How to run an effective public meeting when dealing with people who have an agenda.

The other night I served as moderator for a panel discussion and audience Q&A that is part of a local organization’s efforts to update their comprehensive plan.  Like many planning organizations, this agency has had some ugly run-ins with a particular interest group, and they wanted someone to manage the meeting and keep the conversation on track.

I’ve been running public meetings and discussion groups and classrooms and focus groups and God knows what else for decades – I earned my stripes on that front long before I knew what a zoning code was.  So I agreed to help them out.

I’m a little more reluctant than a consultant probably should be about blowing my own horn, so the rest of this blog post sits a little uneasily with me, with all those “I’s” in there.  But, as staffers and Planning Commission members and participants on the panel came up to me afterward, it became clear to me that I had done certain things in the management of that meeting that might be more unexpected, less in line with usual practices, than I often assume when I am living inside my own mind.  So I did a little self-analysis, walking through the meeting and the choices that I made while moderating, and identified a few decisions that probably led to the meeting’s success.  So, here’s what I think I (and the agency) did right:

  • An outside moderator ain’t a bad idea.  As the outsider, I had a lot of aces up my sleeve.  Since I didn’t know any more than the broad outline of the previous confrontations, I could plead innocence (and get away with acting a little more innocent than I probably am).  I didn’t have any stake in the ground, so no one had any reason to accuse me of bias.  I didn’t know exactly who the potential troublemakers were, but I had a sense of where they were concentrated, so I could make sure that the question opportunities were spread around with little risk of specifically ignoring one person or another based on some history they had with the agency.


Most importantly, I could take a strong leadership role because I didn’t have to worry about offending anyone.  After all, when this is over, I am going home, people.   If I had been in the city I live in, with people I knew in the audience, I would have found myself in a very different situation.


  • Never let go of the microphone.  I almost never take public questions via a stand mic or podium in the front of the room.  I almost always go at it Phil Donohue-style – I wade as deep into the audience as the cords will let me and either hold the mic for speakers or repeat their questions over the sound system (which also allows you to rephrase – valuable if someone has an axe to grind and wants to talk about something that is off topic).   


I made the mistake with the first public question of giving the microphone to the guy (he was a lot taller than me), and I realized almost immediately that I had put us at risk of substituting a soapbox speech for a constructive question.  Fortunately, that didn’t happen.  The rest of the time, I went back to my usual modus operandi and told each person “that’s OK, I’ll just hold the mic for you.”  That makes it easier to control the sound quality, too.


  • Just because someone puts their hand up doesn’t mean you need to call on them.   We have this assumption from our days in school that the first one with the hand up is the one that should get to show off his or her knowledge — but we all know that teachers select who they will call on, and after a while the kid who knows all the answers doesn’t get called on anymore.  Only calling on that person wouldn’t do the rest of the students much good.  We don’t want to ignore people if we can help it, but a forum where we need to understand the cross-section of public opinion is not going to fill that purpose if we play by those elementary school rules.


It is crucial to cover the meeting space – both in terms of taking questions from all over the room, but also taking questions from people of different ages and genders.  I was very careful to select for both of those from the raised hands.   If I had simply stuck in the corner where the most hands went up, I would have both turned off the rest of the crowd and prevented us from getting a useful picture of the full range of public opinion.


  • If you don’t want a special interest to run your meeting, you must run it, you must control it yourself.  The room included several (I was told later that it was about 10) members of the special interest group that I described, and they clearly came with the intention of taking over the conversation.  I am not sure exactly what was on their agenda that night, but it was pretty clear that they wanted to turn it to the issues of interest to them, rather than the issues everyone else came to talk about, if they got half the chance.


I wasn’t going to give them that chance.


I chose which of the several raised hands from that group got to speak, just like I made that choice with everyone else.  I kept control of the mic (which meant I was sort of holding hands with one guy at one point – a little weird, but oh well),  and I made a point of restating a question that veered off onto a rant about a federal agency to how the local community can best cope with uncertainty over federal regulation impacts.

photo of Della and public speaker
Me and my new boyfriend…


If I had let them have their way, if I had not pulled the relevant element out of a largely off-topic question, the meeting would have degenerated into an unproductive verbal fight.  A moderator must keep that from happening.  In this case, controlling the situation required a pretty soft touch – but I have scolded confrontational or rude participants before.   Sometimes it is simply necessary for the good of everyone else in the room.  It is simply part of the job.


  • Never, never allow a special interest group to command all your attention.  If you focus on the people you are most worried about, you do a gross disservice – an insult, really – to the people who came to be part of a real conversation.


When I was a young teacher during my short education career, I learned pretty quickly that every class had three or four students who were inclined to “act out” – you know the type.  When you are the teacher, your instinct is to spend all your time trying to intervene with those kids – get them to pay attention, prevent them from doing something troublesome, whatever.   It’s like having an attention black hole in the back of the room.  But if you give into that instinct, that means that the 15 or 20 kids who weren’t acting out, who weren’t demanding your attention, get… next to nothing.  No wonder so many hate school.   And public meetings.


People who come to public meetings are taking precious time out of their lives.  They are choosing to come.  If we do not honor their contribution and commitment, if we instead let a disgruntled clique take over the classroom, we have done the same damage to our relationship with our residents as I did to the good students in the classroom when I ignored them in favor of the troublemakers.


What tricks of the trade do you use when moderating public meetings?  I’d love to hear your good ideas… after all, next time I might have to break out the brass knuckles.   Ya never know.

Building a human ecology (plus a lot of gorillas)

What does a community ecology need?

I have been musing a lot lately over what I think is one of the most critical challenges of this era: what can we who work with cities and villages and neighborhoods do to build better community ecologies?  That’s a strange way to put it, but I used the words I chose on purpose.

As I’ve talked about here before, the challenge of building a Wise Economy requires us to shift how we think about our communities away from separate systems (parks, economic development, planning) and toward a community as an ecosystem.  I’m not particularly environmentally-minded (or good at not killing plants), but for me, the metaphor makes the most sense:  communities are human ecosystems, and it is the health of whole system, and particularly the relationships between the parts of the system that make the biggest difference between places where people choose to live and thrive, and places where people get stuck because for one reason or another they have no choice.  A community with great jobs  but no community leadership will not stay healthy for long, but using the need to protect and grow the community’s economycan create an environment in which better leadership can also thrive.

We have sometimes done a lot of damage to our human ecosystems in the name of planning and economic development.  We have demolished vibrant neighborhoods, wasted millions of dollars on projects that demonstrated little long-term benefit, and too often demonstrated that our mental model of how a community works  looked more like a simplistic mechanical model than it did like the complex, organic, constantly-changing places that we could have observed is we’d been paying attention – and that people from outside our box, like Jane Jacobs, pointed out to us.  We need to learn those lessons and view our communities as human ecologies,  not only for the hard-core economic reasons having to do with jobs and tax revenues, but because we need to do a much better job of leveraging our communities’ capacity to do the hard work of making the place work better.

Today we have an economic environment surrounding most communities where the Big Players, the Big Businesses, the Big Leaders that we relied on in the past simply aren’t around the way they used to be.  I spent time recently working with a classic Rust Belt city where we had a variant of a conversation I have had more times than I can count:

In generations past, a small group of 800-pound gorillas in town Got Stuff Done.  Need to raise money for a project?  Need new blood on City Council?  Need to set priorities, kick someone into gear, make something happen?  As long as you could get their attention (and you were willing to let it be done their way), you had it made.  Stuff Got Done.

In this community, as in hundreds of others, the 800-pound gorillas, for better or worse, are gone.  Instead, we have communities with a large number of smaller players – 100-pound or 50-pound gorillas, if you will.  Capacity is still there, but it’s not as simple to get it in motion as it used to be.  Since we have tended to think so simplistically, we don’t know how to harness those gorillas together.   So we underestimate the capacity we have, we decry the loss of the Old Days, and we assume that we are stuck, that we can no longer make our communities better.

Like so many of these issues, we have to evolve beyond seat-of-the pants assumptions and the rules for playing together that we learned in elementary school.  If we are going to create better human ecosystems, and if we are going to do so in a world where we can’t be passive, where we cannot simply rely on someone with big muscles and deep pockets to do it for us  We have to actively engage the smaller gorillas and lead them to harness

harness for bowhunting
This thing is actually called a Gorilla harness. I have no idea why.

themselves together.  That means that we have to:

  • Pull them together.  Gorillas are territorial, so this in itself has to be done in a way that makes them feel safe – and doesn’t create an opportunity for any particularly ambitious gorilla to try to assert dominance.


  • Paint for them the picture of the community’s deepest needs.  Gorillas are smart, but they know their own territory better than anything else.  We need to help them see the whole picture through facts and through stories, and help them understand how their most urgent issues, their own piece of ground, relates to the health of the rest of the environment.


  • Lead them through the process of identifying priorities.  With so many gorillas and no silverbacks, consensus is essential but seldom comes easily.  Someone, perhaps you, has to lead  — but not the old way, with growling and chest-pounding and intimidation.  Lead from within.


  • Don’t leave getting it done to chance.  Gorillas can be powerful, but a lot of other issues are demanding their attention.  The most successful communities not only plan, but set up the process for making it get done.  One current client that has  an impressive history of successes in the face of tough challenges  set up a committee of Council, consisting of electeds, staff administrators and key members of the community.  Their job?  Literally, hold the feet of the City and other agencies to the fire of doing the work that the community set out for itself through the plan.  No shirking.  We are watching, plan in hand.


We no longer live in an era where we can take healthy, vibrant human ecologies for granted.  We who work with local governments and nonprofits are our communities’ biologists – we see the warning signs of trouble before almost anyone else.  We don’t always know how to solve it, and we don’t always do a good enough job sending up the alarm.  And sometimes we get scared and don’t send up the alarm at all, or we raise our concerns timidly and back off when the gorillas growl.  But we know what’s at stake.

C’mon, everyone, time to stop chest-thumping and put on the harness.

Helping places make room for What We Will Be Next

Damn movie.  There’s another one on the list.

I learned a long time ago that I am way too good at buying into what theater people call the willing suspension of disbelief – what you do when you get caught up in an acted-out story and react to it as though it were real, even when you know darn well that it’s make believe.  I have a ridiculously long list of movies that hit me so hard when I watched them, got me so worked up, that I know I can never watch them again.   What Dreams May Come?   Forget it.  The Mission?   No freakin way.  Up?  It’s a cartoon, after all… crap.

I knew the first time I watched Up that I needed to skip the first five minutes about the main character’s life with his wife and his losing her after a long happy marriage.  Bull’s eye on Pressure Point  #1, but we can handle this.

Of course, near the end of the movie, that character has to re-confront his loss, accept it and let go.   I walked in on my 10-year old son watching it last night (I had purposely avoided the room all evening, but it was getting late and I wanted him to go to bed), and ended up watching the last five minutes with him.  Cue the waterworks.

In his recent book The Great Reset, Richard Florida writes most eloquently about the underlying sense of loss and struggle to move on that pervades many communities, particularly in the Rust Belt and other areas that have struggled to transition to the new economic epoch that is unfolding.    As I have mentioned here before, many of the places I know best have been struggling to deal with that loss, and make that transition, for decades.  I watched my parents and many others where I grew up come face to face with the consequences of a changing world long before I had ever heard of Lehman Brothers.

Florida includes a lovely quote from John Craig, former editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

“Fundamental change will be much longer in coming than you can imagine.  You’ll survive.  But there’ll be no ‘getting over’ your past, only moving beyond it.”


You also can’t get back your past, as much as you might want it.  It just doesn’t work.

I have spent more time than I can count with communities where leaders – council members, Chamber of Commerce officials, and others – have said to me with complete sincerity, “we just need to get the shoe factory back.”  Or, a slightly more sophisticated approach to the same idea: “We just need to land another big factory/a new shopping mall/a new…something.”

Go find that unicorn, and when we bring it back to our community, we will all live happily ever after.


We who work with communities know, or should know by now, that this is a fantasy.   The world has changed, and is changing.  We have to get on with it.

The psychologist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross described grieving as a five-step process:  denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally, acceptance.   In Up, the main character reaches the point of acceptance when the house in which he lived so happily with his wife, and which he has clung to and protected throughout the movie, floats away into the distance  (If you haven’t seen it, trust me on that one.  It involves a lot of balloons.)    

For some of us, the greatest challenge we face is to help our communities allow their past identities – industrial heart, shopping mecca, favorite tony suburb– float away.    In the community context, that requires a combination of

  • Data that puts the change and the opportunity in front of our eyes,
  • An empathetic, collaborative approach that makes everyone, not just a few, the owners of our future, and
  • A clear-eyed, pragmatic strategy for doing the tough, long-term work that has to happen to make that transition happen.

Florida also paraphrases and then quotes Howard Fineman of Newsweek:

[The lesson of resurgent places] is to pick yourself up and get back to work.  Don’t expect the federal government or anyone else to save your city or bring back your industries.  ‘It is that the old world will inevitably disappear, and that creating a new one is up to you, not someone else.’

We have to remember, honor and love our pasts, but not cling to them.  That’s true for us as people and use as communities.  Only when we can help our communities do that work of letting go do we allow ourselves to have space for What We Will Be Next.

The Wise Economy Manifesto, Version 2.0

Over two years ago I wrote down something that I called the Wise Economy Manifesto (first draft).  The purpose of that statement was to try to capture the sea change that I think we need to make with regard to how we manage the world of local government.  I have worked with communities for about 20 years, and I’ve stood in the midst of places that were thriving and places that were collapsing.  From what I saw and what I know about economies, planning, organizations and psychology, I ended up joining the small but growing army of folks advocating for a a deep-seated reset to how we do the important work we do – convinced that the needs are bigger than a new program or a new method.  And because my experience has crossed many professional boundaries, I was inclined to seek a holistic approach – a sort of universal theory that takes the work of many who strive to make communities better and sets their efforts in a deep-structure context.

So I wrote a thing called the Wise Economy Manifesto, and in it I tried to encapsulate everything I was thinking.  And I think it did that.  But as I have been living with it, and speaking and writing from it over the last couple of years, I have been coming to the conclusion that I made that first attempt more complicated and more fragmentary than it needed to be.  So I’ve taken another whack at it, and I’d be grateful for your feedback.  In the coming months, I plan to be developing some tools to help you put this into action, so the secondary question I have for you is, what can I provide to help you get there?


Here is the Wise Economy Manifesto (version 2.0):

  • Communities are human ecosystems.  Everything we do, whether a land use plan or an economic development incentive, or any other public policy, isn’t going to stay in the silo where we put it.  What we do will have wide and deep, and often unintended, repercussions, and we need to change how we work and think to anticipate those as best we can.


  • That which makes you unique makes you valuable.   Communities cannot offer everything to everyone, and they shouldn’t try to.  The great challenge of planning and economic development is to uncover, brush off, and illuminate those characteristics that make a place deeply, meaningfully unique.  There is little value in being a commodity, but much opportunity in a well-defined niche.


  • We must focus on cultivating our native economic species.  The thing that grows naturally where you are can, with a little help and protection, provide more long-term benefit (and fewer of those unintended repercussions), that the exotics that we try to transplant at great cost.  In this era, the chase after the flashy, the big, the long shot, is too costly and too risky to deserve the lion’s share of our attention.


  • Beware the magic pill.  We all want easy answers; we all want there to be a simple solution.  There isn’t one.  Get used to it, and commit yourself to incremental, complex, messy change.


  • Crowdsourced wisdom is the best way to find a real solution.  We have tough challenges in front of us, and we need all the bright ideas that we can get.  But just like water needs to be guided into a channel before it can drive a turbine, we have to take the lead in guiding our community’s wisdom into fruitful efforts.  An open mic in the middle of the room ain’t gonna cut it.


  • We whose have the job of helping communities work better have to be brave.  We have to reconnect to the reasons why we got into this, before the rules and bureaucracy and politics tried to beat it out of us.   Whether we want to or not, we are going to be on the front line of the fight for new solutions, and we are going to be useless if we are just punching the clock.  We have to critically re-assess our professions and organizations and communities, and find the fortitude to break through the walls that are keeping our communities from being successful.  We cannot be foolhardy, and we must admit that we don’t have all the answers.  But we have to be brave enough to do our job, and lead the expedition.


I’d be grateful to know what you think, if I am missing anything, etc.  Thanks.

I wasn’t nice to the Little Napoleons, but I guess that’s OK.

When you’re a woman who writes and speaks her opinions about issues, there’s a certain

zipped lips

voice in the back of your head that pushes back any time you’re inclined to be “not nice” to someone.  Even today, we all still deal with a deep-set acculturation against anything that might make someone else feel bad or sound like you’re being mean.  That’s why characters in a movie like Mean Girls never say things straightforward, like “you suck rocks,” but instead do all these sneaky twisty things to get back at someone they don’t like.  And that’s why people go see that movie.  Maybe that’s why the number of women who are thought leaders in local government, planning and economic development is relatively small.

I think the question of whether my acculturation as a “good female” ever took is pretty well open to debate… but that sense of not wanting to cut people down unfairly, of wanting to be perceived as “nice,” continues to hold.  And when I wrote a very heartfelt post last year based on an interview with Andreas Duany, in which I wrote rather passionately about the impacts of a short German architect in a cape whose lack of hubris resulted in irreparable damage to dozens of American downtowns, I was both stunned by the attention that the post received, and uneasy.  After all, I have nothing personally against Duany… and there is much good that has come out of his work… and, well, I don’t want people to “not like” me.  Scuse me while I go put my hair in pigtails and brush the dirt off my knees.

I saw a lot of the responses at the time, but I recently found the courage (and time) to go back online and search for responses to that post, and found a few that I had not seen the first time around.  One of my favorites is from the blog of a councilman in Alpharetta, Georgia.  I don’t know GAJim, or his political platform or why this resonated to him, but the post clearly gave him some encouragement.  Since much of his post is about the Duany article, and since, well, I like and still strongly agree with the quote he pulled from me, I’ll repeat here the part that he used:

Public participation is important not just to try to get people to go along with our vision, to give us a chance to yell loud enough to drown them out, or to allow us to demonstrate the superiority of our Grand Vision over their piddling little concerns…

Understanding the real reasons why people oppose a project requires the willingness to do so, the humility to listen, and the internal fortitude and self-assurance to admit that possibly, oh just possibly, we don’t know everything that there is to know.   That is the real mark of wisdom.

Napoleon PortraitIf the people who live around a proposed development oppose that development, chances are those people know something that is important to the health of their neighborhood and the larger community. If we think that we know more than to have to listen to them, then we are no better than little Napoleons in big capes, creating monuments to our hubris that our children and grandchildren will have to clean up. The lessons of the damage caused by our ignorance are all around us.


Somehow, despite my own wavering bravery, it seems like I might have done some good.

I think I’m gonna take out the pigtails and stand by that one.


Doing public participation right!

Just when you think maybe you’ve been shouting into the void, it’s always great to find out that someone else gets it.  J.M Goldson wrote a lovely post on her blog  last week about the methods her firm uses to support good  public participation in their projects, and we were grateful here to find that she opens with a quote from my post, “What Planners can do to help the Economy.”  Here’s the quote she used:

Model your public participation after the best teachers. Don’t just lecture or allow others to lecture.  Don’t do the minimum necessary to get by.  Give the process structure so that people stay on track and so that you hear from everyone, and engage them in the search for solutions, rather than presenting them a grand vision and waiting for them to applaud or throw tomatoes.

She goes on to describe how her firm focuses on helping community members  “think through the issues and the structure they need to search for solutions together.”  Sounds like good Wise Economy talk to me!

The big challenge of the Wise Economy approach, of refocusing how we plan for and manage our communities, is making the conscious choice to move away from the old methods that we know aren’t working and… do something else.  We’re all still trying to figure out exactly what that something else is.  I know I am.  But I do know that when we pull it off, it’s going to be a sea change, a gradual and almost imperceptible evolution to those of us in the middle of this.  But as more of us follow the trail of crumbs that people like J.M. are helping us lay out, the sooner we’ll get there.





Structural Change, Cyclical Change, Institutional Change…coming to your hometown.

Readers of this blog know that I have a deep admiration of Umair Hacque, an economist and a great writer who has done one of the best jobs I have found of documenting the changes in the world economy over the past few years.  Maybe it’s because he started out as a neuroscientist, but he gets the interconnections between people and communities and economies and institutions… and he articulates it beautifully.  If I am a sucker for one thing, it’s definitely a good writer.

Umair recently posted a blog that is like a little miniature in a snow globe for its crystalline summary of the forces at work on our economy, our communities, our culture and our world.  It’s short, so I’ll reproduce it here:

I know we’re not really allowed to think subtly in the great gladiatorial arena of the American national discussion. But, maybe, just maybe, both “sides” in the structural vs cyclical debate are right–and wrong.

Let me put it this way.

I’d bet that our immediate unemployment problem is, indeed, “cyclical”–and can be ameliorated, to some extent, with more, orthodox, stimulus.

But I’d also bet that a panoply of other problems–stagnant median incomes, declining net wealth, underemployment, corporate cash-stockpiling, financial malinvestment and misallocation by the capital markets, to name just a few–aren’tcyclical. They’re structural, if only for the simple reason that most are decades-long trends, not the stuff of yesteryear.

I’d say there’s a tradeoff between the two–a kind of dilemma of political economy. Sure, you can throw money at failing institutions, to protect failed incumbents and create near-term “jobs”–but unless you want an economy of service McJobs, while propping up yesterday’s oligopolies and monopolies, it’s probably not the greatest investment in the world. Conversely, it’s difficult to simply twiddle thumbs and let a tide of human misery–human potential foregone–sweep the advanced world.

So here’s how I’d frame the challenge. Institutional is how we fix structural and cyclical.

If we accept that unemployment is cyclical, then the crucial question is this: will a stimulus package (or whatever) exert an opportunity cost–will it further entrench already failing institutions? Can we design one not to? Can we, better yet, design one to tackle the structural problems above at the same time, escaping the tradeoff? I think we can–and that it will involve investing in better institutions, not just rescuing yesterday’s, at the expense of tomorrow’s.

As I’ve said here before,  anyone who was hanging out in the Rust Belt in the 1970s knows that the problems that the national media has been squalling about didn’t drop out of the sky in 2008.

So many of our institutions — and perhaps more importantly, the assumptions that we built them on and still hold — are simply mismatched to the needs of a new world and a new economy.  Education focused on teaching to the test?  Yelling matches offered up as political debate?  Economic Development models of “winning” while our neighbors– to whom we all know we are joined at the hip — suffer?  Planning decisions that oversimplify the divergence and messiness of the humans that are supposed to live in these places? You don’t have to have an economics degree to see that in many cases, however you define it, this ain’t working.

Thomas Kuhn wrote years ago that the most critical scientific discoveries, the most profound observations, require someone or someones to break through the unexamined assumptions that underpin the status quo.  Because those assumptions

are unexamined, we don’t see them.  hey are literally invisible in plain sight.  Until we see them in a new way, or encounter someone who is coming into the situation from somewhere else — from someone who can see where the barriers lie and doesn’t believe in their legitimacy.  Real breakthroughs often require entirely new thinking.

Umair writes mostly about national economies, and he’s definitely a citizen of the world.

I’m not.

But from my position, rooted in the moderate-sized places of middle America, it’s hard not to see that deep change is needed.  Richard Florida calls it a Great Reset, Umair Hacque calls it a move toward eudaimonia (trust me — you’ll probably need to look it up.)  I call it a Wise Economy, and I think fundamentally, we are talking about the same thing.

Big picture?  Yup?  Idealistic? Probably.  Necessary?  Without a doubt.

And what does that have to do with you, in your local government, in your job, in your local community?


It means that each one of us who wants to make things better, who wants to build a better future, has to find ways to either bring out or be the conduit for that new thinking,  for the way to find a new approach.

Yes, I know that you report to someone, have a budget, have responsibilities, don’t want to rock the boat too badly.  No one said you had to trade in your suit for camel’s hair and eat locusts.

Instead, start looking for the walls of your community’s, your profession’s, your organization’s paradigm.  Think about what you and your peers are assuming, and what the alternatives might look like.  Talk to people who have a different perspective — who come from other professions and other places.  They might not want to rock your boat either, but there’s no harm in pushing them a little… and see what you can learn.

Umair wrote a column not too long ago titled “Make the Dangerous Choice to Dissent. , image curated by Shirl581

As you might have guessed, I think that’s a pretty good read, too.

So let’s go make it happen.

Why community involvement requires a structured approach, even when we’re seeking new ideas

One of my ongoing frustrations within the public engagement practice of the Wise Economy Workshop is the assumption in some corners that good public engagement means letting people recommend or promote any idea they want.  Free from the bounds of real-world constraints, we let them spin their wildest ideas….and then, when they find out that the recommendations didn’t include their ideas, they accuse us of “not listening,” while we roll our eyes and mutter about how “unrealistic” the public is.

In my presentations, I often refer to this as the Santa Claus approach (“I’ve been a good girl this year.  I want a pony….and a rocket launcher… and a Ferrari…”)  A current client of mine has taken to calling an event with this kind of participation the Rainbows and Unicorns Summit.

Like most things that don’t work as we intended, the root of the problem is in how we structured the engagemetn, because that’s what set the stage for what we did.   Teachers and business coaches know that generating effective creative ideas requires working within a structure.  People need a realistic context, real-world sides on the box, if they are going to create something that is both new and useful.

If you don’t believe me, try this exercise at your next staff meeting or coffee klaatch:

Step #1: Ask people to list a number of ways in which they can use a brick. They can use

a brick
What can _you_ do with this?

it anywhere, anytime –there are no restrictions. Give them about a minute. Typical answers will involve using it as a paperweight, a door stop, or a weapon.

Step #2:Identify a specific place or context (e.g.,  in the kitchen, in a park, your kid’s room) and ask the same people to list all of the ways they could use a brick in that place. For example, if “a kitchen” is the context, people may find uses like heating it up to make paninis, flattening a lump of dough, or using it as a trivet.

Step #3: Ask the group which approach – #1 (unbounded) or #2 (connecting to something ) – yielded more creative solutions.

As Stephen Shapiro, the source of this exercise wrote, “Nearly 90% of audiences choose the second way.   In fact, when we take the time to evaluate the uses, there is indeed much greater divergence when using the second method. The first approach tends to yield a lot of common solutions.”

So we generate more creative ideas, and more directly useable ideas, when we ask people to think about solutions within a realistic content than when we just throw the doors open for ideas.   That means that if we want to honor and respect the time that our residents and business operators and others are giving us when we ask them to participate, we need to stop putting them in situations where all they can come up with are Santa Claus lists.  We own them, and ourselves, a better way than that.


Looking forward: thoughts for the next 20 years from the final edition of the Planning Commissioners’ Journal

I have had the privilege for the past couple of years of writing a regular column for Planning Commissioner’s Journal, a publication geared toward citizen planners and the professionals who support them.  After more than 20 years, the publishers are ending the print publication and moving to a new online platform, PlannersWeb.

For the final print edition, I and several other longtime contributors were asked to write about how we think the work of citizen and professional planners will evolve over the next 10 to 2o years.  I’m printing my contribution below, because I think that it’s a good summary of the issues a Wise Economy approach has to address.   I’d encourage you to check out the good thinking that runs all through this Planning Commissioner’s Journal edition.

Although Planning Commissioner’s Journal is changing, it’s definitively not going away, and I think the next chapter of will be an exciting and engaging opportunity for folks to not only learn, but be part of a great lively community.  Check out for more details on the new platform, purchase the current edition or stock up on back issues and special publications.

And I will be along for the new adventure too — writing a new column about tools and tricks for doing better public engagement.  The editor and I are also talking about new methods for doing fun and enlightening events, such as a chat room or Google Hangout with experts, so stay tuned.  It’s going to be a great adventure!

Here ya go… enjoy, and don’t forget to check out


Engaging in Planning
Della G. Rucker, AICP, CEcD
As we plan in the years ahead for vibrant and resilient communities, we will be grappling with the impacts of seismically shifting demographics and major changes in retail and commerce. Our challenge will be to develop the wisdom to admit what we don’t know — and the intelligence to make the best use of the resources we have.  Here are some of the uber-issues I think we will face.
1. Dealing with an uncertain world. The future will not be a straight-line continuation of the past. We’ll need to learn to plan in terms of scenarios, examining what we know in light of major factors that may impact our community’s future? We need to learn to ask: How can we set ourselves up to succeed in the event that we lose major employers, our population explodes from immigration, or the cost of gasoline climbs? How can we regulate mature neighborhoods to protect their character and help them be economically flexible?
2. Managing economic data better. Economic issues are central to our quality of life, and unless we specifically address them, our plans will mean little. This does not mean building our plans around market analyses, which are too limited and short term in nature. What it does mean is gaining a deep understanding of the long-term trends impacting our local economy, and assessing how our community fits into the world around it.
3. Enabling people to participate meaningfully in planning. Public processes must do more than enable “he-said-she-said” arguments or allow people to yell past each other. If our communities are going to work — and if our planning commissions are going to have the public support to make tough decisions – we’ll need public participation processes that engage our residents in the search for solutions and the hard work of making decisions.


Della Rucker is Principal of Wise Economy Workshop based in Cincinnati, Ohio. Her columns for the PCJ have focused on the relationship between planning and economic development.


Designing a new initiative? Good rules of thumb for you

In the “Good Ideas Directly Lifted from Someone Else” Department:”  Just came across these principles from the United Kingdom’s Government Digital Service.  The agency makes very clear that this is a work in progress, but I think that these are great principles for not just web product design, but for any kind of public initiative.  There are good, clear, non-jargony explanations of these points, and some nice examples at

  1. Start with needs*
  2. Do less
  3. Design with data
  4. Do the hard work to make it simple
  5. Iterate. Then iterate again.
  6. Build for inclusion
  7. Understand context
  8. Build digital services, not websites
  9. Be consistent, not uniform
  10. Make things open: it makes things better

For non-UK readers, this is an agency dedicated to making  online tools for government involvement work well.  Imagine that… a high-level emphasis on building a quality online public engagement experience…


I think the explanations and examples given on the page linked above explain these ideas very well, there’s a couple of things that I think are worth emphasizing, especially to a U.S. local government audience:


  • We need to stop being afraid of iteration — of the process of gradually improving what we offer over time.  We are often so afraid of criticism, so afraid of being wrong, that we fail to take the necessary first steps, especially in an environment where things change too fast to assume we can ever have a finished product — or an environment where we don’t have the staff, the time, the capacity to get it perfected.  In the tech world, launching something that isn’t perfect so that you can test, tweak and update is called “failing forward.”  The secret to being able to fail forward in a public space is to do what the Government Digital Service has done here:
    1. Make it very clear that this is a work in progress, and
    2. Invite people to participate in making it better.  We underestimate how much people want to be part of the solution, and here is a low-risk way to start inviting them in.
  • Building a website shouldn’t be anyone’s goal.  A website is just a tool — and like any tool, the value of the website isn’t in how pretty is, it’s in how well it provides the tools that people need.  A better analogy:  a website isn’t a tool, it’s the toolbox…It’s where you should be able to go to quickly and easily find the right tool you need for the job you need to do.   And that means that not only do you need that toolbox to contain useful tools, but you have to be able to find it easily.  If the tools in your community website are in a jumbled pile,  or hidden under that weird tray of bent nails in the corner that you don’t know why you’re keeping but it’s always been there, then you’re not getting the benefit from it –as a community and as a local government — that you need.
One more point:  the UK page is designed to talk about designing new online tools, and that’s something that this agency needs to do to meet their initiatives.  A lot of local governments, especially in the United States, have a tendency to think that any kind of online presence or tool they might want would have to be built from scratch….which for someone will bring back uneasy memories of the agony they went through when building the City’s web site 10  or 15 years ago.  No thanks.
The first automobiles in the early 1900s were costly-custom-built things that had no standardized parts

The Model T
The Model T
and required custom machining to replace any part that broke.  Which is why early cars were the playthings of the rich, and why the development of the Model T, with its standardized parts, was so transformative.
We are just entering the Model T stage in online tools, and that means that  many of the tools that you want your residents and governments to have no longer need to be built from scratch.  A small but quickly-growing collection of smart people across the world are developing online tools for better public participation and communications that are starting to transform how we think about governing… and making those available at a fraction of the cost, time and effort required just a couple of years ago.  They are already doing those things on the UK Government Digital Service list. All you need to do is choose which tools you want in your box.
Delib logo  Hat tip to my friends at  for this great piece of wisdom.


Annotated presentations from APA 2012

When I give a presentation, my slides anymore usually have more words than pictures.  That’s what the presentation experts say you should do, but it means that when you download them from Slideshare or a conference website, the reaction is pretty consistent:  “Wha…..?”

To try to solve that problem, I have gotten into the habit of creating annotated versions of my presentations — basically the Notes page in Powerpoint with a description of what I said. (or what I should have said if I’d been more clever at that moment — hey, it’s my notes, let me pretend…)

When I gave two presentations at the American Planning Association conference last week — one as part of a panel on Commercial District Revitalization and Redevelopment, and one on Web 2.0 Tools for Public Engagement — I promised to post annotated versions for the people who came to download and use as notes.  And I figure some of the rest of you might find them useful, or at least amusing, too.

These links will take you to PDF versions with my annotations, which you should be able to download.

Feel free to share.  If you’re interested in a presentation like one of these for your organization or event, send me a note.  I talks real goodly. 🙂

Secrets of Retail Revitalization: Presentation at APA 2012

Web 2.0 Tools for Public Participation APA 2012








Links from Northeast Ohio American Planning Association workshop, November 18, 2011

For those of you who attended my session on public participation at the workshop,  I promised to post the links to the various online public participation and planning tools that I mentioned in the presentation.  So, in order of presentation, here they are:


Mindmixer.  This is the site that is designed to facilitate broad public idea-generation and idea-vetting, with a little game theory thrown in.  The main web site is here and the example community is here.

EngagingPlans.  This is the site that is strong on project management and public feedback, including the public into the process in a variety of ways.  Here is the explanation of the approach and here is the sample community I showed.

Delib.   This is the app -based tool from the UK, which I don’t know much about yet (but I am hoping to correct that soon).  Here’s their site.

Revitaliz.  This is the platform that is set up to enable crowdsourced funding.  It’s kind of hard to get a feel from the web site as to how exactly it works, but it appears to be very robust.


Placepulse: This is the developing database of how thousands of people across the world respond to a variety of photos of places.  It’s kind of like a mass visual preference survey.  This isn’t so much a direct public participation tool as it is a way to supplement or test the results you get from a public participation initiative.  Plus, it’s awesome.

SizeUp: this is a new tools from the wizards at GIS Planning, and its connection to public participation is a little less direct, but still important.  First, it’s a tool that can be used on the fly to test statements or assumptions about economic and business issues, so it’s a means of injecting more rational fact into public discussions.  Second, it’s an empowerer — with a little training, community members can use it to fact-check themselves.

EMSI: in some respects, this is the Godzilla version of SizeUp.  It requires a paid membership, but in exchange for that you get incredibly robust information sets and analysis tools on everything from business types to workforce strengths.  Want to do your own economic impact studies on demand?  For less than the cost of most consultants, here ya go.

That should keep you busy for a while!

As I mentioned during the session, I am continually finding new tools like these, so keep an eye out for updates.  I will start publishing a quarterly white paper soon….as soon as I finish goofing around online…..

Slides from APA Ohio, National Trust and Downtown Colorado presentations (also known as the Dry Throat Tour)

 For those of you that attended sessions with me at conferences in September or October, I am glad to say that I finally got the slides posted to Slideshare so that you can download them whenever you want.  As a gentle reminder, I am available for your conference, workshop, training, Little League 7th inning stretch…. maybe I should reconsider that last one….


Here’s the link to the session I did with Peter Mallow on economic evaluation methods.  I owe you all some examples, I am still trying to round up some good ones.  We also do have video of that session, which needs some editing… we’ll get that posted as soon as I figure it out.  🙂

 Here’s the session with Mark Barbash and Jim Kinnett on National Trends in Economic Development.  I also need to find some illustrative examples of a couple of things from that session, which I will work on.  We do have video of most of that session, but it’s mostly the backs of people’s heads, which is what happens when you have three vertically-challenged presenters.   As an FYI, this session for us was a proof of concept for a broader training program that we are developing, so if you think some help with Economic Development for Non Economic Developers might be something your organization would find useful, please let me know.

 Here’s the session on Public Participation.  I don’t have video or audio of this session, but I am doing a reprise at the Northeast Ohio Planning and Zoning Workshop on November 18, so we’ll try to rectify that.  Stay tuned.

After my stint in Dayton, I made a mad dash to Buffalo to present on You Can Do the Math: methods for demonstrating the economic benefits of historic preservation policies.  Here are those slides — both the slides and an audio recording will be available from the Trust.  I’ll post the links here as soon as I get them.

 Finally, I realized that I never posted the slides from the Downtown Colorado Inc. plenary session I did in September in lovely Durango.  This presentation is a macro-scale overview of what I am thinking about lately, and what I think we need to do to reboot planning and economic development so that our communities are vibrant and resilient for the long term.  Again, I am  available for your annual conference, initiative kickoff or five year old’s birthday party.  Scary clowns and balloons not included. 

If anything does not work, or if you have any questions, please feel free to ping me.  And remember, I supply my own batting helmet.

Why we need better public participation: Complex issues and how structure makes us think better.

This article on innovation research captures a critical truth about public participation: if we don’t create a clear structure for people to think within, their thinking won’t be worth very much. 

Here’s an easy demonstration of that point (but no peeking ahead!)

1. Set a timer for 30 seconds.  In those 30 seconds, think of as many uses for a brick as you can.  Jot them down as you think of them. 

2.  Set the timer for 30 seconds again.  Now think of as many uses for a brick in the kitchen as you can (if you don’t hang out much in the kitchen, substitute the garage).  Again, write down what you come up with.

3. Compare the two lists.  Which one had more answers?  Which one had more creative –or more useful answers?

For most people, it’s both easier to come up with ideas when you are thinking about a specific context, and the ideas that you come up with in context have more potential for use than the ones that were created generically.  If it didn’t work this way for you, try it on your co-workers or family members and see what you get (you know you’re the special one, of course!)


Our conventional way of doing public participation in this country tends to fall at one end of the freedom/constraint spectrum or the other.  We either present people with a pre-determined, pre-endorsed plan (or a couple to make it look more like a choice), or we just  throw open the microphone and say “what do you think?”  I don’t know why we’re surprised when we get protest, or most likely apathy, in the first case, and crazy or irrelevant feedback in the second.  With too much structure, we are squelching their ability to make the constructive improvements that they know they could if they just got the chance.  With too little structure, we are throwing people on their own resources, which on certain issues might not be very deep or loaded with unconstructive, unquestioned assumptions.  We stick them with a feedback method that requires them to operate by the seat of the pants about something they probably don’t know that much about.  No wonder we get crazy, off-target and useless.

If you’re just doing public involvement because your boss or a regulation says you’re supposed to, you might as well stop reading.  Sorry to have wasted your time.  If you believe, at least somewhere in your guts, that your community’s public participation should build something, should help make the future of your community better, then listen: We have got to learn to do this better.  We have to find the right balance of openness and structure, of inviting feedback and keeping people on track, of getting people as deeply and constructively involved as they can be instead of settling for a lousy experience on both sides of the table.  If the only people who are benefitting from public involvement are the list-checker-offers and those who came to hear their own voice resound, then we are wasting our limited time and our more limited money.  Period

None of this has to be the case, and it’s not just a matter of happy kum-bah-yahing.  We will plan and develop better communities if we can access the whole spectrum of good ideas, not just the few that we might figure out on our own.  But to get that, we have to not only open the process, but we have to lead it, and leading means creating the structure in which good ideas can come to the top.  Successful businesses, such as P&G and Merck and Google, are already doing this.  And what we are doing in communities is far more complicated than building apps or making Crest.  We in communities have to open our eyes and learn how to do that, too.    




Dust, Bravery and the Usual Suspects: Q&A with Planning Commissioner’s Journal

Ah, July… I’d like to say that I haven’t blogged lately because I have been working so darn hard, but there’s too many pictures of me at a U2 concert floating around Facebook to make that very convincing.  As I try to get back to the grind, here’s a Q&A that I did recently with Planning Commissioner’s Journal as a follow-up to an article I wrote on Comprehensive Planning for the current issue.  I think it gives a decent and hopefully interesting take on some of my favorite issues, including meaningful public participation.  If you’re not a Planning Commissioner’s Journal subscriber, you can download a special free copy of the last (spring) edition through the publisher, Wayne Senville’s LinkedIn profile.

Q & A to post on PlannersWeb

about Della Rucker Summer 2011 column, Why Comprehensive Plans Gather Dust

Wayne: In your column in the Summer issue of the Planning Commissioners Journal you focus on a topic that I’d guess most planning commissioners have wrestled with — how to make sure their city or town’s comprehensive plan actually gets used and is meaningful to the community. You describe the kinds of plans that you say typically end up sitting on a shelf gathering dust — ranging from “the Encyclopedia” plan, which you describe as “covering everything whether it matters or not,” to “the Laundry List” plan, which, as you put it, “presents such a disorganized stream of recommendations that no one knows where to start.”

You then outline some of the elements that you feel are vital if a plan is to be useful: using data to understand the most important issue the community will be facing; having meaningful public participation; setting priorities; and focusing on what’s necessary to get the plan implemented. It’s this part of your article that I’d like to explore further with you. I also want to get your reaction to some of the many comments we received on our Linkedin group page about the first draft of your column.

One of the points you make, as I noted, is the need to have “meaningful public participation.” In your column you say that we have “to do more than let the public spout” and that those participating in the planning process need to have “real-world challenges to grapple with, so that the feedback you get has meaning.” Can you flesh that out a bit?

Sure, Wayne.  One of the biggest sleeper challenges I think we are facing today is that our traditional public debate model of public involvement isn’t working well and has probably outlived its usefulness.  I think there’s at least three reasons for that.  First, the traditional stand-up-and-make a speech approach was designed when public participation was limited to a much more narrow portion of the total population than we know we need to involve today.  Nineteenth – century politics (back to the ancient Greeks, actually) was limited to reasonably educated white men.  So even when there were differences of opinion on local issues, everyone in the room was coming from, in very broad terms, the same perspective.  Today, we have a lot more voices, a wider range of voices, and not everyone can express themselves adequately within that oratory model.  So we get silence from a large part of the population, and often less than enobling wisdom from the small number who stand up to speak.

The second reason is that the issues we have to grapple with have become much, much more complicated because of the interdependencies and interrelationships that we live within in a modern community. You can’t deal with too much complexity, address too many nuances and acknowledge that there may not be a perfect solution when you are at a podium for three minutes and the situation has been cast as a for-or-against debate.

The third issue is that the ways in which we gain understanding and grapple with decisions are changing, and I would argue, need to change ASAP.  K-12 educational methods (how teachers are being taught to teach) have largely discarded the lecture as a useful means of building knowledge.   Instead, teachers are shifting to methods that engage the students directly in dealing with the information, making sense out of it for themselves – which means that they develop better and more meaningful solutions to the problems they are presented.  Frankly, that should have happened a long time ago.  Cognitive psychiatrists have known for generations that only a very, very small part of the population learns best by listening to someone talk.  And the more we become used to living in a world rich with information of all types, the more we need to be able to do more than parrot back what we hear.

What does educational methodology have to do with public participation?  I’d argue, everything.  What we desperately need is for our citizens to do much more than spout ill-informed NIMBYisms or buy into knee-jerk, simplistic cause-effect assumptions.  We need to draw on the unique knowledge, perspective and expertise of everyone we can get, we need to get them reasonably up-to-speed on the issues, and we need to engage them – get their hands deeply into – the search for solutions, solutions that are realistic and address the complexities and ambiguities of real community life.

That might sound Pollyannaish, but I’m not saying that some kind of “everyone is special” happy-talk.  I am drawing that conclusion from what we know about how people learn and from the corporate world, where major companies are putting massive amounts of effort into broadening their employee base to include the widest range of people possible and then creating team environments to work on solving complex challenges.  If they’re finding it necessary to use diverse team problem-solving to deal with stuff like getting shampoo into a bottle, how much more do we desperately need real, deep involvement to deal with the massive complexities that make up a community?

One thing that I always feel like I have to say as a follow-up to that idea is that it’s not simply a matter of throwing a bunch of people in a room with a problem and hoping that they’ll figure something out.  That’d be foolish.  Instead, we who work with communities have to borrow a page from good teachers and good business team managers: we have to carefully create a structure that moves people through the information they need efficiently, channels their efforts into the right direction, makes it safe for everyone to participate (including your sweet grandmother who never speaks in public), and leads them to the creation of something that has value to the community and makes the time and effort they spent worthwhile.  The tools to do this are out there… we just have to learn them and use them.

We also all know that planners and planning commissioners often struggle with getting more than “the usual suspects” to participate. Are there strategies you’ve found that can help better engage more members of the community?

I can think of two different broad categories of “not the usual suspects,” and both of them will need a different strategy.

First, the public participation methods we traditionally use tend to exclude the less educated, immigrants, those who do not speak our language well.  Again, the need to include them isn’t because it’s the “right” thing to do – it’s because these people have a particular knowledge of the community that we will never be able to access if they don’t share that with us.  If we remain blind to those issues, we’ll miss the opportunities to address them, which is likely to have a direct impact on our community’s tax base growth and the demand for community services. I’ve done public involvement sessions co-led with a trusted community translator or liason to draw out participation from emigrant communities, and if there is any expectation of persons who are illiterate or disabled , I make sure that it’s known in the information that goes out before the event that people will be available to help those who have trouble reading or writing.  I’ll often also station a person at a table to write down any comments or ideas that anyone has.  That helps not only people who cannot write or elderly people who have trouble seeing, but it also helps people who can write but would rather just proclaim their ideas.  That way we get their thoughts down, they feel like they’ve said their piece, but we haven’t let them dominate the entire community’s discussion.

A second type of resident that is typically underrepresented is younger adults. There’s at least two barriers to their involvement, and both of them derive from our continuing to use these outdated public involvement models.  First, you’re dealing with a population that has a lot of demands on their time — jobs, kids activities, social events, etc.  If I am in that boat (and it happens that I am), asking them to sit in an auditorium and listen to someone drone about what may or may not be a key issue to them…that’s a luxury many cannot afford, and it’s a very unclear return on investment for giving up a very valuable commodity — their time.  I am probably more aware of the impacts that local government decisions have on the rest of life than 90% of people in my age group, so you would think I would be at my community’s council and planning meetings all the time.  But given the choice to spend two hours of my evening sitting in a meeting where I might or might not be able to give meaningful participation, while at the same time I have kids who need to get to practice, a house that needs cleaning, flower beds that need weeding and a report to write that I should have done last week…’s extremely hard for me to make that equasion work in favor of going to the meeting.  The second barrier is the changes I alluded to before in how people think and interact with information.  For people — let’s say generally 45 and younger — the combination of inefficiency, lack of ability to actively engage in the process and, lets face it, the often confrontational and overly simplistic rhetoric you hear in the typical public meeting is completely off-putting.  I think this generation is particularly aware of the ineffectiveness of this approach because they haven’t come up that way – they have come of age and entered the workforce in collaborative problem-solving teams — and have more clear memories of how often they fell asleep during college lectures.  Needless to say, if I have anything better to do with my time than go to that public hearing and listen to the crabby people ramble, I’ll take it.

Engaging this population takes an entirely different approach.  First, we need to make it more convenient to accomodate the busy.  This is where online methods become so important — not just because they are cool and whiz-bang, but because they do not require me to be in a certain place at 7 Pm — I can participate at midnight after the baby has gone back to sleep, or at 6 AM while eating breakfast, or wherever.  That’s increasingly an expectation of the majority of Americans — just look at the number of people relying on the internet for work and using social media on their smart phones.  If I can expect to be able to buy a pair of shoes online from my phone at 2 AM , certainly I am going to expect that I can interact with my local government at any time of day or night when I can.   Second, that interaction has to be more meaningful than just “I like it” or “I hate it.”  This population expects to be able to be part of the conversation, and they increasingly expect a rich, interesting and well – managed online experience. Again, all of this is not nearly as hard as it might sound — it all depends on finding and using the right existing tools.


On our Linkedin group page, there was at least some disagreement with your criticism of Encyclopedia style plans. For example, one planner said, “I am glad my comp plan had an encyclopedia element to it because when people say to me ‘why are we doing this particular ordinance change? I can respond to say ‘this is the information we had at the time that led us to this conclusion.’” This planner also said that you don’t need to broadly circulate the whole plan, including the Encyclopedia component. Instead, she said their planning staff “did a newspaper that was dubbed ‘the Reader’s Digest version’ of the plan and this was very helpful to communicate what’s in the plan.”

How would you respond to this? Does it make sense to have both a highly detailed and a condensed version of the comp plan? Or does that create more confusion?

Completely.  I have done a lot of plans that had a recommendation document and a companion information document.   You definitely need to understand where you have been and where you are today, and if it makes sense to have two volumes, or an Executive Summary and an exhaustive version, great.  Just make sure the covers show that clearly and that you indicate that there’s another version available.

The point I made in the article, however, was that I see a lot of plans that are 95% Encyclopedia, and maybe 5% recommendations if you’re lucky.  You end up knowing a ton about the community’s past and present, which is of course valuable, but you have very little guidance about the direction and priorities for the future.  I spent part of my early career as a public historian, so I am a complete junkie for community histories, but knowing the past is just a small piece of what you need to shape the future.

In a lot of cases, I think that the plan that is entirely Encyclopedia (lots of facts, not much recommendations), is the result of a situation where no one involved had the power or the willpower to stick the neck out and assert a vision of the future and how to get there.  So you write a lot of pages on the stuff that’s not controversial.  And as I indicated, as a consultant, I’ve been guilty of that myself.

But that’s a big piece, I think, of how planning gets a bad name.  If the encyclopedia part of the plan informs and guides a good, specific, prioritized set of recommendations for the future, fantastic.  If it doesn’t, you might as well just donate it to the local history department.


We also received some comments about the political nature of developing a comp plan. One commenter, for example, wrote: “Great article, but where do politics fall in this?” I know it’s something you didn’t really have space to delve into in your column — and, in fact, we’ve devoted three past articles in the Planning Commissioners Journal just to the topic of “the politics” of planning. But I’d still be interested in hearing your thoughts on the role of local elected officials in developing the comp plan. Should they just stay out of the process till a recommended plan is forwarded to them by the planning commission, or is it important to involve them earlier on? And related to this, how can a planning commission effectively identify priorities — as you recommend — unless they know what’s likely to receive funding from local elected officials?

Elected officials really should be involved during the planning process.  I have seen a lot of situations where the elected said “oh, we don’t want to be involved, we don’t want to influence the process,” but then they had heartburn over some of the recommendations and didn’t want to approve it.  Not only is that ineffective, but it’s incredibly bad press.  On the other hand, though, the electeds cannot appear to be running the process or overly influencing it, or that will set the plan up to be ruled arbitrary and capricious.

Like I said about all the rest of the citizens, elected officials have specific knowledge that is critical to a useful plan.  They tend to know details of government operation, budgeting and funding issues, and other items without which, the plan would lack an important grounding in reality.  So they need to be involved.  But they need to be prevented, sometimes actively prevented, from dominating the conversation, or their insider’s perspective may blind the plan to issues and opportunities that the insider can’t see.  Managing that process requires very, very strong leadership from the planners.  That can be done, even if the elected person is the planner’s boss, but it again requires a process that decentralizes the process, treats all the participants as equals, and avoids the soapbox model.  Most electeds can run circles around other citizens when it comes to making speeches if you give them that chance.  But if we make sure that the elected officials have ample opportunity to hear and work with other citizens, chances are they will become profound supporters of the plan because they both understand the objectives and understand that the impetus is coming from real citizens grappling honestly with real issues.

The same balancing act applies to your planning commissioner question – if elected officials are not involved, you may be whistling in the wind when it comes to figuring out what can be funded or supported.  Much better to have that perspective in the mix while you are still working it out than to have to throw out an important idea after doing all the work on it.  However, don’t let the funding question completely dominate the decision.  As people, and especially as planning commission members and elected officials, we tend to have very short-term and narrow perspectives: if I don’t immediately know how to fund it, it must not be fundable.  What we often fail to realize is that there are many more potential funding sources for any initiative than simply the three or four we are used to using.  If an idea is important to the community, you can find a way to fund it.  It might take some work, and there may be tradeoffs, but on the fundamental level, it can be done.  So don’t toss out a potential recommendation on the basis of “how will we pay for it?”  Make figuring out how to pay for it part of the implementation.


Finally, there’s the important point that several on our Linkedin group raised about plan implementation. And I know it’s something you touched on in your column. From my own experience, I’ve seen that there’s often an enormous amount of energy put into developing a plan and getting it wrapped up and over to the governing body for adoption. How do you keep the momentum going once the plan is adopted, and what sort of steps can be taken to make sure the plan’s recommendations are followed through on? I know those are big questions that you could probably write two or three articles on. But can you highlight some ideas for us?

Sure – that sounds like a good topic for my next article for Planning Commissioner’s Journal. To highlight here: we need measurable performance benchmarks, a clear understanding of who is responsible for what and when, a structure or mechanism for regularly checking those benchmarks and progress on the intiatives, and lots of public information and transparency about what goes well and what doesn’t go the way the plan intended.  And all that requires a level of local government bravery, for lack of a better word, because that’s what’s going to be necessary to build real support from the citizens to make the hard decisions down the road.

What’s wise about a Wise Economy? Making conscious and proactive choices

Wise people and Wise communities make conscious choices, rather than letting circumstances make the choices for them.  As people, we all allow some decisions to get made by default — last week I could not decide whether it was worth my time to attend an event, and I was frankly relieved when I discovered that the deadline to register had passed.  Circumstances made the decision for me.  For little things with marginal benefits, the occasional decision-that-I-don’t-have-to-make-because-life-made-it-for-me can be a welcome break from the constant load of responsibility. 

But what happens when we do this with regard to an important decision? What happens to most people who drift through their careers or their relationships without making conscious choices about where to invest their time, or which responsibilities to put first?  Most of us know, at least intellectually, that there are important points in our lives where we have to make a conscious choice, and where if we don’t make a conscious choice, chances are we will regret it later.

But in our communities, our organizations and our political bodies, we allow circumstances to make decisions for us more often than any of us want to admit.  We don’t come to agreement over whether a proposed development is a good idea (probably because we don’t have a shared vision of what our community should look like), and we secretly hope that the developer will give up, because then it will be Not My Fault.  Or we know that our community is facing some big issues down the road – aging populations, aging buildings, aging roads – and we know in our guts that if we don’t do something, we will be in deep trouble sooner or later.  But the tradeoffs are unpleasant, we don’t automatically agree on what we need to do, we have to find the money to do whatever needs to be done.  Too many times, we let it go… until Next Year, the Next Budget, the Next Administration.  Which easily turns into the Next and the Next and the Next.  That’s a short-term benefit to us because it makes today easier, and it keeps us from having to change the way we do things today, and who knows, maybe some sugar daddy will come along while we are procrastinating and solve it all for us.  But probably not. 

In failing to act, we have abdicated the opportunity to take control of our future – to do what is in our power to position ourselves for future success.  We have also lost the opportunity to define for ourselves how our community should be, rather than letting the winds of fate blow us into something we didn’t want.  A few communities take this initiative, but too many communities drift through their big decisions – at least until drifting, not thinking ahead and not anticipating unintended consequences puts the community into crisis. 

Here is the deep challenge in this: we cannot assume that we can just snap our fingers and transform our communities from drifters into Destiny Commanders.  As I say ad nauseum¸ if it were easy, you would have done it already. 

In my writings here, I often speak of communities as though they were one person, and as though a “community” had one completely shared set of goals and objectives.  We all know that’s not really the case.  Because communities are complex, and in most cases more complex today than ever, our ability to develop a community-wide shared vision of the future and a shared understanding of the community’s needs and priorities has far outstripped our intuitive or common sense ability to do that.  When we had much smaller and simpler communities – and when we only cared what a tiny fraction of the community’s residents thought – it was a relatively easy proposition to make democratic, or at least supposedly democratic, decisions.  That’s why we have public deliberation processes based on the idea of the classical debate – if everyone shares the same fundamental perspective, then you have a shared base of understanding and mutual respect that enables rational debate and evaluation of potential alternatives. If you are all fundamentally the same, then you have a shared language in place to work from.

You don’t have to watch CNN, or your local cable broadcast of a public hearing, for very long to see that this isn’t the case anymore.  People who come to the podium, or write the letters, or protest on the street, come from more fundamentally different backgrounds, perspectives, and priorities than we have ever had before.  Obviously that’s essential and necessary – a government that only listens to a quarter or less of its residents is no democracy at all. 

But regardless of your spot on the political spectrum, it’s clear that this process isn’t working well, either at many local levels or higher up the chain. And this dysfunctional process leaves us drifting… it robs us of the capacity we need to make the important decisions, and it does so at a time when the decisions are probably as critical as they have been in generations. 

The aggravating piece is that there is most definitely a way to fix this.  Larger businesses with diverse workforces and complex product issues figured out more than 20 years ago that they could not simply rely on common sense, seat-of-the-pants assumptions and whatever social skills people learned in elementary school to enable them to do the increasingly complex work that the companies needed.  If you are in a cutting-edge car factory or a leading pharmaceutical firm today, managers and staff receive training in specific, step-by-step methods for enabling constructive conversations, managing teams of diverse people, setting priorities and making group decisions. Debates happen, disagreements occur, some people do better than others, but the overall process is designed to make it possible to make complex decisions involving a large number of people and move the company’s objectives forward.  And it’s not rocket science — an hour grazing on will give you a good taste of how this generally works. 

But how ridiculously little of this knowledge has found its way into our government and community decision-making processes?  It’s no wonder that so many communities are drifting…. We are using 19th century tools to deal with a 21st century world, hanging onto our ball-peen hammer when the nail gun is sitting in an open box across the room.   With the complexity and increasing urgency of the big challenges facing our communities today, we have to start using the tools that will work and make the conscious decisions that will help us build our communities’ futures.

What can planners do to help your community’s economy?

We all know that most of our local economies are in some form or another of mess.  Draw the border around your town, your county, your region, your state, doesn’t matter – our news stories and discussions are full of closing stores and vacant boxes, houses and 401k’s whose value has plummeted, massive holes in government budgets and previously unthinkable choices about promised future payments and services.

If you’re a planner, just try going to a party at your neighbors’ house.  What do you get asked, sooner or later?

“What are you guys doing to fix this mess?”

We know that our agency or firm couldn’t fix it all in a million years, and we know, at least intellectually, that we aren’t solely responsible.

But the question is a nagging one:  “What are you guys doing to fix this mess?”

Planners have no magic wand, and we can’t make businesses appear out of thin air.  But if we take our responsibilities for our communities seriously – if we embrace our training and deeply believe that good planning matters– then we have an important contribution to make: a contribution to solving the long-term, structural problems that have played a big role in landing our communities in this mess.  To do that, we need to approach our plans and our planning with wisdom.  We need to think ahead, anticipate the consequences of different choices, accept and work with the limits of our knowledge and try to see our blind spots so that we are not sideswiped by a future that we did not see coming.

Tall order, right?  We can do this.  In some ways, it is getting back to the ideals of the planning process that get lost in the scuffles of politics and self-preservation.  In other ways, it’s about learning from other disciplines – not just the business world, which we’ve heard about ad nauseum, but from psychology and sociology and history.  The disciplines that study how people think and work together.  To make wise decisions for the futures of our communities, we need to lay the right groundwork by doing wise planning.

What does wise planning mean?

  • Goals that are real, concrete and measurable. That’s Planning 101. We know we need that.  What we don’t need is the mealy mouth stuff we often end up with as our plan’s goals.  We need goals that our communities can understand, rally around and work toward.  If a goal does not make people want to act, then that goal is useless.

Regional initiatives like Agenda 360 in Greater Cincinnati, and similar regional action plans that have developed in Boston, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Indianapolis, and elsewhere, draw their power and their potency from their goals.   They set a high bar for the whole region to meet, and they set it in measurable terms so that it is real to the people who read it and the people across the region who are in a position to do something about it.  One of Agenda 360’s main goals is the creation of 200,000 net new jobs in the region by the year 2020.  Now everybody knows what the goal is, and a little research makes clear where we are on the road to getting there.  Could the region miss it?  Sure… but now we know what we are going after and have something to measure against.

How much more effective, how much more of a catalytic force for change is putting that stake in the ground, rather than what professionally-written plans usually include?  How catalytic would “Encourage the creation of new jobs” have been?

I think the word “Encourage” should never, ever appear in a plan’s goals or objectives.  Never.   If I encourage my son to study his math assignments, my primary goal is not to “encourage” him.  It’s to push and prod him to do what he has to do to pass the test.  “Pass the test” is the goal, not “encouraging” him.

And what is “encouraging,” anyways?  Sharing information, establishing expectations, outlining the consequences of not meeting the goal, monitoring his progress…. That’s the actual work that “encourage” means.  So say that.  In plans, “Encourage” is nothing more than a cop out.  It means….nothing.  Zip.  Which is why elected officials sometimes like that word for things that they don’t want to actively support.  If you cannot get leadership to go beyond “encourage” as the verb in a goal statement in a plan, go back and define what exactly all the parties involved can  support, or cut it out.  You’ll probably do more good by leaving it out than by giving it lip service.

  • Don’t assume that the future will be a direct extrapolation of the past. It won’t be.  How many 20-year population projections have you seen?  How many plan decisions do we base on those numbers?  How often do they turn out to be right, or at least close to right?  Not often.  And yet we create plans that designate broad new swaths of development because that’s what the population projection indicates.  Never mind the fact that socioeconomic changes may drive that growth elsewhere.  And never mind the fact that if you don’t house all those new paper people, they will just go somewhere else.  They’re not going to create a tent city in your vacant lots.

The future almost never works out the way we thought it would, or I would have a hovercar in my garage by now and a jet pack in my closet. Our projections of the future need to accommodate multiple scenarios, and deal with those scenarios, not just average them out to make it easy to do the math.

Even more important, we need to not treat those projections as a fait accompli.  What matters is not the numbers, but the influences and factors that will drive how the community evolves, and how we monitor, influence or adapt to those changes.

  • Don’t assume that projected population growth automatically requires new housing, or that new residents automatically mean new commercial development.  You probably have a number of vacant or underused houses, and probably no end of vacant retail spaces.  Why plan for more?

Most communities (with a few special-circumstances exceptions) should stop assuming that we need anything new at all.  Either the economics don’t work or we don’t really need it.

When I did a comprehensive plan for the village in which I live a few years ago, all of the surveys and public feedback said that people wanted an Applebee’s-type restaurant in town.  The numbers don’t work for this village alone – it’s not big enough to generate enough customers to support that business model.  But because this is a metro area, this village isn’t the only source of customers.  There’s are four restaurants in that price point within a five-minute drive of most residents, and if someone opens another, one of the five would probably go out of business, leaving us with another vacant space.  ‘

In a sense, it’s a little like dealing with my kids – they don’t “need” another Nerf gun, although they tell me they do when they see the ads.  It’s my job to guide them to the realization that the six they have are more than enough.

  • Be conscious and explicit about fiscal impacts. You may not like tax laws or tax calculations, but your community needs them to survive.  You know that. It’s a necessary part of the system, and we have more than enough evidence now to demonstrate that if our development patterns cost more than they generate in taxes, we have a problem.   If you can’t pay someone to calculate the fiscal impacts, pull out your college textbook and figure it out. Your best attempt will be better than wild guesses or permitting officials to keep their head in the sand.  And if you do pay someone to do it, don’t take them at their word- make sure you understand exactly what they did and why.  If the root problem is with the tax structure, say that loud and clear.  You may not be able to change that alone, but you can issue the clarion call so that it can’t be ignored.
  • Model your public participation after the best teachers.  Don’t just lecture or allow others to lecture.  Don’t do the minimum necessary to get by.  Give the process structure so that people stay on track and so that you hear from everyone, and engage them in the search for solutions, rather than presenting them a grand vision and waiting for them to applaud or throw tomatoes. The public has to be part of the solution, too, and they need to both more deeply understand the issues that we are grappling with, and lend their expertise to the search for solutions.  If you give them a real chance, they’ll do it.  And if we don’t give them a real chance, we will stay in the morass.
  • Recognize and admit that putting colors on a map and writing a description of what it’ll be like in the future isn’t doing enough.  Even laying out zoning revisions isn’t good enough.  If we are serious about making our communities better, we need to plan for the whole social and political ecosystem, not just what the planning department, or even the government, can do for you.  Who else — what other organizations or agencies– are part of the solution?  What can they do?  Who should they (or you, oh City) be working with?  How do we really move the needle, and how do we know if the needle has moved?

Your colored map isn’t going to tell you that.  Making a difference in the future of the community requires much more.

  • Think critically – about everything. We haven’t been rigorous enough in our thinking.  We have had a tendency to buy the new gadget, whether it’s Urban Renewal or New Urbanism, without taking it apart, examining the assumptions, and understanding that every idea has limits, exceptions, and unexamined consequences.  That’s a natural limitation of human thought processes- cognitive psychologists document how much we cut corners in our thinking.

But if we don’t understand the limits of an idea, we cannot use the tool correctly. If you do not know that a claw hammer cannot drive a rivet into a piece of sheet metal, you will do a whole lot of banging and make a real mess of the job before you figure that out.  One can argue that the repercussions of the urban renewal initiatives of the 1960s should have taught us that by now.

  • Stop allowing bad planning. It’s damaging the profession, and it’s damaging the places that matter to us.  Professional planners have had a tendency to avoid raising tough questions, to shy away from pushing for the right but difficult choices, to sidestep grappling honestly and critically with our decisions and alternatives.

That’s mostly, I think, driven by a very understandable desire for job security.  We have all be told somewhere along the line that some issues aren’t in your job description, that you don’t want to upset the politicians, the developers, the citizens, the client.   Don’t rock the boat, the voice whispers, and your job and your future are secure.

If there’s anything the last few years have taught us, it’s that job security, for both public and private sector planners, is a myth.  Public sector planners get laid off or put on furloughs, or they get stuck in soul-deadening bureaucratic jobs processing paperwork and accept that deal with the devil for the promise of future financial security.  And we all know that, in one way or another, that promised security is turning out to have been a mirage.

Private sector planners don’t do much better: they deliver what the client wants, regardless of whether that’s what the community needs or not, in the hopes of winning more work and maintaining that ridiculously high utilization rate and not having to spend their nights and weekends writing more proposals on their “own time.”   And then they get laid off when the big firm that swallowed the planning firm decides that planning isn’t part of their new strategic direction.

If we can’t count on those promises, that security, then what is the price of our silence? Why not take reasonable, well- supported stands on issues that matter, when it matters?

What have we really got to lose?


One more thing: I say all of this because I am a planner and I have done all of these things.  I have allowed communities to get away with meaningless goals, drawn maps that could not make anything happen, overlooked fiscal impacts and treated population projections like statements of fact.  I did that because I was the consultant, it wasn’t in the scope, it wasn’t in the budget, they weren’t “ready.”  I didn’t want to rock the boat.

At the end of the day, what you’re really left with is how you feel about the job you did.  In some cases, I am proud of the work and how it helped move a community forward.  In other cases, I am not sure whether the plan I wrote did any good at all.   As I evolve and move forward personally, I am determined to repeat those mistakes as few times as I can.

There’s a piece of calligraphic art in my office that sums up how I think we need to approach planning in this generation – not in terms of building styles or transportation modes, but in terms of how we think about the job and in terms of how we think about communities and their futures.  There’s two quotes on it, the first being from Henry Thoreau:

 Go confidently in the direction of your dreams.  Live the life you have always imagined.

The second is from Will Rogers:

 Even if you’re going in the right direction, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.

Let’s not get run over anymore, ok?

It’s OK to sound like a sick goose while not eating the ice cream.

This is a follow-up to my post a couple of weeks ago about community goal-setting (what should I make of the fact that the post with “ice cream” in the title got more hits than the one about sustainability?). 

I am currently listening to my 12-year-old son practice the trumpet downstairs. He’s only been playing for 6 months, so good notes with clear tone are occasionally interspersed with something that sounds like a sick goose. For example, I think he just played the theme from the New World Symphony, but there was about 15 seconds of non-musical honking in the middle as he hit a tough spot.  The cool thing as a parent is that, despite the occasional non-musical sounds, I can tell that he is getting better week to week.  He is a long way from Carnegie Hall, but he’s improving. 
In that blog post I laid out my perspective on how public participation should be done, but I admitted that I struggle with the idea of whether truly honest, inclusive goal-setting processes were reasonable to expect in the real world life of planning and economic development.  In most of our communities, we simply don’t have much experience.   Much our experience with planning and community goal-setting has not been ideal —  either the opportunities for public participation have been limited, or participants have tried to out-shout each other, or solutions were over-simplified or not sufficiently tied to the hard work of making it happen.  Or it was simply a matter of going through the motions. 

Frankly, those of us that work with communities on a professional or leadership basis know too many situations where things have gone wrong.  Why risk a transparent and deeply collaborative process when there are so many ways it can blow up in our faces?

Perhaps what we are really doing is assuming that our communities should be ready to play Rachmaninoff, instead of accepting that we might still be taking our lessons out of Learn to Work Together, Book 1.  After all, we are mostly mature adults, not 12-year-old kids who just got handed the instruments, right? 

In our guts, though, we know that our communities aren’t ready to perform at that high level.  We have too much distrust, too much resistance to change, too many impediments to making the hard decisions and taking control of our future.  So we limit our public participation to the bare minimum we can get away with, we produce plans with a lot of vague talk and no connection to action, we go through the motions and let everything stay the same instead of using the planning opportunity to make the changes that we know need to be made.  Whether it’s a comprehensive plan or an economic development strategy or any other variation on the theme, the result is the same.  We are fundamentally in the same mess we were before.

The fact of the matter is, although we as communities were handed the instruments  of good planning a long time ago, we haven’t been practicing.  We often haven’t built up the experience in working together that would be necessary to make proactive, strategic decisions about the future of the community, to allow us to be able to set course proactively and make good decisions when we need it. 

But as global and regional competition increases, we find that we start trailing behind if our community is still focused on infighting or chasing the wrong solutions.  We know that, if our community is to thrive, we need to be able to play at a higher level, but we haven’t yet developed the skills within our community and community leadership to do that. 

Instead of assuming that we should be able to play the concerto today, maybe we need to regard our communities as learners.  Maybe we need to expect that we will have honks and blatts along the way, and that sometimes our results will only bear a passing resemblance to the song we were trying to play.   From my perspective, that would be OK, as long as we can admit that we are growing and changing and work on getting better.  That would be, of course, a sea change in our civic lives: instead of being focused on accusations and rejecting less-than-perfect efforts, we would have to accept good intentions and imperfect delivery, with the patient realization that we as communities are learning to do it a little better every time.  And by “we as communities,” I don’t just mean local government staff and leadership.  I mean the residents, too.  

Tall order, I know.  But I have seen communities do it. 

I would propose that the best way to tackle this issue might be to take a page from the folks who design web software:  Get something going, get it out there, crowdsource feedback, improve product, repeat ad infinitum.  Communities that need and want to learn to proactively address their futures, and do not have a successful track record in effective public engagement, often have more real success focusing on smaller areas and concrete projects, such as public site designs, downtown revitalization planning, neighborhood strategic planning, etc.  The One Big Plan vs. Lots of Little Plans debate has been going on in both planning and economic development circles for generations, but for communities struggling to build a constructive community discourse, a Lots of Little Plans strategy has some significant advantages.  In most cases, the stakes in a smaller-focus plan will be a little lower, so flubs along the way are more likely to go unnoticed by the larger public while they are being remedied.  Second, a tighter focus should make it easier for the public participants to come to a mutual understanding about the issues that they need to address (a city is a largely abstract concept to most residents, but a neighborhood isn’t).  And that mutual understanding of the different points of view relating to a place is absolutely critical to setting sound goals and making sound decisions.  Best of all, a successful small-area planning process should create a new asset for the community: a body of persons who understand the importance of working together collaboratively, and have the experience and skills needed to do that.  Drawn into larger planning contexts, those people will be like yeast in bread dough: they can help transform that planning by changing those conversations as well. 

One final caution: My son has gotten as far as he has with the trumpet because he has a teacher who is teaching him how to play.  Without that — if we had just handed him the instrument and said “here, figure it out,”  he probably wouldn’t get much beyond the sick goose phase.   Maybe he would have turned out to be some prodigy and figured out how to play the Haydn Trumpet Concerto on his own…. but I think the more likely result is that he would have honked for a few weeks and then quit.  

 If we are serious about building the capacity in our communities to plan the way we need to plan, we can’t just turn our citizens loose in a town hall meeting or an economic development strategy session and hope they figure it out.  If we want those results — if we want proactive, intelligent planning with community support, whatever the flavor, it falls to the professionals and leaders to find good teachers.  There are excellent methods for channelling and focusing citizens and creating opportunities for them to honestly explore their opportunities, but our communities need to be taught how.   

We can do it, but if we aren’t taught and we don’t practice, we won’t get it done.

How to keep your community from eating the ice cream

It’s that time of year when even the most laissez-faire of us get hit with the Set  Goals bug.  We all resolve (myself included) to lose more weight, eat better, spend more time with our family, yadda yadda.   And we all swear that This Year Is Going To Be Different… although we know in the backs of our heads that chances are we will be on the couch eating out of the ice cream pint by February.   Even though we know that setting those goals are the first step to success, we also know that setting those goals is only the first step, unlikely to catalyze any long-term changes unless we do a lot more.   

Since our communities and governments are creations of people, it’s no surprise that they do the same thing.  Every strategic plan and comprehensive plan has a laundry list of goals and objectives, and the really good ones might even give a game plan for getting there.  But we all know the old saw about plans that sit on a shelf and collect dust. 

Despite that cynicism, we know that there are communities out there that get it together, that enact positive change, and that maintain that positive momentum for multiple years — sometimes, decades.  So what makes the difference between the communities that keep their New Years Resolutions and those that end up on the couch eating ice cream?

After working with communities for a couple of decades, and getting a front-row seat for both great successes and some pretty spectacular failures, I think it comes down to a pretty simple principle:

The long-term successful communities are the ones that not only set goals, but remain consistently conscious of and actively use their goals.    That means that they:

  • Maintain a clearly-articulated, shared public commitment to those goals.
  • Refer and review those goals frequently (and tweak them if they have to).
  • Use their goals as a primary criteria for selecting among the choices that they face.
  • Use their goals as a yardstick to measure their progress over time.

Sounds pretty simple when you put it that way, right?  So why are the success stories so rare?  

Part of it stems from the  same reasons why our New Years resolutions fall apart.:  we don’t make it A Priority, we get distracted by other issues, we make short-term choices that satisfy immediate desires but go against long-term goals… Oversimplify a community and  pretend that its political and economic decisions were made by one person, and it will sound like the first 15 minutes of every How I Lost Weight/Found My Dream Job/Became a Triathlete TV show you have ever seen.

But our communities aren’t one person — they are made up of many people, and even the most homogenous community will include many more differences of opinion than we tell in our February good-intentions-bad-follow-through self-improvement stories.  We want our communities to move in a coordinated fashion toward common goals, like an ant colony, but most of our members, and almost all of our leadership, would make lousy ants.   Our brains, our opinions, our traditions of independence and democracy, means that most analogies comparing communities to a person or an ant colony don’t hold up for long.

A lot of the time, Our Community’s Goals are not the community’s goals — they are a person’s goals,  or a group’s goals.   Because we fear conflict, because we don’t want to take the time or spend the money, because we shy away from disagreement, because we who were invested first don’t want to consider that others might have valid ideas, we often fail to have real, meaningful community discussions about what our goals should be.  Then we act surprised when we discover that people, whether in leadership or in the community, will not support the actions we need to take to meet those goals.  They were never the community’s goals to begin with. 

Of course, if we _do_ deeply and meaningfully engage all the people for whom an issue matters (and believe it or not, there are ways to do that), we will discover that there are some issues where we cannot find agreement.  Whether it’s political or philosophical differences or simple practical disagreements, we will not be able to agree on some issues.   Because we fear that we will not agree on some issues, we do not attempt to agree on anything . 

 But here is the part we often overlook: if we did engage  all the people for whom an issue matters, we would find a lot of agreement.  We live in the same place, we see the same situations. we have, or can have with a little additional effort, the same base of information.  Because of that, we will find areas of agreement — they may not be the Exciting Ones or the Big Ones, but we will find some.  And if we focus on those points where we can agree, if we make those our goals, and they are truly shared goals, then we _will_ make progress.  Goals that don’t solve everything but allow us to make progress are, at then end of the day, more effective than goals that cover everything but do nothing.  An empty placeholder in the Goals for Everything structure simply means that that one needs more work. 

As we make progress, two things will happen:

  • We will build our community’s capacity for planning and working together.   If we fear that distrust or disagreement will derail us, what better way to convince both sides that the other is not evil than to find and work on the things that they can agree about? 
  • That experience will allow us to learn and discuss and find consensus on those issues that we couldn’t deal with at first.  

 Making this work, of course, also requires leadership that understands this reality and is self-assured enough to lead this way — an issue I hope to talk about more in the future.

Sounds Pollyannaish, I know.  And maybe it is.  So here’s a challenge for you: look at communities you know that have been successful over the long term.  They can be local governments, neighborhoods, business districts — whatever works.  And let’s share your thoughts here.  

In the meantime, if you are trying to choose the salad over the Lardburger on the lunch menu from now on, or setting the alarm for the 5 AM Boot Camp class at the gym, good luck…. and be glad there is only one of you!

E-town meetings: are we ready for this?

This article highlights two counties in Florida that have found a way to continue their traditional public input systems, using chat and video streaming, in a way that not only increased the number of participants, but actually saved the local government money.  I am looking forward to learning more about how exactly they did it — the article is a little short on details. 

One of the great challenges I have encountered in using methods like these for public participation is that the range of what people know how to do and are comfortable with is unbelievably wide.  I have one community committee I am working with now where a few of the participants would be perfectly happy to do everything digitally, and a couple do not even have email.  The challenge for people who want to engage the entire cross section of the community (and that’s critical to the kind of change needed to help a Wise Economy develop) is, how to leverage social media and digital tools, with all their benefits, while still enabling real involvement from those on the other side of the digital divide?

What do you think?  What have you seen done to help bridge that divide?  Or do you think that is a barrier to using more effective and less costly public participation methods?

Public Participation Innovations [and possible pitfalls]: Maine Community’s HeartSpots

This is an interesting idea from a nonprofit planning process in Maine.  I think the call-in telephone number and the boards in public places are a great idea – excellent way to get the planning process out of the a closed  group and into the community. 

 My concern, though, would be the expectations that this activity can create.  In a lot of the communities I work with, there is a deep conflict between people who want to return to an earlier way of life, and people who either want new opportunities or, pragmatically, realize that the world has changed and things can’t be magically returned to the way they were years ago.  That is, at its core, an issue of market forces and economics as much as anything else. 

The key challenge to an effective planning process of any type is that it has to account for real-world constraints, like economics, while also challenging the community to improve.  If the planning process ends up putting too much emphasis on memories of soda fountains and ways of life that are gone — or if the apparent emphasis on memories leads the public to a false hope that the plan will make things the way they used to be — then the plan will probably be ineffective at best, divisive at worst.

Public Participation That Does your Project Good

Here’s the link to the presentation that I did for the National Trust for Historic Preservation last week on innovative and effective public participation methods (read: no grandstanding, minimum boredom, happy people!

I just learned about a method for putting audio with presentations like this, so I am hoping to be able to get that here soon.  In the meantime, I found out today that the National Trust did a LIVE Stream from the conference  — this link will give you a sort of play-by-play, and it explains the parts that don’t show up in the powerpoint slides.  Look under Friday, October16, 8:15 AM.   Very cool!