Public servants and community leaders get a lot of things right. Because of their efforts, their communities enjoy services and benefits that the community rarely needs to consider. However, a few crucial decisions can become lightning rods for communities we know. This guide was written with those high-voltage community decisions in mind.
We, the authors, sit on local public committees, and we design community-engagement processes. Through our experience we know that even the most contentious issues can be resolved for the good of the community and that each decision process can strengthen the community’s capacity to solve subsequent challenges.
We have spent many hours dissecting the essential elements of tough community-decision processes. We each used one current project as a reference to ensure our insights were grounded in real-world application. Greg referenced his work with a network of ninety organizations attempting to shift the dynamics of prosperity and poverty in Santa Clara County, California. John referenced his work with a contentious groundwater-contamination issue in Deschutes and Klamath County, Oregon.
Through a series of long conversations and the collaborative writing process, we have been able to articulate our framework for solving tough community problems. Our approach starts from the perspective of the individual community member and considers his or her current level of engagement with the issue.
This guide is for community leaders and public officials who genuinely believe in open and democratic public processes. It is written for those who intend to act with integrity and in the best interests of their communities. In our experience most leaders fall into that category.
In the first part of the book, we identify and describe the five stages of engagement. These stages help the leader understand the trajectory of the community’s decision-making process and determine the best steps to ensure the process goes as well as possible. They are easy to remember, but they take discipline to apply:
- What? (unaware of issue)
- No! (resistant to change)
- Oh! (urge to act)
- Whoa! (overwhelmed by complexity)
- Let’s Go! (energized by the decision)
We emphasize the Moment of Oh! because people understand exactly what we mean when we describe that distinct moment when a person or group discovers that action is required to either avoid negative consequences or seize an opportunity. We think the Moment of Oh! is central to misunderstandings in community decision making because once someone has reached the Moment of Oh!, he or she is more inclined to move forward rather than help others reach the same stage. When community leaders impatiently move forward, groups of citizens get left behind, and the process stumbles or fails. When leaders help community members through the stages of engagement, the decision process works.
The second part of the book identifies seven core principles that must be present for healthy community decision making. These core principles also become a guide for specific actions leaders can take to help move a community toward a positive solution. We didn’t create the principles and then try to apply them; rather we looked at processes in which we were directly involved and teased out the essential principles that guided our actions. These are the principles we live by:
- Include Diverse Perspectives
- Understand Each Other
- Use Experts Wisely
- Expect It to Be Messy
- Make Decisions on Shared Facts
- Take One Step at a Time
- Leave Tracks
We wrote this guide out of our deep respect for leaders who are willing to bring together communities around tough challenges. We hope to make your job easier and more fulfilling as you guide community decisions and build a stronger foundation of trust and respect wherever you serve.
Greg Ranstrom and John Blakinger are authors of the new book The Moment of Oh! a guide to help communities make tough decisions.
The ebook version is free on the 5th of the month.