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Using a Lifepreserver for Issues Management

When say I love working in government people look at me as if my brain cells are jumping ship on a daily basis. True story. I’ve been doing it for much of my career and there have been few dull moments. The sheer diversity of projects and plans I’ve worked on has included everything from education to railroads, neighborhood groups, strategic and comprehensive plans to wastewater and energy. I was once given the name “lumpy water girl,” and was proud.

The one thing that they all had in common has been public processes and information. While my background is in communications, my approach to public process took an evolutionary step forward when I met them – the Bleikers – Hans and Annemarie. Call it kismet or fate, but I’ve become a life-long devotee of their Systematic Development of Informed Consent, better known as SDIC. Crucial to stakeholder engagement, SDIC should be a mandatory part of public administration and communications training. If you’re in government and don’t know them – you need to. Every public process plan I’ve designed; every article I’ve written; every stakeholder outreach I’ve conducted comes down to four main key points that are the heart of their SDIC training – the Bleiker Lifepreserver:

  1. There is a serious Problem…or Opportunity…one that just has to be addressed.
  2. [We] are the right entity to be addressing the problem…in fact, given [our] Mission, it would be irresponsible for [us] not to address the problem.
  3. The way [we] are going about it,…the approach, [we’re] using,…is reasonable,…sensible,…responsible.
  4. [We] are listening, [we] do care;…If, what [we’re] proposing is going to hurt someone, it’s not because [we] don’t care;…it’s not because [we’re] not listening.

Put SDIC on your public administration bucket list and you won’t be disappointed. The husband and wife team created the Institute for Participatory Management in 1982. They have coached an exhaustive list of national, state and local government officials. Take the thorniest of municipal issues and you can drill it down to a communications/public outreach plan that’s driven by those four points.

Since meeting them, I was introduced to the concept of Issues Management, and thought public process just couldn’t get any sweeter. While not a new concept, Issues Management’s primary goal is to reduce or avert risk to an organization’s reputation or business, as well as that of its stakeholders. It may be more familiar in corporate circles, but the principles are easily applicable to government agencies. It combines elements of reputation risk management, project management, as well as the fundamentals of public process, or citizen engagement. Strategic tools include SDIC and the Lifepreserver. I think of Issues Management as cutting a problem off at the knees before it becomes fatal, and it works.

As public administrators/communicators, we know any issue can gain terminal velocity in an instant. At other times it can have a slow knowing burn, or as author Jonathan Bernstein calls it, a “creeping crisis,” which is “foreshadowed by a series of events that decision makers don’t view as part of a pattern.” He attributes creeping crisis in part to inadequate two-way communication with all audiences, internal and external. Issues management and SDIC can become the arsenal against the “creep.”

Both identify audience, values, and expectations. For municipal agencies, the public expects to be involved in the decisions that affect them. We have a responsibility.

The ability to impact the degree of severity lies with an agency’s ability to identify issues, prioritize and assess them, while developing strategies and action plans. Once you’ve identified an issue, meet with your public process team, then pull out the SDIC stakeholder matrix and ask yourself, “What will the headline read in the paper (or Twitter, or Facebook, or YouTube) tomorrow if we fail to do our job?” What’s the null alternative?” Let’s face it, in government, if we aren’t open and forthcoming in our plans and communication, someone else will be more than happy to do it for us, and then we are caught in issues that become politicized or advanced to a public agenda. Then we have less influence over its outcome.

Using issues management early and often, will help to build credibility and trust with the public, and avoid risk to your brand – your reputation and credibility.

For more information, contact the Bleikers at The Institute for Participatory Management and Planning, at www.ipmp.com; https://www.facebook.com/pages/Institute-for-Participatory-Management-Planning-IPMP/167351743274952; or call (831) 373-4292. For information on the Issues Management Council, visit, http://issuemanagement.org, or the Public Affair’s Council Issues Management Department, at http://pac.org/issues_management, or 202.787.5950.

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