This blog is part of an online learning platform which includes the Pathways to New Community Paradigms Wiki and a number of other Internet based resources to explore what is termed here 'new community paradigms' which are a transformational change brought about by members of a community.

It is intended to offer resources and explore ideas with the potential of purposefully directing the momentum needed for communities to create their own new community paradigms.

It seeks to help those interested in becoming active participants in the governance of their local communities rather than merely passive consumers of government service output. This blog seeks to assist individuals wanting to redefine their role in producing a more direct democratic form of governance by participating both in defining the political body and establishing the policies that will have an impact their community so that new paradigms for their community can be chosen rather than imposed.

Monday, June 1, 2015

The Systemic Design of Public Participation to leverage Community Engagement in Collective Impact efforts

The previous blog post dealt with the challenge of disseminating teachings on Collective Impact, systems thinking and Kumu relational mapping, all at the same time. The post before that provided some advice on navigating through Kumu maps but there still needs to be a better connection built between the concepts graphically organized through a Kumu map and the territory of Collective Impact concepts using systems thinking. That process was attempted to be started with a closer examination of the element for Designing Public Participation Processes, using the twelve design guidelines suggested by the article in question, as part of a new bridge map between Module 1 and Module 2 of the Living Cities Collective Impact online course. The first three guidelines, as revised by this blog and dealt with in the previous post, are concerned with the system of the public participation process as a whole or overall. The next three guidelines, are more concerned with internal dynamics of the public participation system. These start with different types of agents that can influence the workings of the system by how their roles are defined.

Public Participation Design Guidelines

4. Properly fulfilling leadership roles of sponsoring, championing, and facilitating

Leadership, according to the article, is needed to help people facing problems having no easy answers to stay in a productive zone between avoiding problems and being overwhelmed by the stress of tackling them. The article sees the three essential leadership roles as being sponsors, champions, and facilitators. This NCP blog has a somewhat different perspective on these relationships.

Sponsors, according to the article, are people with formal authority to legitimize and underwrite participation efforts. They have the power to protect (or hinder) the participation process and ensure that the results of these efforts have the desired impact on policy making. This includes establishing policies and providing funds and staff needed to enable a desired level of participation, as well as endorsing and raising the visibility of public participation efforts. The question NCP has, whose desires are being fulfilled, those of the public or those of powerful sponsors?

Champions can have considerable responsibility but often little real power for managing the day-to-day work of the participation effort. They also usually cannot supply the resources and legitimacy required to bring diverse groups into the participation process. They must rely heavily on informal authority earned by demonstrating competence and building trusting relationships. The work of championing thus requires generating enthusiasm for the effort of public participation, building the support of sponsors, and sustaining the effort through setbacks, including those sometimes imposed by the institution's sponsors.

Facilitators are meant to be process experts who “know what kinds of behavior, process, and underlying structure are likely to contribute to high-quality problem solving and decision making”. So a background in systems thinking would arguably be helpful, though what type specifically is more debatable. They structure the participation processes, maintain neutrality toward outcomes, and help groups work together productively. Facilitators help others manage conflict by coaxing participants to air their views and to listen to each other’s views.

How these roles are interrelated says a great deal about the system, because once established, the system is likely to maintain itself even if certain agents or even roles are attempted to be changed. It is necessary to look at what the system actually does, not what we had the best intentions for it to do.

5. Managing power dynamics to provide opportunities for meaningful participation, exchange, and influence on decision outcomes. Stakeholder identification and analysis are critical tasks to ensure that marginalized groups are at least considered and may have a place at the table.

The problem is when some, what the article calls 'powerful stakeholders' but are as likely to be what the article refers to as 'Sponsors', see their power being reduced. Business-as-usual participation efforts, as the article admits, often simply rationalizes and replicates the significant influence of sponsors or so-called powerful stakeholders, eliminating differences by assimilating people into the process and pacifying them. The supposedly participatory process ends up including only the “usual suspects,” of people who are easily recruited, vocal, and reasonably comfortable in public arenas. Another source of power disparity in the participation processes is privileging expert over “local” knowledge. There is agreement with the article that none of this should be considered authentically participatory.

The article though states a belief, one I would categorize as naively hopeful, that in a cyclical fashion, as trust grows, it may substitute for formal structure in the ways in which it can control and standardize behavior because trust facilitates the sharing and diffusion of values and norms about standards of behavior. This is very unlikely to happen on its own within our current system, even less so with what NCP terms entrenched systems.

The term ‘entrenched’ as used by New Community Paradigms, and usually found as ‘entrenched’ city halls, refers to political institutions, often local, that through an evolution of community culture have created controlling subsystems of political and economic power that become entrenched, sticking regardless of any form of further democratic intervention. Entrenched, is similar to what Project for Public Spaces called 'ingrained', the premise being that the “current culture and structure of government and civic infrastructure may actually be the greatest obstacle (more than money, ideas, talent, infrastructure, etc.) to successful “Placemaking” which applies equally to issues of Community Governance.

The questioning of entrenched city halls also arose along with the questioning of the wisdom of being overly depended on top-down command and control management by governmental institutions, particularly the local public sector, being too often disconnected from the community and enmeshed in bureaucratic complicatedness to effectively address ‘wicked’ problems which by their nature are complex.

An ‘entrenched’ government institution within a community then could continue under a facade of democratic protocols despite not truly adhering to democratic principles. This means then ignoring apologetic protestations about having elections every four years and noticed public hearings being the necessary limits of democratic integration by the community. Further, history would also argue that working in direct opposition to such politically entrenched government institutions at its own game also seldom works.

The challenge is managing the diversity, conflict, and power dynamics successfully through the second or emergent approach suggested by the article, purposely building or growing a network of trusting relationships. Trust can be built by sharing information and knowledge and demonstrating competency, good intentions, and follow-through, and conversely not failing to follow through or taking unilateral actions that undermine trust. Growing trusting relationships can also be effective in conflict management by ensuring that disagreements are problem-centered, not person-centered, another systems thinking perspective, and by helping less powerful stakeholders trust the process and other participants more through the effective management of power differences. Engaging all participants in coproducing the agenda, in developing policy and in decision making is seen as a way to share power more evenly.

6. Employing inclusive processes that invite diverse participation and engage differences productively. Consensus building is time-consuming, perhaps seen as inefficient, requiring specialized facilitation skills as well as political and logistical commitment. Facilitators can help participants examine underlying assumptions, shift from firm positions about particular outcomes to a more open-ended identification of the interests that parties wish to address, and openly explore multiple options for action.

A key challenge to full public participation is ensuring that the appropriate range of diverse interests (of applicable stakeholders) is engaged, including those normally excluded by institutionalized inequities, usually caused by institutions. The problem is that an increase in diversity can initially lead to increased conflict, requiring the participation process to clarify the source of the conflict through data, relationships, values, or the decision-making structure. Taking claims seriously and developing processes can allow for resolution, when conflicting facts arise, through interaction among participants in group learning is again another area in which systems thinking could be useful.

Participants sharing assumptions and mutual learning is a potential desirable outcome in situations of uncertainty and controversy when all stakeholders have incentives to come to the table and mutual reciprocity is in their interests. The challenge is establishing this as a basis for civic infrastructure.

Past Posts