Category Archives: Case Studies

Guns and Dialogue: Exploring Why Civil Discourse Is So Difficult

After the mass shooting in Newtown, communities around the nation began dialogues on what steps might be taken to reduce gun violence.  Some states have adopted new laws, and in others no resolution has been forthcoming.  As Congress returns next week to to take up the issue, political parties and citizens alike remain deeply divided on how to proceed.  Simple discussion of the issue can raise strong emotions.

What makes dialogue on this issue so difficult?  We were asked by the National Institute for Civil Discourse in February to write an essay on this issue.  Some of the reasons why dialogue on this issue is so difficult are:

  • All of the primary sources of conflict are present in this one issue.  These include differences in values, interests, and information, as well as other differences.
  • Instead of identifying and exploring these differences, discussions relating to gun violence too often focus prematurely on action items and are posed in “either/or”, “us v. them” terms.
  • This then inflames regional and other differences, and reinforces  suspicion and distrust of those who don’t “share the same way of life”.
  • Fear, alienation and anger make it difficult for individuals to process new information, and in many cases leads to the automatic rejection of new ideas and approaches.

It is, however, possible to plan for and promote civil, productive dialogue.  This kind of dialogue is crucial if we as a country are going to find ways to reduce gun violence in our communities.  How leaders and citizens might promote that kind of dialogue will be discussed more in our next post.

You can download a complete copy of our essay “Aim Higher, Dig Deeper”, as a pdf here. The essay links up to additional resources through endnotes. You can click on the endnote number to access the related text. This essay was prepared for and with funding by the University of Arizona’s National Institute for Civil Discourse, as part of a collection of essays on supporting a national conversation about gun violence. The collection has also been posted on the NICD blog.

Accountability in Action

A key part of accountability is reporting back to constituents on the effects of various programs and policies in a consistent and understandable form. Several local governments have put in place dashboards or other reports that allow citizens to easily track progress toward certain goals.  Here are some examples:

Albemarle County, Virginia

Minneapolis, Minnesota

Westminister, CO

The best reports of progress are those that (i) are aligned with clearly identified citizen priorities, (ii) help citizens understand cause and effect, and (iii) allow for ongoing discussion of new options and actions.  See for example the indicators of the degree of government influence at the Albemarle website, explanations of each measure in the Minnesota reports, or trend lines and comparative data in the Westminster reports.

Engaging With The Media – A Case Study

This week we continue our discussion on working with the media during a public engagement process by providing an example of how the wrong message can create unneeded conflict.  This example occurred a few years ago while we were working as facilitators in the Imagine Columbia’s Future visioning process.

After the participants in the process had been working together for nearly a year to create a set of vision statements, goals, and action plans, the overall process consultant at the time (not us!) organized a workshop to get public feedback on emerging plans.  During this workshop, those who had not been participating in the visioning process more generally were to be given the opportunity to review what the groups had come up with and put “dots”  on what they considered to be the best ideas.  The overall purpose of the workshop was to create a snapshot of community concerns that could be used alongside other information being generated through the working groups in putting together the final plans.

Although this workshop was intended to be an interim check-in and not a decision-making point, it was titled  “Community Choices”, and was reported in the media as if community members’ votes would result in a ranking of ideas and priorities, through which certain ideas would “win” or “lose”.  As a result, the local Chamber of Commerce reached out to its members and further exacerbated the situation by asking members to turn out and sure their priorities won the day.  When a local group which was concerned about the pace of development found out the Chamber was organizing its members to vote, it sent out a similar message to its members.

At the actual event, facilitators who were there to help community members engage with and understand the ideas, concepts, and connections that were being identified in the working groups, instead spent much of their time explaining that the workshop would not result in a “win/lose ranking”.  Despite this effort, several participants used all of their dots for a single strategy or goal in an effort to make sure that goal “won”, while others followed instructions to use one per idea.  Efforts were made after the workshop to explain to the media that no ideas had won or lost, and that, given the different approaches on placing dots, the “vote totals” were not very useful data.  The media still reported on the vote totals, although the post workshop efforts did mitigate to some extent how they were reported.

At the most basic level, providing an opportunity for broader community input was a good idea.  The event was successful at generating interest and attendance. However, the failure to clearly communicate the purpose of the workshop and how the data would be used in advance led to unnecessary confusion and rekindled existing animosities between community groups. This confusion could likely have been avoided entirely with an appropriate and clearly organized message delivered consistently to the public and to the key groups likely to participate.   This case study illustrates the need to review, both when planning for an overall process and for individual events, the possible conflicts that could arise and the potential for  misunderstanding regarding the purpose of a process.  It also illustrates the importance of explaining how the data generated will be evaluated and used, and how participant are expected to interact.   This community workshop would have been more fun for the community and more valuable to the overall process, if there had been a clearer articulation of its purpose and a clear statement that the  data generated would be folded into a longer dialogue.  Providing the media with an explanation of how dialogue differs from traditional win/lose processes could have helped as well.

Planning to Engage – Shoreline

This week we wanted to point your attention toward a great article in the recent issue of ICMA’s Public Management magazine titled “Shoreline, Washington’s Story, Property Tax Increase Approved“.  The article discusses the planned and structured process that the Shoreline, Washington community used to address funding needs.  The process ultimately led to approval of an increase in the local property tax.   Shoreline’s council members and staff had a plan in place for possible budget shortfalls for quite some time.  Knowing that they would need the public to approve of some sort of tax increase if city services were going to continue as planned, they engaged the community early on.  In the process they worked to anticipate what hurdles they would need to overcome.  They engaged their citizens in prioritizing the services provided by the city.  With a combination of tightening belts in city government, engaging citizens on priorities, and communicating what needed to happen to maintain services the city passed a tax increase with a majority vote and significant voter turnout.

This sort of well planned and staged process is important for building support on issues that could be controversial.   The engagement process allowed for a collective wisdom to form around the need for city services and funding.  Elections are often characterized by partisan bickering over competing data sets and statistics and citizens may lack the context to effectively evaluate competing claims.  Here, in contrast, the engagement process provided broad understanding and agreement as to the action to be taken.  As our previous  post on the Data to Wisdom Continuum illustrates, the dialogue that occurs when engagement processes are effectively used leads to wiser collective choices.  The Shoreline council and staff  spent years engaging citizens and working to demonstrate why a tax increase was necessary.  Their efforts helped citizens understand not only the data, they also reinforced community ties and built trust between citizens and their representatives in government.