Metro's Opt In survey: questioning the questioners

Carla Axtman

Metro has created a potentially useful and interesting tool with it's Opt In Panel. This group of just over 8000 volunteers is periodically contacted by Metro to answer questions about issues related to the work Metro does in the region. Often the questions are related to livability as well as land use and transportation.

I've been participating in the Opt In Panel since last spring. It has been my hope that Metro would weigh the Panel's answers heavily when making decisions.

So far, I've been dubious that this is the case. After answering a number of survey questions related to growth, land use, the Urban & Rural reserves and transportation, I've not seen Metro councilors move in the direction that the bulk of survey responses indicated.

In November, Metro sent an email to Opt In Panelists thanking us for "literally helping shape the future of our region." They also gave themselves a healthy pat on the back:

After listening to you and thousands of other people across our region, the Metro Council recently voted to limit the expansion of our urban growth boundary to less than one percent of its current size, even though some were asking for a much larger expansion.

Metro considered many factors. One of the most important was whether or not our existing cities and counties could afford to provide water, parks, schools, roads, police, fire and other important services. Another was whether or not property owners supported having their land brought into our urban growth boundary.

But more importantly, ,b>Metro also listened to you and the thousands of other people who shared their views in the September Opt In survey about our UGB. Metro heard loud and clear that most people in our region wanted a small UGB expansion, if any. Accordingly, the proposals submitted to Metro were scaled back.

1,985 acres of land brought into the Urban Growth Boundary in Washington County would seem to stretch any reasonable definition of "small UGB expansion". The 50 year urban reserves for Washington County total 13,817 acres. Sucking up almost 2000 acres in the first 5 years would seem to lend credence to that stretch.

In December, the Opt In Panel was again asked to complete an survey. This time, the questions themselves raised eyebrows. As reported by Jonathan Maus at Bike Portland, questions were "poorly phrased" and created "false dichotomies". Some survey questions in particular seemed to pit doing what's good for the environment against economic improvement. One asked people to choose between a good economic future for our children or a good environment for them to live in.

From Maus' post at Bike Portland:

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."

There are options in the survey allowing people to choose "Neither" or "Don't know" and to leave their own comments (and Middaugh said they'll publish all the comments they receive); but the phrasing and choices show a troubling perspective at Metro. I hope they're careful with what they extrapolate from this survey.

Given how Metro seemed to ignore or disregard previous surveys from panelists asking for density and less development on high value farmland, it's a little odd that now we're seeing survey questions like the ones that Maus describes. Could Metro be caving a bit to conservative pressure to get different outcomes from the opt-in survey?

What do you think?

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    Carla, I was thinking about doing a post on exactly the questions you and Jonathan Maus are raising about about the most recent survey.

    As Maus says, many of the questions posed false dichotomies. I think he is actually too generous, not all of those questions had "neither" options, which are quite different to "don't know," nor had open comment options.

    Jim Middaugh's response about "forced choice" is troubling, insofar as Metro's definitions about what the choices are that must be force reflects their understanding of the issues.

    There were no clearly defined ways to address "do you think we are posing the right questions on these issues?" I think that a "force choice" approach that is truly open and not the next thing to push-polling should have such options.

    I felt that the choices being posed were highly politicized, incomplete, and intended to create wedge-driving divisions. Most of them boiled down to saying we must choose jobs or sustainability.

    On the CRC questions in particular I continue to be dismayed at the lack of recognition of the public health issues involved and the lack of systemic analysis of the effect on the entire Portland metro traffic system, which one would think Metro has responsibility for, even if the EPA doesn't in their EIS, and lack of consideration of CRC's lack of fit with either Metro's or City of Portland's medium term transportation plans (which also do not quite fit with one another).

    On other questions there was lack of adequate information about costs to evaluate choices being posed.

    It felt like question formulation had been contracted out to the more conservative elements on the Portland Tribune editorial board, or possibly to Jack Bog's intern.

    I wrote back in the comments complaining strongly about the politicized, falsely dichotomous, wedge-driving character of the questions. If that's going to be the future pattern, I'll be opting out of Opt-In.

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    On this: "It felt like question formulation had been contracted out to the more conservative elements on the Portland Tribune editorial board, or possibly to Jack Bog's intern."

    Actually this is unfair to the Trib at least, in terms of transportation issues. The "forced choice" questions opposed cars to bikes & light rail.

    There was no mention of buses at all. The Trib at least would consider them too, I think.

    The continuing degradation of Tri-Met's bus services and the question of class-biased priorities for spending within mass transit in the region was thus completely avoided.

    "Forced choice" also is a bad approach insofar as it prevents thinking about interactions.

    It was tempting to think the dichotomous politicized questions were pushing a Tom Hughes growth over sustainability agenda, but I suppose it could reflect pushback from within Metro staff against such an agenda, if they thought the results would provide ammunition. Either way the politicization degrades the potential of the tool.

    Give me the Coalition for a Livable Future's triple bottom line any day, and questions formulated to get ideas or test ideas about how to meet it:

    -- economic development -- that is sustainable (ecologically and socially) -- and that is equitable socially.

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    The Opt In panels are just another way for people to communicate with Metro. Most people don't have the time or interest in sitting through an hour long Metro meeting just to give a 2 minute spiel in public testimony. The survey is a simple and accessible way for average people to inform the discussion. That information flows both ways, the surveys are also a way of informing the public about the choices and issues Metro is thinking about. It's a way of contextualizing decisions that might otherwise be hard to explain, such as the Hippo vs. Rhino question.

    Carla, you're treating the panel like it carries the same weight as an election result. It doesn't, and given how unrepresentative panel respondents are it would be a mistake to think that it should.

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    My impression of the December survey was that it was quickly thrown together and not proofread. There were more problems than the "slant" of questions or options given. There were errors in the wording of questions that caused me to choose "Don't Know" as the only possible response, since I absolutely could not agree with the options as worded. If they were intentionally worded that way, then it was very poor design. If, as I suspect, the wording was in error as to the intent, then the survey was not properly reviewed and vetted before it was sent out, which indicates little respect for the value of the survey.

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    Even though I think Middaugh's a great guy and Carl Hosticka a great councilor, the Metro council played along with shoving the un-financeable, un-buildable CRC down the throats of Portlanders. Burkholder led the way, with Harrington and Hughes right behind him, and our Democratic heroine Barbara Roberts playing along with the CRC and her cronies who are pushing it (McCaig, Hewitt,Wyatt, Immeson). Attending nine hearings on the subject over the last three years makes me think that the Metro Council, less Hosticka, doesn't listen and doesn't want to be confused by the facts. I hope people like Bob Stacey, Sam Chase and Brad Perkins will bring some new perspective. I fear Hosticka leaving. Almost no one in the press pays any real attention to Metro, either. It's just "dueling experts" on something like the CRC to our local reporters, (exceptions Duin, Manning, Mirk and Jacquiss). God, The Oregonian has written 31 editorials on behalf of the CRC since June of 2008, and now uses it as a yardstick in all their endorsements. This is what happens when you bring in a new Publisher from Orange County, you lose 50% of your ad revenue in five years, and you are desparately trying to hang on to your existing advertisers (like Fred Meyer, a major supporter of the CRC).

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