Taming the Tiger:
Resolving Public Controversies
in Local Government
Revised May 1, 2001
Local governments are often faced by a single "Big Issue" that overshadows
others on the agenda that year. This essay/outline summarizes an approach
to resolving such issues based on three key elements: participation, leadership
& information. It summarizes some of the lessons I learned as a County
Standing Committee Chair during the Tompkins County Solid Waste Crisis,
1993 & Tompkins County Budget reorganization 1994-95. I believe the
approach we used may be useful in some other similar situations. For example:
Controversial land-use planning decisions
Public transportation planning
Other high-profile strategic planning issues
Local governments are often faced by a single "Big Issue" that overshadows
others on agenda that year. These are characterized by:
Loud public controversy can interfere with effective policymaking.
Situations where normal policy-making processes don't work
Large financial and community consequences
Multiple overlapping issues
Multiple diverse stakeholder constituencies
Often complicated by a labyrinth of federal & state mandates &
Goal: To create open democratic
participatory processes that lead to community consensus on a set of sound
& fair policy changes (and/or policy re-affirmations) that address
all the inter-related issues. The needs of all key constituencies must
Public debate becomes polarized and ideological.
Lobbying groups offer over-simple solutions (Why don'tcha just …)
Most proposals address only single sub-issues in isolation.
Issues are too complex for local media to cover adequately.
Staff are caught in a public crossfire and become defensive.
Citizen Advisory Committees are out of the loop and ineffectual.
Elected officials are often publicly defensive and privately bewildered.
Public sees and appreciates reasoned policy choices
Policymakers feel successful and in-control
Staff are productive and feel empowered
Participation as structured public input
Structured public participation in local government decision-making
is often problematic. Traditional processes like advisory committees and
public hearings often seem ineffectual. Some recent attempts to develop
more effective public participation through, e.g. community visioning and
strategic planning can be immensely time consuming. In the worst case,
the planning process can consume all the available human energy, leaving
no residue of resources for actual implementation of a plan. This essay
is an attempt to create opportunities for genuine and substantial public
input into decisionmaking, while keeping the process moving along briskly.
This process is essentially a refinement of the traditional citizen
advisory committee -- but with an important new twist. Each volunteer advisory
committee member is asked to fill two roles. Each will serve both as a
member of the core advisory committee, and also as a member of an issue
The advisory committee should choose it's own chair, and set it's own
agenda. It's important to help them identify a clear role and tasks for
themselves. Otherwise, as advisory committee members become absorbed in
their task force assignments, they may have only limited time and energy
for the core advisory committee.
Issue task forces are small, action-oriented, ad hoc committees, charged
with making a consensus recommendation on a single key sub-issue. The essence
of this idea is for each task force to include representatives from each
key stakeholder group, and to give them each an active role in actual decisionmaking.
Thus, each task force should include one or two elected officials, one
or two senior staff persons, and two advisory committee members. Variations
may make sense in special situations, but in general, task forces should
have 4-6 members. Note, I've identified elected officials, staff and public
as three key constituencies. In some situations, other groups may be identified,
and there may be more than three.
Normally, there should be 6-10 issue task forces. The topics for the
task forces should be the key policy components of the larger issue that
is being addressed. Knowledgeable policymakers should be asked, "What are
the decisions that need to be made?" Even people who disagree in their
answers are often able to agree on what questions need to be answered.
Distribute questions among task forces so that every important question
will be addressed by someone, and every task force has a task of manageable
Task Forces should be encouraged to employ basic three-step problem
Try to identify good task force topics that are susceptible to this approach.
clarify the problem
brainstorm possible solutions
blend and prioritize proposed solutions into a recommendation.
Blending these 3 constituencies takes advantage of their respective
At the same time, each group can help to counter the other groups' characteristic
Elected officials -- Awareness of big picture & political realities
Appointed officials & staff -- expertise on technicalities & program
Citizen committee -- Fresh ideas & impatience with bureaucracy
Other advantages of this approach
Elected officials -- over-cautious & superficial
Appointed officials & staff -- pettifoggery & jargon
At-large committee members -- ignorance & naivete
By having more people involved in decision making, there is more person-time
available to discuss everything that needs discussion.
Each advisory committee member has real role in resolving a substantive
issue. Over time, he or she will develop expertise that will be a resource
for the rest of the committee. As a group, the advisory committee will
become knowledgeable about every aspect of the decisionmaking process,
while each person gets a manageably sized assignment.
By including public participation on the issues that the public is most
concerned about, it increases the chance that volunteers will find the
time to make themselves available.
A hidden resource that can improve the odds of success: Public controversy
may result in a consensus that the status quo isn't viable. Everyone agrees
that change is needed, even if there is not (yet) agreement on just what
The process described above requires leadership from
an individual who can play a central coordinating role, and who can commit
a substantial amount of time to the project. Broad participation and multiple
task forces can lead to chaos unless someone takes responsibility for keeping
the entire project on track. The coordinator could be an elected official
who chairs a key committee (as I did), a respected community volunteer,
or a staff person or hired consultant.
The coordinator has several important responsibilities:
Single-issue meetings. I've found it valuable
to schedule a special session of the legislature (or whoever the final
authority is) at which multiple resolutions are offered addressing different
aspects of the larger issue. Ideally, each task force should have a report
accompanied by an action resolution. This approach has important advantages:
Appoint the members and chairs of issue task forces.
Note that it requires no formal authority to appoint a committee. So long
as the appointed committee has no authority beyond the authority to recommend,
and so long as the committee members are willing to serve, anyone at
all can appoint committees and task forces.
Identify the topics for each of the issue task forces,
and draft a charge to each of them. Of course, this should be done with
maximum possible input from all stakeholder groups.
Keep in touch with all key players and task forces,
and pay particular attention to maintaining consistency among task force
recommendations. I find it valuable to try to have a least one one-to-one
sit-down meeting with each key player.
Manage time, deadlines and schedules. This includes
setting (and enforcing) deadlines for all important tasks, including task
force recommendations, and scheduling decisionmaking meetings by whatever
body has final authority.
Insure that, as input and ideas are gathered from a
wide range of participants, no one's input is forgotten, and no question
goes unanswered. It takes a special effort to ensure that questions that
may seem marginal, obvious or irrelevant to experienced old hands still
get attention and a direct response.
A focussed single-issue agenda helps keep decision-makers'
Addressing multiple sub-issues at once make it easier
to see inter-related issues holistically
Addressing multiple sub-issues at once brings out multiple
lobbying groups with diverse agendas simultaneously. That improves the
chance that policymakers will reason their way through the issues, rather
than "blow with the most recent wind".
Ideological stalemate happens most easily in the
absence of facts. A key responsibility for the issue task forces is to
gather needed information so that decisions are based on facts, rather
It's equally important to get the right facts.
Computers and the Internet have exacerbated the problem that most people,
and especially public policymakers, are already deluged with a glut of
information. Most policymakers have neither time nor inclination to absorb
all the information they receive. It's crucial to identify the essential
and pivotal information that is required, and take the time to edit it
for maximum conciseness and clarity.
Similarly, it is important to keep the public well
informed without overtaxing their collective attention span. Public information
must be clear, concise, and as much as possible jargon-free.
It is often an important step to review and if necessary
revise standard forms that are used for collecting and/or presenting information,
including budget and program information. Standard forms are typically
designed to meet the needs of state bureaucrats, auditors, or staff with
technical expertise. It is typical for policymakers to receive a fat packet
of printouts, in which only one or two bits of information on each page
are genuinely of interest. It can make an immense difference simply to
consolidate information so that all the essentials are on a single summary
Conclusion. No amount
of fiddling with the process will replace the hard work of gathering information,
analyzing issues, collecting input, and making hard decisions. And any
decisionmaking process is context dependent. Rowing the boat skillfully
won't help if there's no water. However the framework sketched above may
create a context in which it is easier to make progress on substantive
issues, with fewer of the pitfalls to which participatory public decisionmaking
Eric Lerner, Ph.D.
Community & Organizational Development
504 South Plain Street
Ithaca, NY 14850
Page updated September 5, 2001