Foundations at 20: The Lyrics Have Been Updated but the Melody Remains the Same

By Lewis Michaelson, Marty Rozelle and Doug Sarno, MCP3

“It was 20 years ago today, Sergeant Pepper taught the band to play.” Well actually, it was 20 years ago that the IAP2 President, Marty Rozelle, President-Elect, Lewis Michaelson and the Executive Director, Doug Sarno got together to create a training for IAP2 based on its Core Values. The intent of the training was to guide best practices in the field of public participation, provide legitimacy for our practice and create a sorely needed new income stream for an organization that was struggling financially. Little did we imagine at the time what it would become.

The precursor to the current Foundations Course in Public Participation was first offered in 1999 at the IAP2 International Conference in Banff, Canada. Since then, dozens of trainers have contributed their own intellectual capital to the original trio’s, expanding and updating the training to ensure it remains relevant and preeminent year after year. As a consequence, unlike St. Pepper’s Band, it has never “gone in and out of style.”

What many may not know, though, is that there was a darker side to the decision to create an IAP2-influenced training. At least as practiced in the United States, too many of the training programs at the time were predicated largely on a “neutralize the opposition” and/or “get-them-to-agree-with-you” approach. Too little of the commercially available training was based on a central notion that the public had something valuable to contribute or that public participation was essential to making better, more sustainable decisions.

That realization was directly responsible for the themes of the Foundation course, which emphasized that there was a legitimate, intrinsic purpose for conducting public participation and that the practice of public participation should be based on IAP2’s Core Values. It also led to the concept of the three “Foundations”: Decision-oriented, Values-based, Objective-driven. As hard as it may seem to imagine today, the notion that public participation should be objective-driven instead of technique-driven was borderline revolutionary 20 years ago.

The initial offering of the IAP2-branded public participation training also ushered in another staple of IAP2’s contributions to the practice: the IAP2 Spectrum of Public Participation, perhaps the most recognizable trademark of the organization. As we were creating the training, we were searching for a way to explain to people what public participation was without the usual hierarchical descriptions that placed “empowerment” at the pinnacle and “consultation” at the bottom. As experienced practitioners, we understood that different decisions demanded different levels of involvement. We also knew that government organizations often were not in a position to delegate that much influence to stakeholders, given their statutory and regulatory strictures. That led to the inspiration to create a horizontal spectrum, rather than a vertical one.

We hope you enjoyed a little historical musing on the origins of the IAP2 Foundations Course in Public Participation on its 20th Anniversary. Thanks to all of the IAP2 members who have contributed over the years to updating and refining it so that it continues to hit the mark. However, the core tenets remain the same, based on our organization’s values and the deep respect we all have for the ability of stakeholders (when astutely engaged) to contribute to better public decisions. That is why, while the lyrics may have evolved over the years, the melody is still the same as it was 20 years ago.

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