Consensus Building Approach by Larry
finally found the right phrase to describe what city planning is, and what city planners do. Planners provide ideas, analyses and organized settings in which governance (i.e. collaborative problem-solving) can take place. And, unlike many
other professionals they focus on normative concerns (i.e. what ought to be done?) regarding the future (not just an analysis of what is happening at present). Planners are the facilitators of anticipatory governance.
This doesn’t mean that certain planners don’t do other things as well, but as a profession as a whole, planners are primarily focused on problem-solving and informed decision-making that spotlight the needs and interests of future residents (to say nothing of future generations). This includes the needs and interests of current residents and stakeholders as they imagine themselves and their community in the future.
Why Governance Not Government?
In a democratic setting, elected governments have final decision-making authority (along with the courts). Yet, representatives of non-elected stakeholders (i.e., interest groups) also have important roles to play in democratic decision-making. Governance networks can help set the public policy agenda and tee up policy or programmatic options for consideration by officials, along with arguments to support them.
To the extent that governance can produce informed consensus proposals, it is not clear why elected and appointed officials would disregard them. If you were an elected official, and I could tell you which action on a policy question would win you unanimous support from all sides, wouldn’t you be inclined to go along? The only reason not to accept a well thought out proposal that all groups publicly support is if a particular political donor or backer secretly disagree with it. I say secretly because as a stakeholder that individual, company or group would be included in the public consensus building effort that generated the proposal in the first place. But, they might want to be seen as supporting common efforts (and so involve themselves in a consensus building effort) while privately trying to sabotage wat the group produces. Other than that, though, elected and appointed officials know that continuing to ignore informed consensus recommendations would be political suicide.
In the public realm, the focus is on collective decision-making rather than individual priorities. When we rely on majority rule or raw political discourse, it is easy for elected and appointment officials to disregard competing policy proposals, and do what they want. They can just say that the public was divided, so they had to do what they thought was best. That’s not possible, though, if all interested stakeholders get together to generate a policy proposal that all of them support. If all the relevant groups were consulted, and they all support what is being proposed, it is almost impossible for officials to disregard their suggestions.
In the current political climate, with a clear divide between liberals and conservatives, no action is often the only outcome. But if governance networks take responsibility for working out their differences, whatever larger political divide might exist wouldn’t stop officials from taking action. The product of governance should be informed (i.e. science and other technical considerations must be in the story) policy proposals. Such proposals can only emerge if stakeholders are able to resolve whatever differences they have. While this may sound difficult, it is much easier than many people suspect. Groups take extreme positions when they are in a majority rule situations and they want to ensure their views get attention. They are much more reasonable if they know that everyone’s goal is an informed consensus.
Most, but not all, political action focuses on short-term concerns or commitments. Those in power at any point in time know that a swing in the majority might well lead to a shift in policy down the road. But, if society needs to take action on issues or problems that require consistent support over a longer-term (i.e. such policies won’t succeed unless they remain in place for a much longer timeframe than the normal electoral cycle), bi—partisan or multi-partisan support is required. Governance aims to generate support for actions that requires long-term, multi-partisan support, like efforts to address the possible effects of climate change.
Who is the Client?
Meaningful governance requires ad hoc representation of all relevant (and self-
identified) stakeholder groups. While it may be difficult at first to identify spokespeople for some unorganized or hard-to-represent interests, it is almost always possible to find acceptable proxies to represent them. Anticipatory governance is client-oriented. That is, it doesn’t authorize a select few to propose action in the name of a vague public interest. Instead, representatives of the full range of relevant stakeholders have to do the hard work of sorting out their differences and generating proposals that they all think are better (for them) than taking no action at all. New online technologies, when used by skilled facilitators, can engage large numbers of people in such collaborative deliberations. And the more this happens, the more skilled and efficient groups will become in identifying spokespeople, and the spokespeople will become in reaching an informed consensus on a pressing issue or question that a government body must address.
The clients for the planners who seek to facilitate anticipatory governance cut across all strata and categories of interested stakeholders. However, this is the opposite of advocacy planning — which involves spokespeople who are trying to maximize the interests of only a few stakeholder groups, often at the expense of others. Spokespeople in the context I am describing, must be able to pursue their group’s interests while simultaneously taking account of the interests of others. (This is not a win-lose situation.) This involves crafting agreements through a search for mutual gains, and trading across sub-issues or linked issues the parties value differently. This is what happens in a global context when the sovereignty of nations ensures they can not be bound by an international law or requirements they don’t voluntary accept.
Finding the right participants for each policy dialogue requires careful stakeholder assessment. It also means the number of participants in facilitated anticipatory governance is likely to be pretty large. To begin, a team of neutral facilitators needs to reach out to potential participants, talk with them confidentially and generate a list of possible participants that all stakeholder groups (and elected officials) accept as legitimate. The techniques of stakeholder assessment have been codified and professionalized over the past few decades.
Trades or packages (not single issue deliberation) are usually required to build
a consensus on a controversial issue. This can only work if all the relevant stakeholder groups are represented and the process of collaboration is facilitated by skilled neutrals (acceptable to all parties, including the elected officials who will receive whatever recommendations the ad hoc process generates). So,
“blue ribbon” participant selection by officials is not acceptable.
The Need for Collaboration and Consensus Building
Once the right stakeholder representatives are assembled (and they might meet in person at the beginning and end of a collaborative process while all the work in between might be done online or by sub-committees), the task of generating an informed agreement can begin. Usually, this requires a period of joint fact finding involving a range of technical experts acceptable to all the participants. The planners, or neutral facilitators, can bring possible names (and credentials) to the attention of the participants. The experts they choose agree (and are paid) to share what they know, in terms that everyone can understand, with all the participants. This avoids advocacy science where each party seeks expert advisors who will say what they want them to say.
The most useful tool for this kind of collaborative problems solving is scenario planning. This is a technique that imagines a range of possible futures (in which different policies or programs could be pursued even though there is substantial uncertainty about what the future hold. The governance network doesn’t have to agree on how to frame a single version of the issue or problem it has come together to address. It can work simultaneously with multiple futures in mind, looking for policies or actions that will bring about results that are attractive to the participants regardless of which “version of the future” they think is correct.
Scenario planning sometimes requires the stakeholder participants to attach probabilities to highly uncertain futures. So, if I want the government to take action to avoid the effects of something that has a small chance of occurring, while you prefer a policy aimed at a future that is more likely, we can agree on a proposal that addresses both of our concerns. We can say to our elected officials, those of us who are most concerned about something that has a 10% chance of occurring (but if it does occur will have impacts that are likely to be devasting), support Policy A. Those of us who define the issue in terms of a future that has a 90% chance of occurring prefer policy B. Our elected officials will have to choose between A and B, but in so doing, they will reveal which version of the future they expect. By involving all of the stakeholders, and engaging in joint fact finding and scenario planning, the participants will be able to narrow the policy choices to two, contingent on which of two futures one selects. The officials involved might choose to adopt policy B in the short-run with a commitment to monitor events and results over time, and agree ahead of time to switch to Policy A if the monitoring shows that a certain threshold has been crossed. This formulation of what needs to be done is one that all parties can endorse, and that officials can feel comfortable supporting. It is also an adaptive approach to policy-making that best accounts for the increasing uncertainty surrounding a great many of the systems at the heart of public policy-making.
Anticipatory governance does not operate on the basis of majority rule. Nor does it require unanimity among all the stakeholder participants. A unanimity rule would allow one holdout to blackmail everyone else. Typically, consensus in these circumstances requires overwhelming agreement, as long as the concerns of outlier participants are clearly addressed by everyone, and all the participants have tried to think of a way of incorporating the outlier’s concerns into the final agreement. Holdouts who disagree, can count on their views and arguments being included as a footnote or appendix to the consensus proposal submitted to the officials who must make the final decision.
Obviously the product of an anticipatory governance effort needs to take the form of a written agreement that all the participants sign on behalf of their organizations or constituencies. While it is not legally binding, it should have an impact, especially when it is widely distributed via social media. It needs to be delivered and explained to the relevant public officials by the planners who facilitated the joint problem-solving effort.
How Should We Educate the Facilitators of Anticipatory Governance?
Some of the skills that planners must master to facilitate anticipatory governance should now be clear. They need to know how to complete a stakeholder assessment. This might require technical background on the issue or question that is the focus of the collaborative effort, so that the interviews they do with potential stakeholders can be completed efficiently. They need to be able to help the group draft and enforce ground rules regarding how they will interact. They also need to know how to organize and manage a joint fact-finding process and a scenario planning effort that lead to the drafting of a written proposal. They have to be able to organize in-person and online dialogues involving quite a few people, and to keep a clear written summary of what groups and sub-groups have agreed. Finally, they need to be able to communicate with public officials, clearly and efficiently, and answer whatever questions might come upo about the group’s proposal and the process by which it was developed.
All of this needs to be done in a way that does not betray a personal bias for or against what any of the participants prefer. Any sign of bias is sufficient reason for one or more participants to ask that the planner/facilitator to be replaced. Sometime the facilitator needs to organize preparatory efforts for participants who have never participated in such collaborative efforts. This might take the form of a short training course or coaching session.
Many college and university departments that train professional planners might have to augment their faculty and curriculum to ensure that students graduate with the skills I have listed. It is difficult to impart this kind of knowledge and capability if you have never tried to do this work yourself. Graduate students should be encouraged to serve as interns or apprentices to professional planners and facilitators who can tutor them in the relevant techniques.
Finally, planners who hope to facilitate anticipatory governance efforts need to learn how to ensure that organizational or public learning happens. Every process of the kind I am describing offers an opportunity for the participants to “get better” at this form of interaction (while advancing their own organization’s interests). It is important to stop at several points during each process, and certainly at the end, to give the participants time to reflect on what has transpired and to modify their personal theories of practice if necessary.
As I said at the outset, anticipatory governance can occur at any scale. The skills required to facilitate collaborative problem-solving are generally transferable from one scale to another. It is my hope that the requirements of organizational leadership in the private sector, public sector and non-profit sector will soon include the ability to participate effectively in the kind of process I have described. The better prepared the participants are, the more likely it is that they will generate informed agreements that all of them can support. And, when they do, elected and appointed officials should be eager to implement their proposals.