Addressing many of today’s most pressing problems requires both engaging broad public audiences and working within complex systems of institutions, actors and drivers. In our July webinar, Prof. Martin Carcasson of the Center for Public Deliberation at Colorado State University, Prof. David Kahane of University of Alberta, and Robin Prest of the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue at Simon Fraser University describe how the emerging field of “Participatory Systems Change” can create better outcomes for complex or “wicked” problems. These methods are better able to account for the values of citizens, identify leverage points for intervention, and build collaboration among multiple actors.
This approach requires rethinking key aspects of engagement, including: sponsorship; issue framing; sequencing; the nature of democratic exchange; the method of analysis; and strategies for mass communications.
Robbie Burns’ famous prayer was for protection from “things that go ‘bump’ in the night”, but in October 2012, near Shreveport, Louisiana, it was no “bump”. It was a colossal explosion, and no one immediately knew the cause. When the cause – and the planned solution – were discovered, it touched off a different kind of fireworks.
The cause was millions of pounds of M6 explosive – the propellent used to fire large guns, like tank guns and heavy artillery – which had been stored at Camp Minden National Guard Base. It was too old to be any use – and highly unstable. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other responsible agencies planned to burn the explosives in the open – considered “best practice”. The community had other thoughts on the matter and in the social and political melee that followed, Kristi Parker Celico and Doug Sarno, MCP3, were called in to facilitate public consultation sessions to find an alternative.
Except they didn’t have the luxury of time.
The military repeatedly reminded everyone that another major explosion could happen at any moment.
So how did Kristi and Doug manage to marshal the military, the environmental experts, the community members, the activists and the various government agencies (none of whom wanted the responsibility) and come up with a solution? The May webinar – a reprise of their presentation at the 2017 IAP2 North American Conference – is revealing, inspiring and at times hilarious (in its own macabre way) as we learn how two experienced professionals took charge of the situation and quickly but methodically brought in a solution before something else went “ka-BOOM!” in the night.
IAP2 members can watch the webinar here. (The IAP2 Webinar Archive is a benefit exclusive to members of IAP2 USA.)
USA: Tennessee Department of Transportation – General Project Award for “Long Range Transportation Plan”
Every five years, the Tennessee Department of Transportation has to produce a 25-year long-range transportation plan, and with 6.5 million people — a third of whom live in rural areas — to serve, the challenge is to make sure public money is spent in the best way possible. Complicating matters is the sudden in-migration of people: ever since Nashville was designated an “It” city by the New York Times, 100 people move there per day.
By 2013, transportation infrastructure projects had fallen behind to the tune of $6 billion, so the problem was clear: how to come up with a plan that Tennesseans could stand behind. Tanisha Hall — TDOT’s Director of Long-Range Planning — and her staff had to reach urban and rural areas with the same message, be consistent with the outreach efforts, build input that would directly influence the decisions, and define and target traditionally underserved sectors of the population.
The tools and techniques included regional summits, focus groups and “Book-a-Planner” Outreach, where staff would take the message to local groups. They took the message to places where people traditionally met, such as Rotary and Chamber of Commerce meetings, giving people the straight goods on the challenges TDOT was facing; they questioned the people interactively on what their transportation priorities were.
Tanisha explains that they learned quite a few valuable lessons about engagement: make sure that an engagement plan is an integral part of the plan; be flexible; think through the entire process ahead of time and identify potential obstacles; and make it enjoyable.
So successful was the outreach, that towards the end of the process, Governor Bill Haslam (centre, above; looking toward Tanisha) used Tanisha’s engagement process at some of the events, which led to the legislature passing a gas tax increase to fund transportation infrastructure and TDOT won the IAP2 USA Core Values Award — General Project.
CANADA: LAWS (Liard Aboriginal Women’s Society) and Beringia Community Planning, Indigenous Engagement Award for “Youth4Safety”
Tackling the problem of violence against Indigenous women and girls in a small northern community, and making sure as many voices as possible were heard in developing a long-range, multi-modal transportation plan, were the last two Core Values Award winners featured in our monthly webinars.
In addressing a problem of sexualized violence against Aboriginal women and girls, an initiative named Youth4Safety spearheaded by the Liard Aboriginal Women’s Society (LAWS) and supported by Beringia Community Planning won the IAP2 Canada Award for Indigenous Engagement. The groups determined to make the plan local to the community, so it was relevant at all points, and to empower youth, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal.
There are numerous barriers when it comes to engaging young people. Lack of interest is one, as is an inability of decision-makers to see the value in engaging young people; perhaps an even bigger barrier is the lack of meaningful roles for youth. The Youth4Safety project set out to overcome all of those.
Beringia’s Sarah Gillett says decision-makers often underestimate the ability of young people to contribute to a process; but in this case, they were given the key role. The project presented educational tools to help youth deal with sexualized violence, but the project also drew on the local culture and the experiences of the young people, themselves, all while ensuring the safety needed for youth to participate. They were empowered to apply what they learned in designing an awareness campaign and then share their work with the broader community.
No fewer than 16 agencies collaborated on the project, including LAWS, the RCMP, local tribal justice departments, the local high school and drug and alcohol counselling services. A unique feature of the process was that it was based in local Kaska culture, focusing on peer support, a system designed by youth for youth, and dene à nezen, which is a Kaska term to describe “dignity and respect”.
While the long term impact of their work is still to be understood, an evaluation of Youth4Safety has identified the following results to date:
For the participating youth:
An ability to describe the issues relating to sexualized violence (such as gender, social responses, racism, mental health)
An increased willingness and comfort talking about sexualized violence
An ability to identify concrete actions they can take to respond to violence against women and girls
An increase in concrete skills they can use to get involved in taking action on issues of sexualized violence (such as campaigning, communication, using the media)
Increased sense of connection among Youth – provided a network Youth trust to approach with sexualized violence issues, potential to provide support for Youth victims of sexualized violence
Increased confidence and self-efficacy – being a part of this team gave Youth an opportunity to build their confidence and recognize their ability to build a safer community
Building a stronger support network – more aware of resources, community organizations, and a network of people who care about sexualized violence against women and can help
For the broader community:
Increased knowledge about violence against women and girls, the extent of the issue and the impact on Youth
Increased appreciation for the knowledge Youth have on the topic of sexualized violence and the role they can play in raising awareness on this issue
It sounds like a no-brainer: a stash of millions of pounds of highly-unstable explosives is threatening a town and some explosions have already gone off. Quick! Turn the experts loose to find the solution and act on it! No time to sound out ordinary people on what they think should be done!
But that was exactly the situation in one town in the USA recently, and the experts who studied the problem came back with a “solution” that was even worse and left the area vulnerable to a catastrophic blast.
So they “paused” and took it to the people.
In our May webinar on May 8, at 11:00 AM PDT (2:00 PM EDT), Kristi Celico and Doug Sarno, MCP3, will reprise their presentation from the 2017 IAP2 North American Conference in Denver, will discuss how they helped achieve “consensus in a hurry”, which addressed the issue and averted a disaster. How do you weigh the risks and benefits and make sure local residents are involved in the decision?
Join us to find out how this community solved the problem and how you can apply that to your own work. Register here, and remember the two-stage process to register: follow the link in your registration confirmation email to get the login information you’ll need.
When dealing with conflict and entrenched opinions, do you look for the root causes of the entrenchment? In our February webinar, “Handling Emotion and Outrage in P2”, John Godec, MCP3, looked at some of the reasons why people become polarized in their opinions and why they hold those particular opinions in the first place.
(One of the IAP2 “Flagship” courses is “Strategies for Dealing with Opposition and Outrage in P2” – formerly known as EOP2 – but this should not be confused with this webinar.)
John pointed out that many of the issues P2 practitioners face today are not new. At the 1997 IAP2 Conference in Phoenix, Chris Gates, president of the National Civic League, described a society made up of angry citizens, ruthless media, broken politics, cynicism and old approaches, as well, Gates added, as “an assumption of bad intent by business and government leaders.”
Sixty years earlier, John noted, Dale Carnegie, the “How to Win Friends and Influence People” guy, stated that “When dealing with people, remember that you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but with creatures of emotion, creatures bristling with prejudice and motivated by pride and vanity.”
John’s research into these root causes, in part, came from trying to understand his own family, many of whom he calls “über-conservatives”. It’s taken him into realms of neuroscience and human behavior, and the work of people like Dr Gail Saltz, a psychiatrist, and Dr. Jonathan Haidt a social psychologist who identify biological differences in brain function between people who hold conservative views and those who self identify as more liberal. In other words, people often become polarized and entrenched in their socio-political positions because they are wired that way.
Grasping that concept and learning to deal with it leads to better thinking when planning a P2 process that you know will be controversial and bring out wildly opposing factions, ensuring that certain voices are not allowed to dominate the scene.
Although climate change is on the minds of pretty much everybody, one group has been routinely left out of the policy conversation: rural residents. Farmers, ranchers and others who live outside our big cities have found that policy designed by urban and suburban interests often fails to address the distinctive realities and challenges they experience.
Camille Morse Nicholson, Program Coordinator at the Jefferson Center, outlined some of the different techniques required to build community support in advance of the dialogue, facilitate the jury’s work, and support the communities in their follow-up. Although a divisive debate is a possibility with such a politically-loaded topic, one participant remarked, “there was no political/ideological divisiveness: everything was done with respect and in good order.”
The dialogues continue with a focus on the future of energy in rural Minnesota, and the project has already won the Core Values Award for “Creativity and Innovation.”
Dealing with the prospect of closing schools is a touchy subject in the best of conditions, but throw in language and other cultural differences, and things get even trickier.
That was the challenge faced by the Richmond BC School District when faced with the need to do seismic upgrading on their buildings, in a zone identified as prone to liquefaction in case of an earthquake. The potential hit to the budget meant a real potential for closing some schools. This meant taking it to the people, which led to a Core Values Award for the District and Catherine Rockandel of Rockandel and Associates.
The Award — for “Respect for Diversity, Inclusion and Culture” — recognized the work done to reach out to families in a place where sixty percent of households do not have English as a first language. Languages in Richmond include Mandarin, Cantonese, Taiwanese, Tagalog, Punjabi and some Japanese. Moreover, many of the immigrants come from cultures which mistrust governments and officialdom in general.
What tools and techniques did they use to encourage people to take part and trust that their voices are being heard and taken seriously? How did they reach a conclusion in which no schools were closed?
We always like to kick off the New Year with a look at the latest in digital engagement, and in January, we brought back together the members of the pre-conference DE workshop at the 2017 IAP2 North American Conference in Denver. Dave Biggs (MetroQuest), Charles Connell (Social Pinpoint), Matt Crozier (Bang the Table) and Joseph Thornley (76engage) held a panel discussion, with over 100 people — a sellout crowd! — joining in.
The discussion ranges through a variety of topics. Here’s a sample of the panel’s observations:
Matt: “We can no longer separate digital engagement from in-person engagement — we need to think about how the methods work together. Digital is the only way you can take engagement from reaching tens or hundreds and into thousands or tens of thousands.
“You get more thoughtful responses through online and you can engage when a community is ready. If they’re not already engaged and a project comes up, people will go elsewhere to make their comments — usually on social media, outside the project.”
A growing challenge for a P2 practitioner is the deepening ideological divide that has developed over the past few decades. As people become more and more entrenched in their view and less and less likely to consider those of others, engaging the broadest cross-section of the public becomes more and more difficult.
Dr Martin Carcasson with the Center for Public Deliberation at Colorado State University says finding a solution begins with understanding the root of the problem – the “brain science” behind polarization – and the December webinar was an encore of his presentation at the 2017 IAP2 North American Conference, “Beginning With The Brain In Mind”.
Our human nature makes things problematic, Carcasson says. We crave certainty and consistency, and if we’re making a decision in a controversial or even polarized environment, we tend to protect that decision as much as possible, even in the face of contrary facts.
What’s more, people are suckers for the good-versus-evil narrative – through all cultures and all times, we love the hero-and-villain scenario, and Carcasson says that we’re teaching our children wrong by teaching them that there is an evil force behind bad things, when really, it’s more complicated than that.
We are “groupish” or tribal, preferring to associate with like-minded people. Some of the worst things – and some of the best things – that humans have done in history have stemmed from that mind-set.
You have a project. It can benefit a lot of people, but for whatever reason, you run into a major roadblock: hostility from the very people it’s supposed to benefit. How do you approach these roadblocks and overcome that hostility?
The November Learning Webinar featured the winners of the IAP2 Core Values Awards for Project of the Year, and both of these had to address a very skeptical public. In fact, the City of Calgary had to shut down its plan to upgrade the Crowchild Trail – a major transportation corridor from the north end of the city to the south – because of hostility from the public. And the Mental Health Center of Denver learned to change one often-used term and leave out another altogether, in order to create a branch in an impoverished area of the Mile-High City.
Two public entities that had to overcome skepticism on the inside and hostility on the outside took top honors at the 2017 IAP2 Core Values Awards. Donna Kell, Communications Manager with the City of Burlington, Ontario, Michelle Dwyer, Burlington’s Public Involvement Lead, and Deanna DeSedas, Public Outreach and Engagement Manager with the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency joined us for the October Learning Webinar. In both cases, it was a message from the public, loud and clear, that decisions were being taken that affected them and they wanted “in”. And the proof of the pudding is summed up by one official: “My phone stopped ringing.”
Burlington had a wake-up call in 2010, when a report by “Shape Burlington” – a city-conceived committee of citizens – brought in a scathing review of the city’s community engagement. Not only did it identify gaps in communications and recommend the city make a commitment through an Engagement Charter, it described the current culture at city hall as “toxic”, and said that needed to change if there was to be proper engagement.
The review came out on the eve of municipal elections, so it got a lot of attention in the campaign that followed. Two members of the Shape Burlington Committee were elected to Council. As well, Burlington – with a population of about 180,000 – has been rated the “Best Mid-Sized City in Canada”, so there was a sense that that reputation was on the line.
Effective engagement requires four key elements:
A champion – inside and outside
A supportive organization
People passionate about P2
One of the breakthrough moments for Council members came in a course on “P2 for Decision-Makers”. Michelle says one could see “the light go on” over the heads of Council members as they realized that P2 is not about giving up authority but about sharing power. She knew then, the organizational support was there.
In 2013, Council approved the Community Engagement Charter, and it was implemented the following year. The Charter Action Plan was drawn up, with the Charter Action Team – aptly called “ChAT” – to ensure the Charter stayed front-of-mind.
Staff in each department received IAP2 Foundations training, as well as training in facilitation and survey writing and analytics. P2 tools are also made available to staff, with the P2 Spectrum front and centre. Tools include workshops, world cafes, focus groups, workbooks, telephone town-halls and a relatively new one, Feedback Frames. The City also launched an online portal where people can give their input as and when they need to and an online portal to give people the opportunity.
A very important use of the Community Engagement Charter has been in the development of Burlington’s 2015-2040 Strategic Plan. That plan includes Community Engagement as one of its four pillars. Burlington’s commitment to engagement also reaches out to the next generation(s), realizing that they’re building a city not just for now, but for the future.
P2 practitioners often go to great lengths to evaluate the success of a process. For the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, it was summed up by one top manager this way: “My phone stopped ringing.”
It’s a bit more complicated than that, but fewer phone calls meant fewer angry citizens. Public hostility towards the SFMTA – one of the largest multi-modal transportation systems in the USA – had reached a point where staff was resistant to planning or attending town halls and open houses. The Agency had become seen as a major government entity that simply dropped its projects on the public without considering the citizenry. The leadership readily admitted there was a problem, but had to tackle the big problem of how to solve it.
The solution was POETS – the Public Outreach and Engagement Team Strategy, a three-year project to make the public part of SFMTA’s plans and allow the agency to deliver its hundreds of projects successfully.
Deanna DeSedas, Public Outreach and Engagement Manager, says POETS has four key purposes:
a strategy to strengthen relationships and build trust with the community
a process to improve consistency across projects
a model for other departments in the City of San Francisco
a program to support and recognize staff efforts
Deanna and her team researched practices in no fewer than 25 other transportation agencies, and found almost all were in the same boat. She came up with a five-step approach that involved (1) identifying the “pain points”, (2) researching best practices, (3) making recommendations to officials, (4) implementing those recommendations and (5) evaluating and improving the processes. (Right now, SFMTA is at Step 5.)
Deanna’s team found that stakeholder frustration was costing money both through delays in projects and potential lawsuits, and that it was all traceable to the lack of engagement with the community. People were in the dark about the hundreds of projects around the city and there was no consistency in keeping citizens in the loop.
From there, the team developed POETS, and that strategy has included training over 70 staff across all departments in IAP2 Foundations (over 200 staff members are involved in POETS) and new hires are given an overview course in POETS – POETS 101 — as part of their onboarding.
POETS includes Public Outreach Notification Standards, guidelines all staff must adhere to for outreach and engagement in their projects. Developing a communications plan is mandatory, including a project needs assessment, stakeholder briefings, multi-channel communications and identifying P2 techniques in line with the IAP2 public participation spectrum. Staff members are supported with an extensive online library, which includes communications plans from other projects, materials from “POETS 101” and P2 peer group support.
From an agency dealing with a disorganized and often frustrating approach for outreach and engagement, has emerged a strategy, POETS, that has provided standards and structure where there was none. By providing staff with the necessary P2 tools and training, they have become empowered and are now connecting with communities and building a greater sense that staff and community engaged makes for better decisions, trust and relationships.