By Phil Barnes
City projects can be difficult, and decisions made without public input often breed conflict. It’s only natural for community conflicts to surface when interested stakeholders and citizens feel disregarded and left out of the decision-making process. But if you can create a process of transparency and open government, you’re likely to have higher levels of community satisfaction.
Working with local citizens and stakeholders to build consensus around key public decisions can be challenging work, especially when there are competing interests, a lack of information, and hardened perceptions of the right approach. Despite the challenges associated with engaging citizens in key public decisions, structured discussions can result in a richer outcome and more buy-in for the final plan.
It’s always a plus to bring in new and varying opinions. Garnering public participation and buy-in, although sometimes overwhelming, will generate new ideas, collaboration, and growth.
Roadblocks to progress
If we first clarify how each stakeholder perceives the threat to their interests, collaborative strategies will strengthen our ability to make progress. And when done correctly, projects and relationships are set up for success. Issues that stall public projects often include:
Traditional engagement of citizens and stakeholder groups can exacerbate the problem. Governments regularly host a large number of open house meetings that attract few citizens, until the community feels direct impact caused by construction, plans, assessments, or policy. By this time, there is a lack of buy-in from citizens and stakeholders who do not feel empowered.
Stakeholders and citizens then often come to the table with firmly entrenched positions and little information. At this point, ignoring public interests is short-sighted and ultimately results in unsatisfied constituents.
Decisions that are perceived by the public as “legitimate” are more easily arrived at when citizens’ interests are considered and included in the process. If citizens do not feel that their input is influencing the city’s decisions, there is likely to be controversy and conflict.
An opportunity to collaborate
While it’s never ideal to have controversy and conflict surrounding a public decision, you can turn it into an opportunity. A leadership opportunity presents itself for the city officials, and creates an environment for citizens to partner with their government.
Parties who disagree may come to understand why others hold the position they do, greatly assisting in the journey toward common ground. That is an easier place to reach a solution that all can live with.
To enhance public trust, go beyond informing, consulting, and even engaging citizens and stakeholders. Structure the decision as a collaborative opportunity. Create a safe platform for citizens, stakeholders, and government officials to partner together in each aspect of the decision, including the development of alternatives and recommendations for preferred solutions.
Emphasizing mutual respect
A collaborative approach to citizen engagement emphasizes the sharing of power and information, and a mutual respect between government and citizens. If facilitators are well-informed about an issue, it is likely that they may have entrenched opinions, which may make it harder for them to remain impartial. A facilitators’ ability to provide impartial guidance is key to the success of citizen engagement efforts.
The book Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, by Roger Fisher and William Ury, recommends that to resolve issues and move decisions forward, you need to make sure the collaboration process:
By putting these ideas to work at the beginning of your next big city project, you are likely to have more success and less stress.
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