This article originally appeared in the April 1997 issue of Consensus, a newspaper
published jointly by the Consensus Building Institute and the MIT-Harvard
Public Disputes Program.
More and more, proponents suggest consensus-building can be used
to resolve even the most complex environmental disputes.
But to utilize technical experts successfully consensus-building groups must retain
technical advisors able to attend meetings and provide guidance through technical
deliberations with sufficiently non-technical language.
Imagine, for example, that you were a member of a community advisory committee. Your
group, comprised largely of citizens and businesspeople, is charged with figuring out a
new system for assessing the fees that commercial and residential property owners pay for
municipal stormwater service. You’ll have to consider myriad technical issues
involving urban hydrology and the permeability of different surfaces. You’ll also
have to grapple with political questions about how to distribute costs between small and
large businesses and residents of different income levels.
You realize early that you will need expert guidance. But how will you and your fellow
committee members decide whom to retain? And once you have located an expert advisor, how
will you ensure that they inform and clarify the issues at hand, rather than confuse
people with highly scientific facts and specialized vocabularies? More important, how will
you design a process that provides committee members the best possible advice, without
putting the experts into the drivers seat?
Those hard questions were precisely what citizens, business owners, and public
officials in Philadelphia faced when they were in fact asked to redesign the city’s
stormwater service fees.
Stage one: lost in facts
In 1994, the deputy commissioner of the Philadelphia Water Department (PWD), Dean
Kaplan, had a tall order from Ed Rendell, mayor of the city.
Up until that year, the PWD had charged residential, commercial, and industrial
customers rates for the stormwater they generated based on the amount of fresh water they
used. Since like many municipalities much of the city was serviced by a combined sewer
system for both stormwater and wastewater, water usage was deemed a reasonable proxy for
how much stormwater each property owner contributed to the sewer system.
When the mayor announced that the city had to raise stormwater rates to finance rising
costs, angry citizens protested that the current rate scheme was unfair. Businesses with
parking lots were relying on stormwater service, but since they weren’t receiving any
drinking water, they weren’t being charged at all. Townhouses and homes without lawns
were being charged the same as homes with lawns, even though the hard, impenetrable
surfaces surrounding lawn-less homes were generating far more run-off.
According to Jack Kramer, who has run a catering business for 27 years and represented
small businesses on the advisory committee that the PWD later set up, “We had an
unfair situation where 90 percent of the people were paying for the stormwater for
Responding to the protest, the mayor instructed the Water Department to develop a new
way of allocating the cost for operating and maintaining the city’s stormwater
system. Recognizing the political and technical difficulties, Kaplan sought the help of
Wendy Emrich and Eileen Stief of PennACCORD, a Philadelphia-based non-profit that offers
environmental and public policy dispute resolution services.
PennACCORD pulled together a 20-person public advisory committee chaired by Kaplan, and
representing small and large businesses, residential property owners, environmental and
community groups, building owners, and the PWD. Only four of the 20 committee members
began the process with any knowledge about stormwater charges, according to Emrich.
“It is a complicated and obscure issue, from both a financial and technical point of
view,” she says. “Almost everyone on the committee needed to be educated from
Committee members seized the PWD’s offer to utilize their engineering consultants.
For the first six months, committee members heard detailed presentations from the
consultants about everything from the way stormwater sewers work to the methods that other
cities around the country were using to finance their stormwater systems.
But presentations alone weren’t moving committee members towards a decision.
“We needed someone to say, ‘These are the 13 major decisions that must be
made, and these are the considerations within each major topic.’ The PWD consultants
were helpful statistically, but they did not orient the group towards the goal — reaching
a decision,” Hanes says.
Other committee members have different views about why information was making it harder
rather than easier to move ahead. According to Kramer, “The material we were
discussing was so complex and scientific that for lay people it was hard to
understand.” He says the consultants weren’t able to explain matters in
sufficiently non-technical terms. “[They] used lots of 50-cent words and nobody
understood what they were doing,” Kramer says.
Stage two: Seeking a different kind of expertise
After four months of what one committee member called “meandering,” the
advisory committee decided to hire its own consultant, using funds the PWD had set aside
for technical help at the beginning of the process. Following the solicitation of
proposals, the committee unanimously selected the two-person team of Hector Cyre and Andy
Reese. Cyre, president of Washington-based Water Resources Associates Inc., was a
nationally known specialist in stormwater management systems. Reese, a vice president in
the Nashville, Tenn., office of Ogden Environmental and Energy Services, brought
What clinched their selection, however, was their description of how they would help
the committee use technical information to arrive at a decision. “They demonstrated
that they knew the finance and chemistry and, equally importantly, saw the problem in
terms of process as well,” says the PWD’s Kaplan.
Cyre recounts the team’s use of metaphor during their interview to illustrate the
kind of process they were proposing. Cyre and Reese said they would help the committee
build a wall brick-by-brick, with each brick representing one in a series of smaller
decisions that would slowly add up to a whole structure.
Stage three: building the brick house
In June, 1994, the Ogden team began working with the PWD’s advisory committee. By
February 1995, the Committee had reached unanimous agreement on a recommendation to the
Philadelphia city council for a new method of assessing stormwater fees.
The recommendation was to use a formula that factored in a property owner’s
“gross area” and “impervious area” (area into which stormwater would
not be absorbed) in order to come up with a more realistic estimate of each
property’s contribution of stormwater to the sewer system. To ease the shock of rate
increases, the committee recommended that the change be phased in over a three-year
How did the Ogden team move the committee from technical morass to unanimous agreement?
Ten policy papers prepared by the Ogden team in advance of each monthly committee meeting
helped committee members tackle policy decisions in bite-size pieces.
Each meeting was devoted to deliberation about one policy paper. Facilitators Emrich
and Stief managed the discussion, keeping everyone in line with the ground rules they had
designed. “At each meeting,” says Emrich, “we would try to reach a
consensus on the policy choice laid out in the paper.”
Once general agreement was reached around a given policy paper, the following month the
Ogden team returned with a draft policy statement. The committee would make changes,
finalize the policy statement, and move forward to the next.
A key element of this approach, notes Cyre, is that it “builds a body of decisions
that are wired together.” When committee members got stuck, they had to retrace their
decision-making steps in the same order. Leap-frogging was not allowed. “People did
not get to go back and pull a decision out of the middle of the wiring, because that would
dismantle the whole structure,” notes Cyre.
The policy papers created a record of the decision-making process at each step along
the way, enabling the group to retrace its steps when things got murky. Reese outlines
another advantage: “We produced a final report from the group by simply stapling
together the policy statements from each of the meetings.” This provided a ready made
summary of the group’s decisions, which could be distributed to public officials and
When the committee wrapped up its meetings in February, they had a consensus agreement
to hand over to the city council on a highly complex, technically difficult issue.
Here are some of the lessons that may be drawn from this case about how to integrate
technical expertise into a consensus building process:
Consensus building groups should chose advisors who have credibility with
all their members.
Wendy Emrich of PennACCORD attributes a good deal of the committee’s success to
Kaplan’s willingness to budget for an independent consultant, and to letting the
committee select it. Committee members were able to carefully consider what kinds of
skills they were looking for, and to choose a consultant accordingly.
Groups should seek out advisors with process skills and technical
Reflecting on why the committee did not make more progress in its first six months
(even though it had access to some of the best expertise money could buy), Cyre says,
“It was a classic example of what often happens in these situations. The experts knew
a lot about the subject matter, but they didn’t understand the dynamics of a
The Ogden team, in contrast, arrived on the scene armed with more than statistics and
overheads. It arrived with a vision of how the committee could reach a consensus
step-by-step, and a clear idea about the role the team would play. Its ability to design a
process came out of years of work with other community-based committees.
Says Reese, “Some folks never did really understand the technical stuff, but they
did know that they had been comfortable with the decisions at each step in the process.
[They] trusted the process, so they were comfortable with the final decision.”
Technical advisors should guide but not drive.
Committee member and small-business owner Hanes appreciated the fact that the Ogden
team “didn’t make decisions; they said, ‘These are the decisions that need
to be made.’”
Both Cyre and Reese say their light touch springs from a philosophy about the best role
for experts in a consensus-building process. Says Cyre: “Working in other cities and
with other advisory committees time and time again, we have learned that you don’t
have to control people. If you present the questions in the right order, clearly state the
options, and document peoples’ answers correctly, you can rely on people’s good
judgment and intelligence to lead them to a sound decision.”
Technical advisors and facilitators need to work together closely.
Finally, technical advisors must coordinate their role closely with the facilitation
team. In Philadelphia, the Ogden team, PennACCORD, and the PWD consultants continued to
work closely together throughout the process. They huddled before each meeting, and talked
about future steps. Developing a clear and shared understanding of roles was essential to
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