A to-do list for local government decision makers

What follows is my to-do list for decision makers in local government faced with a thorny problem:

Expect advocacy

People have their own interests and naturally act in favor of those interests. They may have mortgages to pay, property values to maintain, or habits and customs to protect from encroaching change. This should come as no surprise, but sometimes it does. We may fall into the trap of  assuming that everyone thinks about a topic the way we do. This is especially true in matters of cause and effect in which there is significant scientific consensus: those who recognize the scientific consensus around (say) global warming cannot understand those who resist. But there are those who resist, and sometimes vigorously. It is Newton's Third Law of local government: For every action, there is equal and opposite criticism.  Simply ignoring advocacy on the other side of an issue is a problem and it becomes more of a problem as the decision process progresses.

Respect the legitimacy of other perspectives

The corollary to recognizing advocacy on the other side of issues is respecting the fundamental legitimacy of that advocacy. If we reject the legitimacy of opposition, we are left with only two possible explanations for dissent: people on the other side of the issue are (a) stupid or (b) evil. As many commentators, such as Lukianoff & Haidt and Hoggan point out, demonization of people who disagree with us is a formidable barrier to public discourse and thus progress. Demonization “pollutes the public square” and, from a public decision-making perspective, it is absolutely counterproductive. Advocacy comes from different preferences and interests. We need to understand those preferences and interest, not merely dismiss them as stupid or evil.

Seek common ground

We hear this advice frequently in public decision-making: if only we could gather around a fire, sing Kumbaya, and find common ground, everything would work out. A quick glance at your news feed should convince you that this is not true. When I say seek common ground, I mean something more specific based on Keeney’s distinction between fundamental objectives and means objectives. Individuals often differ significantly when it comes to means objectives. However, they may share (or roughly share) fundamental objectives. This especially true in local government, in which the cultural distance between two individuals is bounded by physical proximity. Sure, someone on the other side of the planet may have a very different worldview from you. But this is less likely to be true of your neighbor. Local governments have the best chance of any level of government of finding shared objectives. And if we can work up the objectives hierarchy to find shared objectives, we have the potential to sidestep the entrenched and conflicting stances on means objectives.

Find out what people want and why

This is merely a more specific elaboration of the previous item. You cannot seek common ground without significant effort. First of all, not everyone in the community engages with local governments early enough in the decision process to be heard when it really matters. Second, individuals often do not have a clear understanding of their own fundamental objectives or they cannot articulate those preferences on demand. As any market researcher will tell you, we often have to tease out preferences. Finally, preferences can change. This is not to say that consensus is the goal—indeed preferences often change towards increased polarization rather than consensus. The point is simply this: it is important to engage people in a process of deliberation and discovery before making firm conclusions about what they want.  What they want can and does change over time in response to new information, advocacy, and the decision process itself.

Use design thinking

Good solutions rarely fall from the sky. Nor do they necessarily emerge fully-formed from brilliant leaders. More typically, they are the result of a messy-but-deliberate process of design. Design thinking (e.g. here) is both a philosophy and a methodology. The philosophical part is admitting that we don’t automatically know the solutions to difficult problems. The methodological part is working through a set of steps (empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test) to maximize the probability of finding a solution that suits the community’s preference landscape. That last part is critical: design occurs in response to the preference landscape elicited from the community. You need a map of the preference landscape before engaging in design. The "emphasize" step comes first.

Don’t abdicate

If you have followed the preceding steps, and have discovered some shared objectives within your community, and worked creatively and diligently to design a solution that strikes a good balance between conflicting objectives, then it is time to act. Put differently: the status quo is always an alternative and should be evaluated using the same criteria as the other alternatives. If the status quo evaluates poorly (it often does) but yet you dither, waiting for some magical consensus to emerge, you are effectively choosing an inferior alternative. Worse yet, if you throw your hands up and say: “let the people decide” (in a referendum or binding survey), you are guilty of outright abdication. The First Rule is that the public does not decide on means.