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The Right Way to Involve Citizens in Planning

Editor’s Note:  Della Rucker knows how to engage community in government planning–this is just one example of a process used to meet the needs of both citizens and government in the planning process.  Contact Della at della.rucker@wiseeconomy.com.

della rucker

In 2012, the leadership of the Miami Valley Regional Planning Commission (MVRPC) found itself at a crossroads.  After five years of work, a regional land use/transportation framework plan had nearly imploded in a tangle of misunderstandings, missteps by inexperienced staff, political tensions and suspicions.  For the process to result in the strategies and guidance that the region needed to come out of it, something very different had to happen.

The strategy for completing the process was designed around four basic principles:

Member-driven. To avoid previous misunderstandings, the Tools had to clearly demonstrate the will of the members.  This was also necessary to build member ownership of the recommendations, so that they would believe in and want to support it.  We did this by upending the status quo: instead of experts creating recommendations, and members passively listening to them (which had allowed staff to mis-interpret silence as support), we used expertise to provide “toolbox” elements that participants then worked together to analyze, evaluate and decide on, and then sort by priorities (Setting priorities, a step that facilitators too often skip because it may be hard or uncomfortable, is critical to taking process out of the abstract and into something that organizations can actually achieve.)

Structured.  With limited time and little room for distractions, it was critical to move the members through the review and decision-making process as efficiently as possible, while still giving them a deep opportunity to grapple with the choices in front of them.  By using a structured set of collaborative small group activities, we enabled more meaningful conversations than they had had, while at the same time keeping the completion of the work on a tight schedule (which made both the organization and the participants happy!)

Systematic decisions.  We needed to make sure that the potential impacts of choices had been thought through carefully.  By equipping the members with structured matrices of questions and a methodical review process, we helped them develop a clear understanding of  what each Tool that was developed would do and how it related to regional needs and the organization’s guiding documents.

Transparent.  With the mistrust and misunderstandings that had surrounded the previous phase of Plan development, we had to maintain and communicate scrupulous transparency, even when that was not comfortable for everyone. We did that by designing a decision-making process that put everything on paper — and used weighted voting to make sure everyone knew where the whole group stood.  By midway through the process, the accusations and suspicions had become a thing of the past.

The Going Places Tools for Implementation — a plan which some people thought would never be passed — was approved unanimously by MVRPC’s Board of Directors in April 2014.

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