Written by Douglas Kelsey and David Gruber of Dispute Resolution Education Resources, Inc. (DRER)
Local officials who wish to preside over a peaceful community might ask themselves how they and their constituents can create a collaborative climate in their town. In a collaborative environment, officials and citizens anticipate difficult issues and together seek solutions before a crisis arises.
A collaborative environment could change the dynamics of the following situations.
- A homeowner uses his backyard to store junk cars. The neighbors are unhappy and vocal about it, but local officials have little enforcement power.
- Citizens are certain that water rates are too high, even though their hometown officials, not some far off agency, set the rates. They don’t mind complaining.
- A proposed state highway would cut through farmland and whisk travelers by your downtown tourist attractions. Local farmers and business owners ask, “Can this be stopped?”
Each situation poses a contest of interests. In the first, the enforcement of community standards versus an individual’s solution to low-cost car storage. In the second, public health and community growth versus ratepayer protection of the pocketbook. In the third, tourism development versus protection of local livelihoods and the local economy.
In a collaborative climate, public officials would:
- Share information about community goals and standards, especially with newcomers.
- Understand where the goals of citizens might diverge from public objectives.
- Engage citizens in early problem solving.
All three are essential to collaborative communities, but the last is especially important. A common type of government decision making involves the government collecting public input then making the decision internally. This seems reasonable, since the community presumably elected them to do just that.
All to often, though, it still ends in conflict. The reason? Today’s citizens are more sophisticated in their use of mainstream and social media, referenda and the courts to promote their issues. Government may not have the last word. Many citizens today want to be part of the decision-making process. They believe they have a better chance of ensuring that solutions meet their needs.
It ultimately comes down to trust. Transparency in government is a building block, but so is the willingness to tap citizen ingenuity and turn potential conflict into creative solutions. Future blogs will discuss how this can be done.
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