Decide-Announce-Defend is an approach where government agencies create prescriptive solutions for their communities instead of with them. They briefly present these solutions to their communities, hoping that no one will have any huge issue with what was already decided. They may do everything that is legally required to involve the public, but they do not actually value the public in the process.
DAD is going out of fashion and giving way to more thorough participation and consultation with community stakeholders. Steve Wolf from JEO Consulting says that more and more government agencies are finding that just following the minimum participation methods defined in the law are not enough to prevent controversy. These agencies are grappling with resistance from stakeholders who were not thoroughly involved in the process from the start.
Steve agrees that doing more engagement leads to more community support, getting more projects accepted, and ultimately an engaged public that proposes their own ideas.
How does a city department move from realizing there is a problem with DAD to taking action to create a new relationship with their communities built from mutual respect?
I talked with Miki Esposito, the Public Works Director for the City of Lincoln, Nebraska to find out how they shifted their culture and improved their relationship with their community.
Miki said that when she joined the department, they felt they were working diligently towards improving quality of life, but the community did not see them that way. The perception was that they were heavy-handed bureaucrats, and Miki set out to shift that perception.
The first question Miki started with was how they perceived and valued each other. “In order to change external perceptions, we had to address the internal”. They took a hard look at their internal values and focused on being considerate of each other’s opinions and contributions . Miki said that they “elevated compassion as the primary principle and goal”.
Focusing on compassion internally began to seep into how they interacted with the community. They realized that they were spending all of their time “putting out fires” because people in the community were upset about a project, said Miki. She wanted to take all of that energy they were expending on the back end and move it to the front end of their projects.
They began involving the public in all of the design aspects that they could via open houses, surveys, and workshops.
Steve Wolf pointed out that to many people in government, this type of participatory approach is seen as “turning older notions of representative government on their head”. Government has a reputation for being risk-averse, and many see these participatory methods as risky. I asked Miki how her department was able to take on this risk in a risk-averse environment. Her response was that in order to tolerate risk taking, her team had to learn how to tolerate failure.
Miki said that it’s difficult for a leader of a 600+ person department to say that she will embrace failure, and “it’s difficult for people to believe you”. Putting failure into context was about focusing on the process of experimenting and taking calculated risks in order to improve as a department. They had to create an environment that embraced the idea that sometime these experiments would fail and sometimes they would succeed. They needed to focus on the input, the process of trying to improve, instead of only paying attention to the outcome, whether they succeeded on each attempt.
I asked Miki how their workload and relationship with their community has changed as they have shifted to a culture of compassion, and she said they are still putting in the same amount of effort into projects, but now that effort is focused on the front of the project to involve people and avoid problems early on. Miki says that, “it’s always going to be a work in progress” but they see success in the number of people who are coming to meetings and participating both online and in-person.