What We've Found
It goes without saying that a community's views and ties
to a resource can be strong. Introduce a threat to that resource or a proposal
for change in its use or boundaries and tempers flare between polarized interest
groups. In our work with communities we often encounter individuals who have
deeply held and differing values and contradictory assessments of political and
economic impacts. In response to this complexity that surrounds most projects,
we open the floodgates to try to assure that all points of view are heard. It
can be difficult, and it does take time, but the outcome is worth it. People
feel ownership of the process, have a stake in the decisions, and are committed
to seeing work finished.
Consensus building is a
decision-making process that is vital to any community planning effort or other
process requiring public participation. With the assistance of an unbiased
mediator or facilitator, participants can raise issues, seek to understand each
other's views, and then cooperatively, often through compromise, develop an
agreed upon resolution such as goals for a transportation project.
Consensus building involves a longer timeframe than most other forms of
decision-making. Difficult decisions on significant issues require patience,
time and participation. It may be necessary to break down big decisions into
"mini-agreements" to help build group trust and lay the foundation for major
decisions that can be supported and implemented.
In certain situations,
consensus building will not be effective or will fail entirely, such as when the
issues involve deep-rooted value differences, very high stakes, or win-lose
confrontations. These characteristics occur in many environmental disputes that
involve alteration of resources. In these cases, other decision-making
mechanisms may be necessary, such as formal arbitration or mediation.
important reminder: Consensus building does not mean everyone agrees that a
decision is optimal. It means a decision is reached that everyone can live with;
in other words, the decision addresses stakeholders' most important
How To Do It
1. Pre-meeting legwork
to beginning the process, it may be necessary to do some research to identify
stakeholders and/or to convince different interest groups to participate. Take
into account the history these groups may have with each other; they may need
compelling reasons and assurances as to the validity of the process and what
will happen with the outcomes. Meet with key stakeholders one-on-one to make
clear the scope and goals of the consensus building process, the groups' level
of decision-making authority, and what they can realistically hope to
accomplish. Participants should have a say in the agenda, selecting their
representatives, defining the issues, and developing appropriate ground rules.
This is one way to build trust into the process, which is critical to a
successful outcome. Take this step of meeting separately with key stakeholders
even if the meeting is going to be open to the public at large.
2. Set up the meeting
This event can be any size.
It can be a large, well-advertised public workshop, a small
meeting of a committee or task force, or a special convocation of stakeholders.
What is most important is that the group represents diverse interests such as
government, business, non-profits, and citizens. There may be one or several
meetings depending upon the objectives. The meeting place should be in a "safe"
neutral space and held at a convenient time and date that does not conflict most
schedules, which means not during a workday or on school or religious holidays.
Depending upon the size of the event, invite participants by phoning, mailing
invitations, and/or placing notices in newspapers and newsletters.
3. Assign a facilitator
Particularly in high
stakes situations, a highly skilled facilitator who is viewed by all interests
as fair and competent will greatly improve the chance for success. The
facilitator can maintain group momentum and keep discussions on track by guiding
for compromise and common ground in conflicting opinions.
Let the process begin!
Follow the agreed upon agenda and post the
meeting objectives for all to see. These should be referenced if participants
get off track. The key to reaching a successful consensus is for everyone to
have an opportunity to speak and be heard. Be
sure to record statements verbatim. Capture thoughts on flip charts,
whiteboards or overhead projectors so that everyone can see them and be able to
reference them as the meeting continues.
After the meeting, mail meeting
notes. This may include a summary of what happened, the actual quotes of
participants, any agreed upon decisions, and any requested information and data
that was referred to or is in preparation for the next meeting. If there will be
additional meetings, give a large, clear reminder of the date, time, place and
together to express their ideas, clarify areas of agreement and disagreement,
and develop shared resolutions.
Use It If...
to build a strong public involvement program because the impact of a project or
land use decision will be relatively broad.
You want a forum that will build
trust and bridge stakeholder differences by allowing diverse interests to work
together, feel free to express their opinions and find mutually acceptable
solutions based on common interests.
You are seeking to build partnerships
among stakeholders in order to bring more resources and expertise to develop
The community will ultimately be the beneficiary of
the project. Stakeholders are less likely to block implementation if they
understand that a plan or policy reflects their input and is crafted to meet
their basic interests.
You need a quick solution because a
community or organization faces an emergency situation.
You find that a
community or stakeholders are so polarized that face-to-face discussions are not
possible, or likewise, there is overwhelming ambivalence.
You are using the
process only to create the appearance of openness and have no intention of using
the outcomes. If this happens, significant sense of distrust can emerge
eliminating any chances of reaching a decision that participants can accept.
A particular issue is best settled in a political or legal forum.
Timing is Everything
Consensus building can be used anytime depending upon a
project's issues and goals.
Conceptual Alternative Ratings -