Member Spotlight: Larry Schooler
By Lauren Wirtis, IAP2 USA Intern
Larry Schooler is Manager of the Public Engagement Division for the City of Austin, which, Larry jokes, sounds impressive until you realize the division is comprised of two employees. What is truly impressive is all that Larry and his division have accomplished since he started working there in 2009. For one, that was the year Larry became involved with IAP2 USA. After attending his first workshop, Larry thought: “I found it. I found what I’ve been looking for professionally as a field and a secular calling.” During the workshop there was an exercise where participants created headlines they wanted to see for IAP2; Larry still has that posted in his office. Over the years Larry has participated in many of the programs IAP2 USA has to offer.
Larry enjoys that “IAP2 feels so collegial and focused on the sharing of resources. I always walk away from conferences feeling like I learned so much and gave so much in return.” Larry decided to get more involved and was elected to the IAP2 USA board in 2011. In 2013, he was elected president of the board. At the time, Larry noticed that he was one of the few younger, public sector members of IAP2. He was excited to step up as president, craft a vision, and find people to help him carry out that vision.
Still an active member in IAP2, Larry considers himself to be “a community-wide interviewer” who ensures that decision-makers have information from a broad cross-section of the public when they are creating policy. At the Public Engagement Division, Larry and his team help other divisions implement good P2 by helping design the process, facilitate events, deploy a variety of digital tools, and analyze and summarize data. Larry gets the most satisfaction from his work when he hears from a citizen or member of the public that they feel like the process was a good one. “Sometimes I hear this from people who didn’t like the final outcome but think the process was fair.”
These moments make Larry feel like he’s achieving his mission to make the whole process fairer to a greater number of constituents. As a mediator, he works to develop relationships between diverse groups in order to get to a place of understanding and agreement at the end of the process, and has helped a number of task forces with diverse perspectives come to consensus.
“I think too often in the U.S. we’re so results and efficiency driven that we focus on getting to an agreement before we address the relationship.”
Larry has worked to build relationships between the City of Austin and the community using a wide range of tools. One is the Conversations Corps, a unique program in which volunteer liaisons go out into the community to hold meetings with the different districts. This helps the City reach a wider spectrum of constituents and create more representative policies and programs as a result. It also “empowers people to have conversations away from government that are about government issues.”
One of the greatest challenges Larry faces in his work is meeting people’s expectations for good P2. “There is a really high bar in Austin. A desire to shape, collectively, the city rather than for it to be bequeathed to a group of elites.” Larry continued, saying this is one of the best problems a public official can have, that the community has a strong desire to be a part of the conversation and be involved in City decisions. However, there is a conflict between the desire to do P2 and the amount of resources available. There isn’t a realization of what it takes to make good P2 happen.
This is a challenge many practitioners just entering the field will face. I asked Larry what advice he would give to new practitioners in the field. “My advice would be not to take advice, and have them bring their newness to the field.” While the core values can act as your guide, new practitioners can leverage their existing passions and strengths to become more effective in the field. In Larry’s case, this calls to mind work he has done on television, a media with which he’s more comfortable with than most because of his experience in broadcast journalism.
Tool Tip: “Just because you didn’t hear about a tactic during P2 training, doesn’t mean it’s not P2.”
Larry is certain P2 has a big role to play in the future as cities across the world continue to grow and diversify. “We’re in desperate need of people who are willing to step up and advocate for the field in the country. Through strength in numbers we can each do a little to lead to a big result.” Larry is certainly playing his part as he works as a Senior Advisor on the Divided Community Project, serves as a Local Board Chair for Generation Citizen, and is a Senior Fellow at the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life, all of which promote active citizenship and public engagement.
Larry concluded our discussion with some thoughts about IAP2 USA: “IAP2 has been a godsend to me for about eight years. I’ve been more involved at certain periods of my career than others. I certainly hope to continue to stay involved. I am so grateful for all the organization has given me – training and mentors – and have really seen it change my life for the better.”