeaks president Carolyn Lukensmeyer prefaced questions with admonitions of what to consider while voting. In one case involving funding for parks and recreation areas, she told us to remember the presentation we just heard, and how important it was For The Children (who were probably out enjoying parks and recreation areas rather than sitting in a dark ballroom pretending to be a market-research focus group). If you’d like to capture the true Voice of the People, AmericaSpeaks, you’ll do well to let us remember what to consider on our own. In another case, regarding whether it’s important or not for New Orleans to be the most populous city in the state, Ms. Lukensmeyer brought up Galveston and Houston, raising the specter of becoming a tiny, boutique tourist town while all the real industry moves upriver. Although that happens to be a concern of mine, I don’t think it was AmericaSpeaks’ position to frame the issue in a way that steered attention to an all-or-nothing sort of view while there’s still legitimate room for debate about a smaller, but still vital city. It really isn’t their position to remind us of anything.

So I’m left with the bitter feeling that this is just another UNOP photo-op – the citizenry raptly attentive to the big screen with their very own thoughts and feelings reflected back to them: how democratic (at one point the Founding Fathers were even invoked). And this time they’ve literally outsourced it.

The Ballroom has spoken.

9 Responses to “The Ballroom Speaks”

  1. Karen Says:

    Thanks for going, just didn’t think I could stand one more “event”. I did call the Toll Free number was told to call back because they didn’t know what I was talking about.
    I guess as Mr. Bingler states ‘Democracy happens in chaos”, this must be the real deal cause all they have is chaos.

  2. Schroeder Says:

    Similar sentiments here. What’s more troubling is that I could identify at least a couple of faces in the crowd who I’m sure weren’t the least troubled by the demographic makeup of the audience.

  3. amy Says:

    thanks for the write up and going through the paces. i am one whose exhaustion and neighborhood commitments outweighed my morbid curiosity. i wanted to go but couldn’t bring myself to. what i’m wondering is, what if we said that we rejected their input until they disclosed their funders? I mean, how can they make a claim to be conducting a public process while hiding their backing? To the extent that this work is a public function, i think we should disallow input that comes from nondisclosed sources.
    do you think they will name the source?

  4. Michael Kane Says:

    Becky this is just a brilliant analysis and a de-construction of a ripoff of a thrice plagued people: the Disaster, the Corps, and now the Planners. When will the major media if not the local boosters engage in any kind of objective analysis of what is happening down here. My sympathies lie with the dispossessed, the diasporaed, and the re-traumatized who attend, bravely and full of hope, these developer focus groups.


  5. Think New Orleans » ConcordiaSpeaks Says:

    [...] The questions were clumsy, and the presenetations leading. At times during the presentations, it seemed that the respresentatives of AmericaSpeaks felt the only weak link in their technology were the rubes with the joysticks in their hands. From Becky Houtman’s blog post The Ballroom Speaks. [...]

  6. becky Says:

    One more disheartening note about last Saturday – the Congress was held at the same time as an Army Corps of Engineers meeting to discuss deauthorizing the MRGO, something of rather large consequence to the thrice-plagued people. Maybe that’s why no angry mob rushed the stage when one of the presenters casually tossed off that the failure to reopen MRGO has been holding back the port’s economic potential (even though it’s reached pre-storm tonnage levels).

  7. Ralph Says:

    In reference to Ballroom’s reference to Houston and Galveston, maybe a bit of history will show that this is not a good analogy. After the 1900 hurricane which did wreck Galveston, there was so much bickering and infighting for several years in the city that the Texas state government stepped in (cities are subordinate governments) and empanelled a group of businessmen to get to the rebuilding. They organized themselves more or less like a corporate board combining the executive and legislative branchs. From this came the form of local government known as the “council” form of govt.
    NO adopted this “reform” in 1912 (as the commission council) and kept it until 1954, perhaps the last major city to have it as it doesnt provide for executive initiative and descends into ward parochialism. It was adopted by Progressive reformers to curb the machine politics of Martin Behrman who ruled from a political base and didnt care what form of government existed anyway: he would dominate as he did and actually presided over one of the very good times for urban New Orleans. (by the standards of the day of course)
    Houston’s rise to prominence came with the oil discoveries (notably Spindletop)of the early 20th century and the digging of the Houston ship channel which would not have been possible for Galveston anyway. (no Buffalo bayou to widen) Can we learn from this that bickering and not action is a good way to end up a “boutique” city ?(whatever that is)

  8. becky Says:

    Thanks for the history on Galveston etc, Ralph. I agree that bickering (and empanelling businessmen to run government functions – the BNOB illustrated both at work quite clearly) is bad news for recovery. That’s yet another reason why it’s so frustrating to go through another process that’s fanning flames while homes and neighborhoods hang in the balance.

  9. Ralph Says:

    My point exactly Becky. BTW, I meant the “commission” form of government. I was one sentence ahead of myself about the term NO used and didnt realize it. I think it is time to stop bickering, stop pandering, and lets get on with it. You are here, how can I help you and your neighbors? You havent come back because you are unsure?
    What do you need to know? ETc. If we get concrete and get moving, good things will happen.