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Seattle Councilmember Richard Conlin on Civic Engagement

This post from Seattle Councilmember Richard Conlin reflects his insights from years of experience in working with neighborhoods to manage conflict and develop consensus on controversial growth and land use issues. He stresses that successful outcomes start with a well-designed civic engagement process.

Seattle Can Do Process Right. If We Decide To. Maligning "Seattle Process" is somewhat of a cottage industry in our town, although it may not generate much economic development. We have some processes that drag on way past their sell-by date. And sometimes people deride process because it didn't go their way. Seattle has a history of effective engagement, but often we don't design an appropriate process for decision making – such as in the recent Roosevelt neighborhood rezone decision.

BTW, IMHO it should not be called "Seattle Process." It's actually "Washington process," and the ownership has to be shared. Some recent outstanding examples – the viaduct replacement, SR 520, and Sound Transit East Link – are all processes that are not Seattle exclusive, and not even Seattle driven.

The Seattle Neighborhood Planning Process is an example of the right way to do public involvement and decision making. This was a complicated process in which 37 neighborhoods analyzed their current conditions, involved some 20,000 residents, and came up with a set of land use recommendations to meet their assigned targets under the comprehensive plan, and recommendations for neighborhood improvements. The process was commissioned in 1995. The planning was undertaken in 1996-1998. By 1999, all 37 plans had been completed and approved by the Seattle City Council, along with all land use revisions required to meet the comprehensive plan targets. Since then, the city has worked its way through the 6000 recommendations for improvements, and has completed most of them.

Why did the original neighborhood planning process work so well? Because the parameters were laid out with great precision, and there was a clear deadline for decision making. Each neighborhood was given a growth target and was asked to decide whether it was reasonable. Each neighborhood knew they were entitled to come up with a wish list for implementation if they met the targets. And each neighborhood was given both the process guidelines and resources for carrying out the planning process. Neighborhood planning started in an atmosphere of controversy. Discontent over growth targets fueled political insurgency, culminating in the election of comprehensive plan opponent Charlie Chong to the city council in a special election in 1996. But every neighborhood ultimately accepted its growth target and completed the process on time and on budget.

Here are five steps that we can take to make processes work better:
  1. Remember that an effective process is something to be proud of and to embrace. Involving people in decisions that will affect their lives is a good thing, and it usually improves outcomes – none of us is as smart as all of us, and there are countless examples of projects that are better because of thoughtful engagement.
  2. Keep in mind that process works best when the steps are clearly laid out in advance, possible outcomes are defined, and there are clear statements about how input will be used, who will make the final decision, and when that will happen. A lack of clarity around these parameters is the most frequent cause of frustration. Sometimes circumstances change, and you have to reopen processes, but that should be the exception, not the norm. It's not fair to the many busy people in our community, who have the right to be involved, to drag out processes until the only people participating are the last ones standing. People have the right to know when their involvement is meaningful, and continuing to punt decisions down the field “to hear more input” will often lead, perhaps counter-intuitively, to less real involvement, not more.
  3. Make sure to manage the process so that constructive input gets attention, and sabotage is recognized and discouraged. Everyone should have the opportunity to express their opinion. But when you are making critical decisions, the people who are involved must agree to commit to an outcome and be willing to live with a reasonable one, even if it wasn't their first choice. As Hubert Humphrey once put it: "The right to be heard does not automatically include the right to be taken seriously." It is important to challenge all parties to engage constructively.
  4. Strive for consensus, seek win-win solutions; but acknowledge that not every outcome will be win-win. An honest effort to come up with consensus can pay huge dividends. Seeking to engage people's interests and values, rather than engaging in positional debate, offers the best chance to achieve agreement. If people's input is respected, and a sincere effort is made to accommodate it, they will most often be willing to go along with an outcome. At some point (defined by the parameters set out in advance!), the discussion has to come to a close, and if consensus cannot be achieved, that should be acknowledged and everyone encouraged to look for an outcome that is acceptable.
  5. Work to improve the structures that make decision making harder. Decision authority is fragmented, both legally and institutionally, in our system. Sometimes this is a strength, as having many people engaged helps to build the constituency that will ensure that good decisions are implemented. But sometimes there are too many steps, too many hurdles, and multiple decision makers who don't necessarily have an interest in bringing things to a close. Reviewing some of the obstacles to making a decision could be a constructive effort to shorten the decision-making process.

Conflict is not a bad thing. It is how we manage conflict that determines whether we will be successful. The best way to do that is to lay out clear principles and parameters in advance, work to engage all relevant parties, and then make the call when it is clear that input has been taken, and it is time to come to a decision. And the first – and critical – decision must be to commit to a process that is well-designed from the start.

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