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November 16, 2000

Putting power back into public process

  • Get stakeholders to the table, but don’t lose sight of the objective.

    The Puget Sound region is famous for its public process.

    We discuss and debate and engage and consult on decisions ranging from new highways to rerouted sewer lines. We try not to move forward until we have every stakeholder in agreement. The stakeholders include a multitude of active interests: industry and business, environmental and conservation, neighborhood and community, state, county, local and regional governments, Native American tribes — and the list goes on. We agree on problem statements, define evaluation criteria, brainstorm alternatives, share perspectives, debate pros and cons, and seek consensus—and on and on.

    Is all of this doing any good? Is it allowing progress to be made on policies and projects that are needed to sustain our regional prosperity and quality of life?

    There is no single answer, even when we look back on decades of accomplishment. Surely it was worthwhile to engage the region in cleaning up a heavily polluted Lake Washington, or making historic decisions to shape and limit growth. Without strong support from key stakeholders, we would not be building a regional high-capacity transit system or watching baseball in a new stadium. Yet when you and your team face an important project, or when the jurisdiction in which you live or work approaches a major policy or funding decision, the entrenched tradition of full public consultation can seem a heavy burden.

    How can we turn this regional love affair with inclusive process into a benefit for decision making? Doing it, with enthusiasm and focus, can actually cut time and improve acceptability of your decisions. Standard practice has come to mean getting out public information, holding public meetings, and convening groups of representative stakeholders for an extended process of factfinding and input.

    It’s important to remember the ultimate objectives of public process. It should result in a better informed decision, support for the outcome and the ability to implement a solution or project without significant challenge in the courts or in the court of public opinion. Here are a few ideas:

    • Human nature means that if people are not asked to contribute to and support a decision, they often oppose it. But if you come to me and ask for my ideas about how to accomplish something, and I can see my input shaping the outcome, I am likely to be one of your supporters. Great, you say — we have to ask the opinion of every person in Puget Sound? No, but identifying those sectors with a strong interest, and finding efficient ways to consult with them early, can help build support and avoid opposition. Who has the power or the voice to stop, delay, or damage what you are trying to do? Who can help make your decisions better? Figure that out, design a systematic way in which to engage them, and understand what they will oppose, and what features will make it easier for them to accept or support the outcome.

    • Going directly to those with a stake in your outcome is far more effective than inviting them to meetings or waiting until they clamor for a hearing. It is tempting to sit in the office with your team, conjecturing about likely issues and barriers. Go out, get in touch with those who can influence your outcome, and ask them what matters. Listen to their answers, probe to understand, and try to design your project or decision so you successfully address their concerns and fears. Open a dialogue — and sustain it, to avoid unpleasant surprises later in the process. Put your best people on this, preferably those with major project responsibility, and give them the tools and training to augment their natural skills at engaging with widely varying people.

    • Methods of engagement should start with a face-to-face interview, when possible, with key representatives of sectors as well as “regular people” who may be affected by your initiative. Don’t avoid the difficult ones, your opponents, your challengers. But also seek the ideas of those sectors and people that may be neutral or supportive; don’t focus all your attention on the “squeaky wheels” of opposition. Listen carefully, document what you hear, and try at all stages to find ways in which you can reasonably address what really matters to them.

    • For a complex decision or entrenched controversy, it may be advisable to convene a multi-interest group to understand the issues, provide ongoing input, and perhaps reach agreement about an outcome. This is often a tool for the public sector, but may be considered for private-sector decisions as well—if it will help make an accepted, supported, enduring decision that will allow you to meet your objectives. Learn from experience, and make this process efficient, focused, and respectful of time and resources (yours and theirs). Create time and opportunity for stakeholders with conflicting perspectives to get to know one another, to learn together, and to work as teams to devise creative solutions. Be crystal clear about the group’s role and your expectations for them. Good groundwork, careful preparation of supporting information and operating protocols, and strong facilitation, are all key to a successful process. Try to achieve the delicate balance between too much structure and orchestration and a “blank slate” process that you may not be able to control.

    • Another key balancing act is apportioning your efforts between your target stakeholders and the broader public.

    A broad spectrum of interests who understand and accept your initiative is a valuable asset. Offer to share information widely, seek input and answer public questions. In most cases, unless a close-to-home impact is foreseen, the general public doesn’t take much of an interest. But their disgruntled reactions or active opposition can cause you trouble, and sometimes one angry and determined individual can stop a project. It is harder for those forces to slow your progress if you have an engaged and bought-in stakeholder spectrum, but don’t forget about all the parts of this puzzle. And don’t slack off as your project proceeds. Effective follow-through is key to sustaining public confidence, addressing issues as they emerge, and keeping your initiative on schedule.

    Does all of this add time and expense? It can, but not compared to the delay and potential for failure represented by active opposition.

    Incorporating these objectives up front, planning for efficiency and proactive outreach, can be both effective and efficient. Most problems or needs we face today are not technical dilemmas. Excellent engineering, superb science and creative design are not enough. Working through the human aspects, the “people problems,” is often our challenge.

    Does this approach guarantee there will be no opposition as the project or policy plays out? No, but it minimizes that risk, and builds a foundation for support. Will you enjoy it? Only if you come to see it as a critical element to your success, and as much a challenge as good design or on-time construction.

    Patricia J. Serie is principal of EnviroIssues, a firm offering public involvement and community relations services.

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