Participatory decision making requires a careful division of labor. Some tasks, such as identifying priorities, naturally belong to citizens. Other tasks, such as solution design, feasibility analysis, and policy writing should be undertaken by specialists within your organization. We fill in the gaps. We do the critical things that your planners, engineers, and recreation specialists do not do, such as run large-scale public consultations, conduct statistical analysis of data, operate topic-specific websites, and undertake complex economic and risk analyses. More critically, we provide a roadmap — a proven methodology — to navigate your issue or problem. We know how to bring your community and your staff together to work collectively and productively to provide solutions that people understand and support.
IAP2 - International Association of Public Participation
Our approach is based on the public participation goals of the International Association for Public Participation (IAP2). In local government settings, most forms of public participation in the decision-making process are representative of the "inform", "consult" and "involve" levels of public participation on the IAP2 spectrum of public participation (see picture at right). Most ambitious projects with large engagement components (such as an Official Community Plan) aspire to ensure that the community is heavily involved throughout the process, and that all marginalized groups are included (i.e. the "involve" level of public participation). However, our process takes public participation in local government decision-making to the next level, and is more accurately placed in the "collaborate" level of public participation. We develop a participative process that includes the public in all stages of the decision-making process, including objective analysis, alternative identification, and the deliberation to the preferred solution.
Rationale that guide our approach:
- Public consultation is not sales: If your task during "public consultation" it to sell your community a decision that has already been made with little or no meaningful public participation, you are doing something wrong. Getting the consent of the governed starts with understanding what your community wants and needs very early in the decision process.
Communities do not speak with one voice: "Understanding what your community wants and needs" is not as simple as it sounds. Your community does not want or need one thing. Your community wants many, often mutually incompatible things. For example, they want low taxes and great amenities. The task of decision makers is to understand the complex web of conflicting interests and priorities within their community and find solutions that satisfy most of the people most of the time.
Only a subset of residents come to public meetings: If your only mode of "listening to the community" is public meetings (such as open houses, information meetings, or formal hearings), you are not hearing the whole story. The technical term is sample bias. The best way to understand the different perspectives of your community is to construct large, representative panels of stakeholders and engage them during all stages of the decision process. Also, you need to tailor your engagement methods to allow for community members to participate on their terms: when, where, and how it makes sense for them.
Given all the available information, citizens will not make the right decision: We deal with complex problems that require complex solutions. Dumping piles of information on your citizens, and telling them to sort it out is not participatory decision making, it is abdication. Non-expert citizens play a critical role in the participatory decision process, but not the only role. The best participatory decision making occurs when we establish clear roles for citizens, elected officials, and technical experts.
Decision making is a process: Every decision, every problem has its own underlying structure. You need a systematic and disciplined process for revealing the structure and moving towards solutions that your community will support.
Meaningful engagement in a COVID world
Our process allows for the meaningful public deliberation of an issue or topic without the need to physically meet in a public meeting setting. In the current COVID-19 world, being able to use software and technology for engagement and public participation processes is critical. Unfortunately, most forms of electronic public participation are limited to the "inform" (i.e. webinars) and "consult" (i.e. electronic surveys) levels of public participation. Our approach is designed to be easily held virtually through all stages of the "collaborative" decision-making process. We use iterative electronic surveying, such as the Delphi method, to allow for community deliberation of decision alternatives or scenarios. We develop a project or topic-specific web platform to allow your residents to stay engaged through all stages of the decision process. All of this completed electronically from the convenience and safety of their home. There is no need for large public meeting settings with prescriptive social distancing maneuvers that deter people from attending.