Some of my most rewarding projects have been facilitations with local committees that engage members of the community to make important decisions that affect that community or region. I recently completed a project with a committee in Medfield, Massachusetts that oversaw the development of a comprehensive master plan to redevelop a historic property in its town. A voluntary committee with the Hoosic River Revival, an organization that is working to re-establish the Hoosic River as a central feature in North Adams, Massachusetts, asked me to help them design a process for hiring a new Executive Director. My colleagues at CBI and I helped three Waterfront Resilience Task Forces in communities along the Hudson River develop plans to adapt to climate change. As I reflected on these projects and others, a number of insights and learnings surfaced about how to set up, support, and reward these volunteer bodies:
In no other setting in which I have worked does the messy and inspiring work of democracy play out in such sharp relief. There is something inspiring about a group of volunteers, uncompensated and generally underappreciated, coming together to sort out what constitutes “the public good” on a local issue of importance to that community. In the process, they sacrifice precious time with families and friends and often endure criticism for falling short of the myriad expectations placed on them by every member of the community with an opinion. Still, local committee members generally persevere in their task because, in my experience, they have a strong sense of civic duty and they maintain hope that their efforts will make a positive difference.
So how can local leaders make sure these volunteers’ time and effort are maximized? Much of their success is determined by decisions made in the early stages of the project. Here are four suggestions for choosing the right people, setting the right expectations, and providing the right support right off the bat:
Make sure committee composition represents broad community interests
Many community leaders want to populate committees with people who are either allies for a particular point of view or “experts” on a topic. For example, it’s tempting to fill a local committee focused on a development issue with local residents who have professional experience in real estate. The real estate perspective is probably helpful, but not sufficient. Community development issues are multi-faceted and raise questions about community identity, recreation, health, transportation, tourism, jobs, aesthetics, and more. A development committee should seek to engage people who represent everyone who might be affected by the committee’s decision and welcome differing views. For a committee tasked with reviewing the impacts of proposed bike lanes in an urban area, one might be inclined to form a committee of bicyclists, thinking that the end users will have the most to say about the project. But bike lanes impact people who use cars and transit, pedestrians, and local residents and businesses. A strong committee will engage people who represent a wide range of views.
To identify those views, CBI often conducts a community assessment before forming a committee. This process involves interviewing a wide range of people to identify their perspectives and then boiling down the feedback into a set of core interests. In the absence of a formal assessment, community leaders can brainstorm groups of people who might care about the issue at hand. Then, they can contemplate who could be asked to represent different interests. Of course, local committees do need expert advice and support for issues like design, engineering, market analysis, etc., but this guidance is usually best obtained from third-party sources, such as consultants or community staff.
Clarify the committee’s mandate and authority
The committee’s mandate is often not made clear by the entity that establishes it, typically the city council. The governing body often creates a committee to address problems that are complex, politically hot, or lacking in clear solutions, but doesn’t take the time to agree on the committee’s responsibilities and decision-making authority (including outlining what decisions the committee – verses elected or appointed officials – will make). Committees flounder in the absence of clear direction. Some topics to consider include:
Provide the committee with professional facilitation and administrative support
A professional facilitator, true to her title, will make the committee’s work easier by keeping her eye on the big picture and keeping all the pieces moving forward in parallel. Facilitators help committees by crafting agendas, running meetings, encouraging fair participation among members, and managing follow-up. A good facilitator also anticipates the need for strategic conversations among committee members, or between the committee and leadership or other key individuals in the community. An effective facilitator, brought in at the beginning, usually pays for herself in saved time and trouble as facilitated committees are generally more efficient and less fraught with conflict. In addition, committees need logistical support so simple administrative tasks, such as making copies, sending emails, booking rooms, and making appointments don’t become barriers to the group completing its work. Generally, a member of town or city staff or a facilitation team member can play this role.
Expect respect (and design for it)
Committees do hard jobs. They are often asked to review and provide recommendations on contentious issues. Committee members are humans with emotional needs of feeling safe, supported, and respected. If they do not feel these things, they may well quit and spend their voluntary capital elsewhere. From the beginning, the committee should establish “ground rules,” or “working agreements” that define behavior that supports healthy, productive disagreement and creative thinking. These ground rules should be reviewed from time to time and meeting leaders should be expected to call attention to actions or behaviors that are disrespectful.
Celebrate the committee’s accomplishments. Anticipate and build in efforts to acknowledge progress, express thanks for the committee’s work, and remind members that their work is valued by the community.