A reflection on the 2016 IAP2 North American Conference from a U.S. conference scholarship recipient
Community Engagement Manager at Community Development Advocates of Detroit (CDAD)
We’ve all been there: the dreaded community meeting that features more argument than dialogue, leaving residents feeling unheard and disempowered, while meeting organizers wonder why they are getting beat up by angry neighbors.
This circumstance is linked to the fact that all too often, public meetings and hearings are looked at as the beginning and end of public engagement around policy and development decisions that affect local communities. When engagement is treated as an add-on to the “real” decision making or something that is done only to minimally satisfy legal or community requirements it leads to decisions, plans, and developments that likely don’t reflect the input of the whole community.
Such decisions can actually end up being more costly in time, money, and energy as lack of meaningful community by-in and engagement at the front end of a process results in anger and organized opposition at the back end. So, if we know what an insufficient engagement process looks like, what exactly is good community engagement and how do you know you are doing it in an equitable manner?
Who Cares About Public Participation?
This question was on my mind as I attended the International Association of Public Participation (IAP2) 2016 North American Conference which took place in Montreal this past September. IAP2 members are community engagement professionals working in a range of fields and dedicated to promoting a holistic approach to engagement. They are perhaps best known for publishing the “IAP2 Spectrum of Public Participation” which provides a practical framework for analyzing various kinds of engagement strategies and tactics as they move from just informing the public to actually empowering residents in decision-making for the future of their communities.
The theme of the conference was “Who Cares About Public Participation?” and it was inspiring to spend two days with folks working across many fields who are passionate about this topic and work hard to increase the impact of meaningful public participation. This question of “who cares?” also made me think of the tireless neighborhood advocates and organizers in the community development field in Detroit and across Michigan. Whole-hearted and intentional community engagement and decision-making that drives development speaks to the very core of why I am proud to be in this work.
For many of us, it is the mission of community development to move the needle for the equitable rebuilding of our neighborhoods that includes everyone, in particular the most disadvantaged, and historically dispossessed members of the community. As our cities and communities continue to evolve and change, we know that meaningful and equitable community engagement is critical in pursuing this goal. The community organizing saying: “Nothing about us, without us, is for us” is particularly relevant for community development work in a time of rising economic, social, and racial inequality in cities.
Raising the Bar for Equitable Community Engagement
By now you may be thinking that these are all great ideals and slogans, but how do we exactly raise the bar for engagement so that we can have better, more inclusive results in our communities? CDAD’s work in recent years in community planning and engagement has helped us learn a lot about what works and doesn’t, and we have been inspired by innovative practices across the country that center residents in decision-making such as Community Benefits Agreements (currently a hot topic in Detroit), Participatory Budgeting, and expanding access to local Boards and Commissions.
There is also a growing body of research and advocacy that is helping to raise the profile and expectations for meaningful community engagement for both non-profits and local governments. In addition to IAP2, some of our favorite resources include: Building the Field of Community Engagement, Policy Link Guide to Community Engagement, Authentic Community Engagement – Voices for Racial Justice, and plans for equitable community engagement published by municipal agencies in Seattle and Minneapolis.
For me, attending the IAP2 North American Conference was an energizing experience where I was able to dig in to the best ideas and practices around community engagement, learning and sharing with peers and experts across the field who are working to raise the bar for better, more equitable community engagement. I am excited to bring what I learned in Montreal back my work at CDAD as we continue promote strategies for building trust and relationships that empower the public to meaningfully participate in and impact the changes and development taking place in Detroit.
Community Development Advocates of Detroit (CDAD) is Detroit’s association of Community Development and Neighborhood Improvement Organizations and we are a catalyst for the transformation of our neighborhoods, led and inspired by residents, community-based organizations, and other community stakeholders. CDAD works to enhance the capacity and effectiveness of Detroit’s community-based organizations, initiatives, and residents through advocacy, training, technical assistance, networking opportunities, information sharing, and facilitating common action.
By Tony Faast, Supreme Commander, Cascade Outreach Group, Trout Lake, WA
We’ve all had to try and solve problems with others – colleagues at work, partners, spouses, neighbors, kids, dogs, etc. These interactions all have their own trials and tribulations, some successful … while some … probably not so much. We’ve also had our share of task groups, advisory committees, collaboratives, self-directed teams, blue ribbon panels, endless committee assignments, etc. … all essentially a group of well-meaning folks trying to solve a problem or complete a project.
In this article, (and in the spirit of David Letterman) … we will briefly discuss:
“The Top Ten reasons groups can’t solve problems!”
#10. They never agree on the problem in the first place!
Groups assemble, some willingly … some not … to solve a problem or accomplish a task. Members are often selected for their varied perspective, knowledge, and experience. It should be no surprise, therefore, when each of the participants argue passionately for the solution to their version of the problem!
When assigned to a group of Biologists to facilitate their deliberations on an issue, I asked them “so…what’s the problem we’re trying to solve?” One of ‘em irritatingly said, “everybody knows what the problem is!” I replied, “oh really … so what is it, hot shot … I’ll write it down”. I didn’t get halfway through the first sentence before somebody said, “hey, that’s not the problem!” As a group, we worked for the next 90 minutes crafting a problem statement all could agree on.
Even if the problem is stated or delivered to the collaborative group, take a few minutes up front to confirm with everyone, the wording of the problem statement, or the goal of the project. As noted, it will actually take more than a few minutes … but it is time well spent.
#9. Decide how to decide … before you have to decide.
You can’t decide the rules in the middle of a fight! First of all it’s not fair, and second, the person who’s breaking the rules thinks you are making up new rules just because they are winning the argument of the moment! Then you’ve got an argument going about that!
Set the rules in play about how decisions will be made, with group agreement, at least one meeting prior to making those decisions, if not at the very first meeting as part of “Rules of Engagement” for the group. These rules are for the important, substantive stuff.
The nickel/dime decisions all groups make along the way can be handled by the facilitator. Phrases like: “I’m sensing agreement on this point – can someone capture it on a chart so we can all see it?” …“it sounds as though this idea won’t fly right now – let’s move on”… or … “unless there is a serious objection, we’ll go with what we’ve written.” These are known as ‘presumptive close’ statements in facilitation lingo.
Have a few phrases of your own on hand before you start.
#8. People love a good fight!
Really … they do! For “Type A” personalities, it’s their interactive method of choice!
Remember, participants are together as a group for different reasons & purposes. For some, no action is a win for them, so arguing long and hard on every issue delays group decisions. If there are no decisions, then no one is a winner … or a loser.
Some are actually not there to solve a problem – they just need to do battle w/opponents. That is what their organization does. They are not interested in the dreaded word “compromise”. Even when the group makes decisions they are not happy with, they can say – “well, at least we went down fighting”! Give them that chance … and no more!
#7. Groups often take on more responsibility than they are given.
It always amazed me that as hard as it was for a group to decide on anything, they often try to take on more stuff to wrangle about! One Citizen task force I worked with had a huge struggle to come up with Angling Regulation recommendations. Yet when that was accomplished, they felt the need to start debating the Fish Division budget, staffing, and Agency priorities as well!
While it’s always fun to decide somebody else’s spending priorities and who gets hired for what, in this instance that was simply … not their call!
I reminded them of the task (agreed upon earlier), reviewed their group decisions on those issues, thanked them for their time, and ended the session! They had done the job they had been asked to do. Enough already!
#6. “More is always better …”
“We need more time … more data … more money … more input … more/different experts” – Horse Feathers! With rare exception, most relevant info and data has been assembled for the group by their convener. Participants walk into the room with all the information they need to solve the problem (with the possible exception of money).
The real problem is not being able, as a group, to AGREE on the solution. It is commonly assumed that the more members, the more data, more info, etc. … the more likely it is to solve the problem. We have rarely found this to be true. BTW – the Feds call this “analysis paralysis”.
A couple more variables to consider:
- Group size – a minimum of twelve participants and and a maximum of sixteen is recommended for working group size.
- Participation – always ask “who else needs to be here to solve this?” Only one representative from each interest group, but make sure all groups are represented. Time – any lasting solution or product takes about 4-6 months. If the process lasts for a year or more … forget it! Time is being wasted. People start to drop out, run out of gas, get tired of arguing, look for other ways to solve the problem (i.e. lawsuit), etc. Set a realistic deadline and stick to it!
The “we need more” syndrome is a stall tactic – don’t fall for it.
#5. “Groups are fundamentally incapable of closure on their own!”
— Sue Diciple, World Class Facilitator
Closure on an issue means finality, subjugation of a position, win/lose, group ownership of the solution [which may put some professional oppositionists in an awkward position]. Not all of these actions are seen by participants as a positive thing. They often don’t want to close on an issues because all the things they want – prestige, battle opportunities, position defending, good lunches, etc. are present in the group process. They simply don’t want to quit!
As a participant in a hatchery/wild fisheries task group (always a hot topic in the fish business), we met one full day each month… for 10 months! People loved it! All that time essentially one-on-one with the Fish Division Chief and Staff, at the comfortable Agency Headquarters, great catered lunches, free parking, lots of time for all to passionately plead their case (ad nauseam), lots of heated debate – what’s not to like?
When we finally met as a group … post-decision (whew!) … the Fish Chief innocently asked the group “what’s our next step”? Many wanted to continue meeting (note benefits above). I raised my hand and said “I think we should disband! You asked for my organization’s participation (American Fisheries Society), and you got it. The Commission has publicly acted on our group recommendations – we’re done!” Others glared their disapproval at me … as they just wanted to “keep meeting like this”! [Note: The Fish Chief thanked me after the meeting!]
#4. Groups fail to realize the power of writing stuff down!
Even cryptic written and posted notes can be a critical factor in group solutions.
One task group of 23 Agency Staff (I know, a few too many… but I didn’t pick ‘em) was struggling with their day-long assignment to revise an Agency policy. At 2:00 that afternoon one of the members blurted out, “hey, there it is!” We all snapped a look out the window… but he continued, ”no! no! … there it is on that chart” pointing to one where we had tried out some language earlier that day, got stalled out, and moved on. (Of course, it was posted, because I always post group work where we can see it). He continued … “if we take what Sally just said, and add it to that stuff we did earlier … that’s it!” He was right. We combined the two ideas, vetted it for group agreement, and called it good. We were headed home by 2:30 with the job well done – hours ahead of schedule.
If it’s worth writing down … it’s worth posting! Facilitators call it giving dignity to the process.
#3. “Time…time…time…time is on my side – yes it is!”
—Mick Jagger, The Rolling Stones
Sorry Mick, time is not always on your side … and things often tend to get rushed at the end!
Have a FIRM deadline! If your group doesn’t have one, it will be extremely difficult to get them to closure. In most cases, groups will only close on an issue just prior to a deadline. We call it the “term paper syndrome” (like in college, when you finished that paper just after midnite, for an 8:00 AM class – right?) Or, you can observe the same phenomenon by watching the nightly news: a looming National fiscal crisis deadline approaching … with CNN news announcers adding drama to the story … with a countdown clock running in the background … waiting for Congress to act!
Not a great way to do any business, but it’s how groups tend to function.
Another contributing factor in the failure to achieve closure occurs when bureaucrats use the phrase “as long as they’re still talking” … (also see #5). Meaning no Agency action need be taken or policy changed, as long as the Citizen Task Force is still bumbling along … meeting … after meeting … after meeting! Ever hear the phrase, “if the Government does it – it will take forever”?
Remember: twice as long is NEVER twice as good!
#2. 80% rule
Any group can agree on about 80% of a solution! [experienced collective wisdom] Group process is hard work. A lot of information, data, understanding, and point/counter-point discussions take place! By the time the group gets to the 80% mark (thanks to skillful facilitation) they’ve worked hard, and have given the issue their best shot.
This is the perfect time to asses group progress by asking, “have we done all we can do?” It’s ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ to keep a group pounding away on that last issue when it is clear that’s the one issue the group probably can’t resolve. There is a reason why this issue is the last one on the list! Be aware of that moment when the group is simply – DONE!
Alternatively, that last issue might look differently after the other issues have been resolved by the group. That last 20% may take a different group, a different direction, or a different decision-making process to resolve. Don’t let that stall at the end of your process negate the good work folks have put in so far. Call it good and go home!
#1. Individuals within a group need to “manage their own disappointment! ”
The word compromise has gotten a bad rap in the past few years. Hey, in the U.S. State Department, compromise is a goal! Yet, at least in the natural resource business, compromise is a dreaded word – signifying failure to achieve agency or advocate’s perfect solution to usually some pretty pretty tough issues.
We’ve started introducing the phrase “managing your own disappointment” when alluding to the fact that in a collaborative process, not everyone gets everything they want. Adding that phrase to group expectations … up front … acknowledges the reality of collaboration, and makes the many compromises along the way a little easier for folks to accept.
(BTW – you’ll be surprised how often that phrase is used by everyone after it is introduced).
What we also add to that discussion, is the notion that no one group member should have to manage all the disappointment. It wouldn’t be fair, and the whole point of collaboration is to come up with a collective resolution to an issue, plan, or problem. Everyone should have enough comfort with the group decision that they can support it … without dissent! [No whiners, please.] You don’t have to love the end result … we’re simply asking you not to trash it!
So now you know the Top Ten Reasons Groups Can’t Solve Problems. There are probably a few more, but if you can resolve these 10, you are well on your way to successful collaboration! Next time your group stalls out … run down the list for some potential fixes.
OK, one more bit of advice:
When it’s over … it’s over! Get clear direction … have a reasonable timeline … stick to it … do the best the group can do… then say: “thank you” … “good bye” – and move on!
Registration is now open for the 2016 IAP2 North American Conference! The Conference will take place September 28-30, 2016, at the Sofitel in Montréal. As anyone who has been to previous Conferences (Halifax, Salt Lake City, Winnipeg, and Portland) can tell you, it’s an invaluable opportunity to learn from one another, meet old friends, make new ones and applaud the best in the business at the Core Values Awards.
Register now and get a SERIOUS discount on the regular price: until July 1, members (including international members) pay $550.00 while non-members pay $700. After July 1, those rates go up to $700 and $850, respectively. Full-time students pay $300 any time. PLEASE NOTE: All prices are in Canadian dollars – a significant savings given the strength of the US dollar. As well, you will need a special code to register as a member so please contact email@example.com for that code.
Your registration includes:
- Welcome Reception, Wed. Sept. 28
- All sessions, continental breakfast and lunch, Sept. 29 & 30
- Core Values Awards Gala Dinner, Thursday, Sept. 29
You also qualify for the special Conference rate at Sofitel: CDN$189/night, which can also be applied to an extended stay, so you can enjoy even more time in Montréal!
Meet the drive behind the 2015 North American Conference!
Jeanna and Tim Hall, Portland residents and retired IAP2 practitioners co-chaired the 2015 North American Conference committee of over 20 volunteers who made the conference the great success that is was.
350+ attendees, and
115+ presenters and panelists, from
8 countries (Australia, Canada, Indonesia, New Zealand, Romania, Singapore, South Africa, United Kingdom, and the United States)
55+ sessions in
2 ½ jam packed days
Jeanna joined IAP2 in the mid-1990s when she was a Public Involvement Planner for Metro. “It was a perfect fit for what I was doing. In 2002, I changed jobs, working for Clean Water Services, a regional water resources management utility” she said. “I became involved in the Cascade chapter, and I became a chapter officer and served on the national board of directors – all professional development opportunities that I wouldn’t have grown from had I not become active in the organization.”
Tim met Jeanna and was introduced to IAP2 at a Cascade chapter-hosted reception at an EPA PI conference in Portland in 2002. Since then, he too has been active in the chapter, serving on its executive committee and helping to plan the chapter PI Network events. Tim signed up his staff as IAP2 members and over the years encouraged City of Portland PI staff to join. He and Jeanna were married in 2008.
As a couple, they’re still learning as P2 evolves. “Denis Hayes’ presentation was very informative and Nancy Luna Jimenez’ presentation was an eye-opener for a lot of people on how public involvement needs to include all voices,” said Tim. “The profession still has a long way to go, but launching the discussion with the pre-conference workshop on diversity was a great way to begin a conversation that was woven throughout the conference.”
“The quality of the presentations was very high. There are so many talented professionals out there, and it’s exciting to bring them together,” said Jeanna, who was amazed to meet participants from Singapore and Romania. “My heritage is Romanian, so I was thrilled to sit with the woman from Romania at the Core Values Awards dinner.”
Keys to Success
IAP2 was founded in Portland as IAP3 at the first conference in 1990 by a gathering of public participation practitioners from the U.S., Canada and Australia. The name later changed to be more inclusive of community organizers, elected officials, and thought leaders who were not necessarily P2 practitioners.
“Having some of the original founders serving on the organizing committee gave us momentum, and having the conference in Portland, which has such a strong ethic of public participation, provided a good foundation of local people,” said Jeanna. “We had an excellent group of volunteers who wanted to help put this conference together.”
And engage they did! “The conference team really did the work, participating in the monthly calls, following up on the tasks they’d committed to between meetings. People did a great job of taking charge of the different pieces so it wasn’t just a couple of people doing everything,” noted Jeanna.
“Our conference team discussed some of the highlights in a recent debriefing. Sheri Wantland guarded the budget and managed our expenses. Francesca Patricolo coordinated the the Silent Auction, and was excited to raise over $1,900 to launch the national student scholarship program. Mike Dahlstrom spearheaded the social media for attendees to share their experience throughout the conference, and he looks forward to doing more in the future.”
Tips for 2016
- We realized that some volunteers did not fully know what tasks they were to do. Developing roles for volunteers and having an “all volunteer” meeting before the conference starts would bring those people together and provide an opportunity to answer questions and cement commitments.
- Look closely at the conference facility and how space availability would affect visibility and logistics for sponsors and vendors.
- Audio-visual services were a challenge. The hotel’s AV contractor was not well enough prepared to handle the number of presentations. They didn’t have some equipment, which volunteers ran out to purchase to meet the needs of presenters.
- Consider reducing the number of presentations from an average of seven per session to perhaps five or six.
Are you new to IAP2? Words of Wisdom from Jeanna and Tim
The conference was a great opportunity to make connections, but it’s just the beginning. If you live where there is not a chapter, think about starting one. If that’s not an option, connect with the organization as a whole by getting involved with a committee. Committees are a big part of what happens with the national organization, and the more people we have working to grow the profession the more we can do.
“We hope IAP2 USA continues to do things that help people improve the practice, that we continue to grow and be of value to our members. The conference is a great way to do it, but there are many other things we are doing. We’d like to see chapters in every city, like Los Angeles.” – Jeanna and Tim Hall
Two projects which broke new ground in public participation carried off the honors at the 2015 IAP2 USA Core Values Awards in September. These projects are prime examples of what P2 can do – and, we hope, can inspire you to look not just for solutions to your own P2 challenges, but to strive for award-winning solutions in the process.
Oregon Metro – the only directly-elected regional government in the USA – won Project of the Year for the Powell – Division Transit and Development Project. This partnership with the cities of Portland and Gresham, Oregon’s largest and fourth-largest cities, respectively, needed a wide range of consultation methods in order to reach out to a widely diverse community. This 15-mile corridor covers a number of neighborhoods with a high proportion of immigrants.
Metro understood that there was a considerable level of mistrust and skepticism that had to be overcome, and the consultations involved online, face-to-face and single-question mini-surveys, among other things, to reach out to the community.
At various times, the consultations were done in Spanish, Russian, Chinese and Vietnamese; even Bhutanese and Tongan, to ensure as much of the community was involved as possible. The result has been broad support for the development project itself, and many of the approaches have been included in Metro’s Public Engagement Guide.
The St. Vrain Valley Public School District, based in Longmont, Colorado, received the award for Organization of the Year for Embracing Public Participation. In this, parents and others not generally considered to be “experts” or “professionals” in education are included in the School District’s planning and development process. This had to overcome internal and external resistance: from “legacy” staff, who were averse to including these non-professionals in the process, and from citizens who, as in the Portland area, were skeptical and distrustful of the authority itself.
This was the second win in as many years for St. Vrain Valley Schools: the district won the 2014 Research Project of the Year for “Leadership St. Vrain”, which was the precursor to this year’s award-winning effort.
Both St. Vrain Valley Schools and Oregon Metro will now compete against award winners from other IAP2 Affiliates. Those awards will be announced at the IAP2 Australasian Conference, happening this month in Perth, Western Australia.
IAP2 Canada presented awards in five categories:
Project of the Year – Pikangikum First Nation (Reservation) in Northwestern Ontario and Beringia Community Planning, for “Working It Out Together”, which addressed some serious mental-health issues with a community-based approach.
Organization of the Year – The City of Victoria, BC, for “Foundations for Success”, an effort to ensure citizens are included in all of the city’s processes. Honorable Mention went to the City of Vancouver, BC, for the “Engaged City Task Force”.
IAP2 Canada also presented Project Awards, from which the overall Project of the Year was selected:
Advancing the Practice through Creativity, Contribution and Innovation in the Field – City of Calgary, Alberta, for “Action Plan 2015-2018”. Honorable Mention went to the City of Edmonton, for “What the B*ke!”
P2 for the Greater Good – to the Hawkwood Community Association in Calgary and Forum Stakeholder Relations, for “Our Hawkwood”, a locally-developed neighborhood plan.
Indigenous Engagement – to the Pikangikum First Nation.
You can learn more about the USA award winners here, and the Canadian award winners here. We encourage you to study the entries and also the criteria for Research Project of the Year, so that you can model your upcoming P2 processes with the 2016 Core Values Awards in mind. You could find yourself on the stage, hearing the applause and receiving the hardware, at next year’s Conference in Montréal!
IAP2 USA is pleased to host our first fundraiser to benefit USA student scholarships! The fundraiser will be held at the 2015 IAP2 North American Conference in Portland as a silent auction of items donated by chapters, businesses and generous attendees like you.
Supporting students encourages student membership, relationships with universities, research in the field, and the ongoing vitality and sustainability of our organization. Thank you for considering supporting this great cause.
The theme, “What’s Brewing in P2?”, has already inspired donations of bags of coffee beans with mugs and dog treats made with beer. Your donation could be “brewing” related, unique to your geographic community …or anything at all. Having a variety of items for conference attendees to bid on will help make the conference more fun and the fundraiser a greater success. Perhaps your company would like to put something together to gain a little marketing benefit as well. Or perhaps your chapter would like to show North America something special about your local culture.
Ready to help? Email your contribution idea to Darlene Garrett firstname.lastname@example.org and bring your silent auction donation with you to the conference!
Thank you so much for your help!
IAP2 USA Board Member