Eric Lerner, Ph.D. 
Community & Organizational Development 

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Taming the Tiger:
Resolving Public Controversies in Local Government

Eric Lerner
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
The problem

Local governments are often faced by a single "Big Issue" that overshadows others on agenda that year. These are characterized by:

  • 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 & regulation.
Loud public controversy can interfere with effective policymaking.
  • 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.
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 be addressed:
  • 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 task force.

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 size.

Task Forces should be encouraged to employ basic three-step problem solving model:

  • clarify the problem
  • brainstorm possible solutions
  • blend and prioritize proposed solutions into a recommendation.
Try to identify good task force topics that are susceptible to this approach.

Blending these 3 constituencies takes advantage of their respective strengths.

  • Elected officials -- Awareness of big picture & political realities
  • Appointed officials & staff -- expertise on technicalities & program realities
  • Citizen committee -- Fresh ideas & impatience with bureaucracy
At the same time, each group can help to counter the other groups' characteristic weaknesses:
  • Elected officials -- over-cautious & superficial
  • Appointed officials & staff -- pettifoggery & jargon
  • At-large committee members -- ignorance & naivete
Other advantages of this approach
  • 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 change.

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:

  • 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.
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:
  • A focussed single-issue agenda helps keep decision-makers' attention.
  • 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 than preconceptions.

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 page.

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 is prone.

Eric Lerner, Ph.D.
Community & Organizational Development
504 South Plain Street
Ithaca, NY  14850
(607) 273-1154

Page updated September 5, 2001

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