Week 6 (October 7)

The literature tends to emphasize the virtues of consensus-building as a planning and decision-making strategy. On the other hand, a number of authors indicate that consensus-building is hardly a silver bullet or panacea. If consensus-building is often something of a first choice, what might second, and third, and fourth (and more) choices be, and why might you choose to use them?


Wondolleck and Yaffee argue that collaboration as a decision-making tool leads to better decisions that are more likely to be implemented. The process ultimately builds greater understanding, support and capacity between stakeholders. While these are commendable goals, consensus building requires a well-trained facilitator and can be both costly and time-consuming. Not all decisions have a wide enough scope to merit this kind of effort. Furthermore, many of this week’s readings assume that stakeholders are already organized into specific interest groups or organizations. This is not always the case in planning decisions. In the school board issue we discussed last week, my group recommended small-scale collaboration among the school board, teachers and the student council. The school board seemed unlikely to change its position on block scheduling; therefore a full-blown consensus effort among all students, parents and teachers would have been a waste of resources. However, the school board could have worked with key leadership groups to educate them about the change and understand common concerns that would need to be addressed before making their formal announcement.

I recently attended the city’s Pedestrian Master Plan Open House. Rather than building consensus, the planners used this meeting as a forum to “hear? citizens concerns and inform them about the details of the plan. It is easy to understand why this is a go-to participation method for planners. It is relatively uncomplicated and not overly time-consuming. While I did not agree with this approach in this case, I think informing can be an effective participation method for relatively uncontroversial issues, or as a means to disseminate information that will later be applied to more specific issues. For example, participants at an informational meeting regarding ballpark construction details could later take that information and use it at meetings to discuss public art at the ballpark. In the case of the pedestrian master plan, the informational meeting could have been made more effective by breaking into smaller focus groups during the meeting to concentrate on specific issues. While this is not a full-blown consensus building effort, it does more to address the public’s specific concerns and create a sense of buy-in to the plan than simply informing them.

I will attempt to add to the comments above about situations where consensus building may not be practical. Another example could be neighborhood planning in a neighborhood with large non-English speaking groups. While 1-2 'representatives" of the non-English speaking groups could conceivably be included in a consensus building process (they usually are NOT), that still would not be full inclusion of stakeholders. Many people do not feel safe and comfortable in public meetings and decision-making processes that are time consuming and foreign to them. Many would not even consider being involved in the planning process, but yet it would be a mistake to then claim that they are not valid stakeholders. So, one alternative possibility in this scenario would be for planners to focus on developing relationships in the community. This might be more of an educating process, but if done well and if relationships are built and maintained over time, it could have tremendous potential. New groups would have trust and could potentially participate in planning processes in the future.

Another situation to consider is when stakeholders see themselves as 100 percent opposed to the other side. It could be a particular developer with a certain reputation and a vocal opposition group opposed to a project based on environmental reasons (countless other examples could be imagined). If opposition and animosity is extremely high and stakeholders refuse to consider other points of view, consensus building would not work. Perhaps a form of mediation between the two "sides" would need to take place first. Anyway, these are two examples that go beyond simply using consensus building processes.

I think that collaboration, as described by Wondolleck and Yaffee, is a viable technique to use when consensus building would be ideal, but circumstances make the process unlikely. As Fay noted, many times organizations or stakeholders are not organized, and therefore unable to take part in consensus building, and time is always a concern in the consensus building process.
Collaboration can be used by decision makers to address common problems, and create and implement solutions which address these common problems. Partnerships and relationships can be built in the collaboration process, which is one of the key benefits of consensus building.
Wondolleck and Yaffee discuss funding issues that face many organizations. Collaboration can help ressolve this issue by inviting multiple organizations into the decision making process. Consensus building does involve multiple stakeholders, but it appears that there is usually a single agency that takes the lead and makes the ultimate decision based on the consensus.
Collaboration decisions usually involve top level decision makers in multiple orgainziations or agencies, comming together to address a common problem, rather than a single organization inviting stakeholders to a process to assist in a decision making process.
In summary, collaboration processes can provide the same benefits of consensus building, while addressing some of the key problems identified by critics and stakeholders a like.

Consensus building seems to have a niche in highly contentious and controversial projects; most of the case studies seem to be environmental issues. This situation makes sense, since, as Judith Innes, indicated, if the powerful players had an alternative to negotiating (and consensus building), they would take it.

I think it is difficult to establish a pecking order of the best planning and decision making strategies. Instead of consensus building, why don't we insist on direct democracy and vote on public issues instead? The nature of the project, the political climate, timing, legal requirements, and the relative importance of the topic are all necessary factors to consider when choosing a strategy.

For instance, it is unlikely that the Minneapolis Park Board needs to build a consensus group to discuss improvements to the Northeast Dog Park, but a workshop and solicitation of commentary might be the best approach. It balances the need, utility, benefits, and effort to engage the community with the costs of doing so. It wouldn't seem to make sense to invest in a consensus building effort in this case, since the costs of doing so would likely exceed the value of the effort.

I agree with Brad, in that full consensus-building seems to take place when necessary, but is not required for all projects and decisions. Working towards full consensus is a resource-consuming effort, and as Fay initially stated, all decisions do not merit that sort of attention.

I think beyond consensus building, the 'hierarchy' of decision-making strategies depends on the end goal. Modifying a dog park does not require the full consensus of governing bodies nor city council members, yet funding and building a baseball stadium is an undertaking that does require broader participation. If consensus was not obtainable, I believe the next best course of action is to offer pertinent information regarding the decision to the public in a transparent way, especially highlighting the logic behind decisions.

I witnessed a scathing public debate a year ago, when a group project brought me into the controversy surrounding an affordable housing development in S.W. Minneapolis. The majority of local residents were strongly opposing the development, and offering little flexibility in the way of building consensus. The bulk of conversations and questions pointed not at the development, but at the (said) lack of disclosure on the part of the developer. Working towards transparency seems to be one of the best ways to ensure a decision can be made and ultimately put to rest.

I agree with Brad and Kate that consensus building takes place when other means do not. I appreciate the two examples Derek provided as alternatives to consensus building. I would like to add some comments based on the Innes article. She mentions eight conditions that need to be in place to practice effective consensus building. As the others have discussed, this is most likely impossible in most cases. However, if as Derek suggests, a smattering of the conditions Innes puts forth as key elements of consensus building can be used to create positive participation processes for all concerned.
Innes believes an important piece of consensus building is for information to be shared equally among stakeholders. In the example of the dog park, maybe signs or flyers could be placed at the park to notify users about the possibility of upgrades; otherwise, most people will not be aware. Also pertaining to the dog park, a meaningful event such as one that would include both dogs and their owners would be another component of consensus building that could be used on its own as a type of participation process. This would provide a forum to begin a development of understanding amongst stakeholders. Yet another of the eight conditions Innes stresses as important elements of consensus building. This type of activity can also create a larger group that can look at the bigger picture instead of a smaller group of people that may only be concerned about fresh wood chips in the case of the dog park. Until the options and information is shared, there is no participation process. A second, third or fourth choice to consensus building may be to use the elements of consensus building on their own to create smaller and possibly more efficient and useful participation processes.

As has been pointed out in earlier comments I feel that there are many factors that make consensus building very unlikely at times. Innses highlights a number of conditions needed for a process to be labeled as consensus building. Fulfilling these conditions requires a certain amount of organization among the stakeholders, resources to facilitate the process, information sharing and time. Such a detailed framework is usually not possible for all issues. The scale of the issue to be resolved plays a very important role in determining a suitable method to tackle it. It may be feasible to look at both outputs and outcomes for issues at a larger scale where successful outcomes (e.g building social or political capital) may overshadow less successful outputs and still make the entire process effective or beneficial. However where issues are being dealt with at a smaller scale it may only be possible to aim for successful outputs. In such cases methods like simple negotiations or mediation may prove to be more viable. A negotiation may simply be two persons in conflict just sitting down and trying to bargain for the best deal possible without the help of a negotiator. They may come to the table with no appreciation for the other person’s argument and may leave the same way but the immediate issue would be resolved. Simple mediation on the other hand would be similar to consensus building in terms of requiring a mediator but would not involve its level of participation, information sharing or relationship building. The focus in mediation would be the solution rather than the process. These two methods work within the assumption that conflicting groups need something from each other and that provides them with the incentive to meet and resolve the issue. Even though consensus building is a more comprehensive approach to handling issues it may just be more practical to use approaches that are simpler and without any significant outcomes at times.

I think that too often planners hold an idealized view of the potential impact of public participation. More often than not, public participation is a hurried step required in a planning process, likely occurring after many decisions have already been made. When participation is relegated to this step, consensus building is a wasteful, idealized way to engage the public in decisions that will not be impacted by their recommendations. At this point in the game, it's far more practical to engage in meaningful discussion with stakeholders to obtain recommendations on decisions that have yet to be made. Lasting outcomes can be created, even late in a planning process, but valuable stakeholder time should not be wasted building a consensus. Having said that, I think that the outcomes that Wondolleck and Yaffee discuss are an important byproduct of collaboration. Lasting agency relationships, understandings, frameworks for inter-agency project management, and effective relationship-building with the public are some things that can come out of a collaboration process, even if the goal of the planning process in question is not decided by the collaboration.

I agree with Katie R's point about wasting time and resources of stakeholders. I tend to be weary of processes that take a lot of time and/or resources that don't come through with real results of participation. In last weeks blog, the concern about stakeholders being discouraged about participating when their voices are heard, but not listened to. This ruins long term relationships which are essential in involving the public with projects. being selective about which participation technique is used in which projects is key.

When reading Derek's response, i was reminded of the Case Study about the UGB where the planners found themselves in a significant conflisct where even their department jobs was at stake. Some of the problems in this case study were rooted in something as simple as release of information, and some of the issues had escelated beyond consensus building.

I would like to build upon Kirti’s argument regarding the suitable method adopted to tackle certain process. The amount of time, involvement of various interest groups, the way of approaching problem and building a decision making strategy varies with the scale and conditions needed for any given process. It has been long argued that consensus building is an effective tool as it is based on comprehensive analysis of the problem and it increases the quality of solutions developed by the parties. However, there are certain drawbacks and depending upon the scope of decision making strategy, it can also be time consuming and costly as it requires expertise and hence, may not be practical to carry out the process for a smaller scale issues.

I once attended a public meeting on government’s land pooling project in Kathmandu. The land owners were in contention with the project scope and also the differential treatment between rich and the poor. While consensus building may serve as a tool for decision making process as it is expected to successfully addresses the multiparty problems but it can be argued that the process is based upon the theory and practice of interest-based negotiation and mediation rather than concept of communicative rationality which does not necessarily reflect everyone’s interest. In such case, collaboration can also serve as a strong tool for resolving the issues efficiently. Collaboration involves agencies, organizations, and individuals and help bridge gap between the issues and also provides meaning involvement of various stakeholders. I would also like to reiterate Fay’s earlier argument that collaboration can lead to a better decisions which are most likely to be implemented. Additionally, I believe mediation and educating the masses plays an important role which actually addresses the public issues and concern.

I think Katie R made a key point about addressing the timing of public participation. She stated that participation often occurs after many decisions have already been made. However, public participation also occurs before any decisions are made, and can have the same outcome of wasted time with no input on the actual plan. When public participation occurs at the initial stage, the ideas and concerns from the public are often forgotten and lost during the timely planning process. This is often a strategy to avoid the most disagreements because the planners already did their part in addressing the public and can rely on that base to continue with the planning process.

Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs