Consensus-seeking dialogues can be instrumental in helping build agreements around complex policy issues, but there are times when the press for agreement can drive parties to take more extreme positions. This case takes a look at how a deliberately non-consensus-seeking stakeholder process helped get one such stalled effort back on track and ultimately supported a high-level political agreement that is now headed for implementation.
The City of Seattle had been struggling for years to find the elusive answer that would allow it to address a critical need: replacing the Alaska Way Viaduct, the at-risk stacked highway that separates downtown Seattle from its waterfront.
For nearly a decade, effort after effort fell short. Environmental advocates wanted a solution that would favor mass transit and bikes over more roadways. Major corporations and business interests wanted to ensure there would be sufficient capacity to keep their employees and products on the move. City officials were eager to reclaim Seattle’s waterfront. And taxpayer groups pressed for low-cost options. Even those committed to maintaining a major roadway couldn’t agree on an approach. Should the roadway be a new elevated highway? A tunnel? A retrofit of the existing structure? The project was at an impasse, and city, state and county officials were equally at odds.
In the wake of a failed public referendum, city, county and state leaders committed to making another stab at forging a consensus approach among their respective governments. But how to succeed where almost 10 years of earlier dialogue had fallen short? And how to involve a public that needed to have a meaningful voice in the discussion but had had enough of what’s known as “Seattle process” or, less affectionately, “consensus through exhaustion?”
Scott McCreary and Bennett Brooks worked with state, city and county officials – and a battery of transportation and public involvement experts – to co-invent a new (and, ultimately, successful) way forward. The new path had many important elements. An upfront commitment by senior transportation staff and political leaders to negotiate a consensus agreement—even though they did not know its precise elements. A reframing of the problem to look at the region’s broader mobility needs and not just focus on one discrete artery. Pulling together an independently led, integrated technical analysis of a range of possible solutions. Repairing and restoring frayed agency relations to foster better coordination and integration of their respective technical expertise.
But a particularly interesting facet of the effort – and the focus of this piece – was the role of the Alaskan Way Viaduct Stakeholder Advisory Committee (SAC), a group of thirty stakeholders newly convened to provide ongoing input to the three departments of transportation charged with developing potential solutions. The committee brought together a diverse set of stakeholders, from the chamber of commerce and shipping interests, to neighborhood groups, downtown businesses and environmental activists. Participants were identified by city, state and county executives for their ability to represent a wide array of views, as well as serve as effective conduits to a broader constituency. Alternates were not permitted, so as to encourage continuity.
The SAC process proved to be an essential dialogue – creating a productive forum where stakeholders could raise questions, get answers and begin to build a common base of understanding. In fact, this non-consensus-seeking dialogue eventually generated many aspects of the final agreement eventually adopted by the state, city and county. (More on that later.)
Elements of the SAC Process
Several crucial factors distinguished this “hybrid” process from other stakeholder dialogues.
To be sure, the process was grueling on both stakeholders and staff. Stakeholders committed far more hours of time to the process than originally anticipated. Turnaround time between meetings was short, and the constant need to “feed the SAC” left some staff feeling they had too little time to complete the actual analysis. Still, the SAC process was widely applauded as an essential and effective part of the effort. It brought together a smart, skilled and dedicated set of stakeholders. It modeled good practice. It established solid working relationships among parties around the table. And, most critically, as demonstrated below, it galvanized broad stakeholder support around a narrow set of well informed options and incentivized participants to build unlikely coalitions.
As the year-long SAC process ground towards a close, city, state and county transportation staff were leaning towards recommending two options to their chief executives: either a new elevated roadway or a hybrid that would rely on transit expansion and improvements to both city streets and the north-south I-5 corridor. SAC members, concerned about limitations associated with the two options and intrigued by the potential for a bored tunnel (based on briefings they had received), pressed for ongoing consideration of an appealing but costly third option: a bored tunnel. This feedback proved pivotal and it created a potent (and earlier elusive) constituency for implementation of the eventual $4.2 billion approach selected and endorsed by the three executives: a deep-bored tunnel under downtown Seattle, coupled with significant improvements to current transit service and city streets. The project is now under construction, with a formal ground-breaking held earlier this year and completion expected in late 2015.
In many ways, the stakeholder process used in this case mimicked the more traditional consensus-building processes we facilitate. The SAC brought to the table diverse, effective advocates able to engage in a well structured joint fact-finding process. An extensive joint fact-finding process created a common platform for understanding options. Extensive public briefings, coupled with outreach by SAC members, enabled more disparate constituents to stay informed and provide feedback. Policymakers were able to use SAC feedback to identify more and less feasible alternatives.
The key difference, in this case, was the lack of an overt goal of consensus. In many cases, such a construct would be problematic – creating a disconnect between the stakeholder dialogue and the eventual decision-making and potentially leaving stakeholders feeling burned. In this instance, however, the design worked. Stakeholders wanted to stay engaged, but they were comfortable ceding the consensus-building exercise – with their ongoing input – to city, county and state executives serving as a proxy for their varied interests. They also seemed to value greatly the opportunity to explore options without the pressure of seeking consensus or needing to deliver constituencies.
Our key take-away: Coming together to learn – rather than explicitly being in search of a solution – can sometimes create a smoother path forward and create the space for parties to find common ground.