Bonds Built Through Trust

“Having spent many years in government, I see a common deficit of trust with our public agencies, and I think Core Value 7 contributes to rebuilding that trust.” – Penny Mabie

For this final article about the Core Values, I spoke with Julia Balabanowicz, Jan Bloomfield, Penny Mabie, Joel Mills, and Gay Robinson about the importance of Core Value 7 and how they use Core Values in their daily P2 work.

Core Value 7: Public participation communicates to participants how their input affected the decision.

What I heard most from the people I interviewed was that this Core Value was an imperative opportunity to build trust that often gets missed. Julia Balabanowicz said “it allows [decision makers] to demonstrate to [the community] the value and purpose of their participation. It shows that you respect the time and energy they took to show up and participate.” While immersed in the middle of designing a new park, extending a sewer system, altering bus system, or developing a new comprehensive plan it’s easy to forget that the public is not thinking about this project every moment of every day.

Julia BalabanowiczJulia discussed the importance of creating a link between the public’s input and the outcome, especially when the process is long. She’s currently working with a developer on a proposal for a large wind farm project. By deciding early on that the public would get to see the preliminary turbine layouts, they are able to work closely with the community to try to arrive at a socially acceptable layout of the wind turbines that also balances environmental and technical limitations. Her team is now on version four of the layout, each version responding specifically to local input. Following each community meeting the team tracks how the input received from the public influenced the proceeding turbine layout and that document is made available to anyone in the community, but, most importantly, at each meeting the public gets to see the different versions of the layout so that they can see the impact their participation has had. More than anything, Julia said, “it’s a trust-building exercise with the people you’re working with. And the business case for developers is clear when they understand how this process supports the latter regulatory approval process.”

Gay RobinsonAnd, as you build that trust, people come to believe in the process. Belief in and ownership of the process is often more important than the outcome. I talked to Gay Robinson and Jan Bloomfield who said that you know the community has bought into the process when they say, “It’s not my Jan Bloomfieldsolution but I see how you got there.” When Gay and Jan were working together on a park master plan, they tied each of the park’s design elements back to comments from the public. “Just as important as showing how you incorporated each of the public’s comments is showing why you didn’t use other comments.” Doing so demonstrates that even ideas that didn’t end up being incorporated were carefully considered.

Penny MabieAs Penny Mabie said, “In the absence of information, people will make up their own stories.” Following through on Core Value 7 creates future credibility. That credibility is the impetus to follow up with the community and show them how their input was used. However this can be overlooked, because something like building credibility and relationships is hard to quantify, especially in the short-term. “You hear people say the project was a success because it was unopposed. It was a success because a park was build.” But, Penny said, these projects aren’t a one-shot deal. “Those people are always going to be your constituents, your voters, your neighbors, your community. Every time you build credibility, you’re helping develop that more solid relationship.”

Once you build that trust, that credibility, that relationship surprising things can happen. Joel Mills discussed how, after a meaningful process, “people can see their influence and their opportunity to plan a role in the implementation.” The trust and the credibility can lead to a plan where “the future success of the plan doesn’t rest fully on the planners who created it.” The community starts to take charge and the process becomes a catalyst for civic engagement.

Joel MillsJoel saw this happen during a planning process at Port Angeles. It was the height of the Great Recession, the town had lost a few mills (its traditional employment centers), and a landmark department store had just decided to leave the downtown. One of the big issues was that people would take the ferry from Canada, drive through Port Angeles, and travel on to hike in the Olympics, but they would rarely stop. During this planning process the community became excited about possibilities to create attractions. The plan sparked a new level of civic engagement- within 3 months the community had pulled together, organized dozens of volunteers and donated supplies, and repainted 43 downtown buildings. “The Community Development Director said the biggest benefit of the plan was the pride the process created.”

When I decided to join IAP2, the Core Values were one of the first things I read and they really resonated with me. But, as I’ve done these interviews and written this series of articles, I’ve come to see that they are one of the most important resources I can pull out of my toolbox on a daily basis. They are simple and pragmatic in a way that an organization’s core values rarely are. Julia, Gay, Jan, Penny, and Joel all said that the Core Values are something they use and return to regularly.

Here are a couple ways these practitioners use the Core Values in their daily P2 work:

  • As a tool to share with clients
  • As a checklist when creating a public participation plan
  • To evaluate a P2 process
  • As language for discussing what good P2 looks like

I hope this series has increased your enthusiasm for the Core Values and helped you think about how they apply to the work you do every day.

This article is the fourth and final article in a series about the Core Values. If you missed the earlier ones you can check them out at the links below:

Article 1: IAP2 Core Values – The Origin Story 

Article 2: How to Hit the P2 Sweet Spot

Article 3: Being a Stranger in a Strange Land

Do you have a Core Values story to share? Please tell us about it here! 

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