Why Your Website Needs a Makeover to improve informed consent

We’re often asked: “How should we use our agency’s website, Facebook page, Twitter feed . . . to engage with our public?” 

It’s a great question. (One that you won’t find answers for, even if you Google your heart out trying.)

You’re not an employee in a business — so going after “leads” and “conversions” doesn’t translate well into the mission the public gave you.

Yet, your public expects you to have an online presence….!

But how do you do it?!?

Rightly so, you’re probably concerned about:

  • Staff hours spent generating and monitoring Social Media platforms
  • The risk of posts taking on a life of their own and backfiring on the organization
  • Giving the impression everything is up for popularity vote
  • Only scratching the surface on complex projects, and as a result — creating false impression of the key issues
  • Technology and Terms of Use for 3rd Party Platforms change frequently
  • What constitutes “engagement?”  Is it a legitimate objective?
  • What’s the best way to reach our public?
  • “Do people even look at our website anymore?!?”


We’ll answer these questions, your specific questions — and more — in our monthly Consent-Building Clinic.


During Clinic #74, we’re going to show you:

  • How VITAL your agency’s website is,
  • Why we can virtually guarantee you’re FAILING to use it to inform your public,
  • and Why you’re priorities are all WRONG.

Then, even though we only have 45-minutes with you, we’re going to really shake things up!

Because we’ve got advice that is loaded with value on how to turn your website into a Consent-Building powerhouse.


Don’t miss the BONUS video below on “Adding some Kryptonite for Your Opponents on Your Website”


Follow these tips and not only will you generate trust, respect, credibility and legitimacy.

Even your work’s fiercest opponents will conclude you’re committed to being fair and transparent (assuming you are!).

Get the Recording


Managing Stakeholders: You Can’t Take Sides, but You Aren’t “Neutral” Either

Consent-Building Clinic #73: Recorded October 2015

“Our CP Process can turn into a free-for-all of various stakeholders, each fighting as a special interest, . . . while we try to remain neutral.”

“It’s a jungle out there!” is what comes to mind here. Because, of course, it IS a jungle out there! Let’s face it; there is not fuzzy, warm “public.” Your public – on any given Problem-Solving/Decision/Making case – consist of:

  • Individuals, Groups, Corporations, Institutions, Other agencies and Other officials.

Each and every one of them pursuing THEIR agendas – and ONLY their agendas. All of them have their own priorities, values, concerns, worries, fears, hopes, . . . i.e. agendas that they pursue.

You ARE different . . . though “neutral” is probably not the right word to describe that difference. Here’s the real difference:

  • You’re motivated by a RESPONSIBILITY, the responsibility to accomplish your Mission . . . which – strictly speaking – came from the ‘public’, that cacophony of individuals, groups, corporations, etc.

The question, thus, comes down to: “How can you – in the midst of this free-for-all — make sure you are EFFECTIVE?

Get the Recording


How the Harbormaster Used This One Tactic to Gain My Trust & Informed Consent

How do you gain the trust of your public (including those who aren’t even affected by your work)?

The Monterey, California Harbormaster seems to know.

In Consent-Building Clinic #71, we got into the nitty-gritty of how you can “Convince Stakeholders Their Input Matters (While Setting Reasonable Expectations),” so we’re following up with another example of how to get your public to believe it when you say “We need your input.”

Even though the local officials in Monterey have more trust than their counterparts in neighboring communities, no one believes it when they solicit input.

Except, for the harbormaster . . . When he asks for input, he gets responses that actually impact his work!

What makes him so convincing?

He demonstrates that he means it when it asks for input.  Not that he always uses or follows the input, but he makes it apparent he really is listening to the responses he gets.

Does he use fancy software or surveying devices?  Nope.

Does he talk or write about how he’s “customer-oriented and responsive?”  Heck no!

His tactic is so subtle, his audience probably doesn’t even realize he’s using it.


See for yourself if you can detect the tactic.

Here’s an excerpt from a recent newsletter he emailed residents and boat owners in which he discussed the budget he intended to present to City Council for the upcoming year.

The harbormaster explained the projected shortfall he expected if he didn’t increase user fees, and what increases he concluded were necessary.

Then he requested the public’s input . . . Particularly from those who would be paying the higher fees.


A month later, the harbormaster emailed an update along the following lines:

  • “A number of you have talked to me about the changes in fee structure that I had in mind; thanks for the various suggestions and ideas.”
  • “Based on what I learned from talking with some of you, I’ve concluded that I was wrong about a couple of the changes I was contemplating . . . Here is my altered budget and fee-structure proposal. I think it IS an improvement from what I had in mind.”
  • “I am intending to present this altered budget to City Council . . . unless some you have further suggestions.”


Did you catch it?

He meant what he said!

He demonstrated he meant it by showing how the input caused him to reconsider (and in this case, revise) what he would propose to City Council.

Even though I (Hans) would be affected by the increased fees, I hadn’t been more than a armchair observer of the input the harbormaster was soliciting.

Yet his handling of it affected my attitude and trust of him, even though I wasn’t directly involved.

You can be sure I wasn’t the only one that concluded “this guy means it when he says he wants the public’s input!”

Putting the Harbormaster’s Tactic to Work for You

You need to apply this tactic to convince your public your listening.

If you swipe the harbormaster’s three simple steps, even those unaffected will be convinced you actually mean it when you elicit input:

  1. Genuinely listen
  2. Evaluate what you hear
  3. Explain HOW and WHY you will/not use the input you receive


Notice, there’s no chest-beating declaration about truly listening.  There’s simply a demonstration of it.

Put these three steps to work for you and skip the usual cynicism-inducing rhetoric and simply demonstrate you need the public’ input.


2 Key Ingredients to Establish Public Legitimacy for Agency Regulators

If you work for a regulatory agency, or even if you don’t — but you administer regulation — you must have these two key ingredients to establish Legitimacy among your public.

In the short video below, we’ll follow-up the discussion from Consent-Building Clinic (Brownbag session) #69: “Regulating a Public Not OK Being Dictated To.”

Listen closely, and you’ll hear how identifying yourself, your team, your agency as “regulators,” is only making matters worse.

Then you’ll hear precisely what you need to communicate to your public instead.

Time to Hear from You

In the comments, share with us:

  • Lessons you’ve learned on establishing your work’s Legitimacy,
  • How you maintain Legitimacy with your public (particularly your fiercest opponents — always where we put our Consent-Building focus), and
  • Other obstacles you face when it comes to issues of legitimacy.


*Help out your friends and colleagues by sharing this blog with them.  Like you, they have important missions to accomplish, and need all the help they can get to establish their work’s legitimacy.

Becoming a Student of American Values for Developing Informed Consent

As often is the case following one of our 90-minute Brownbag teleconferences, additional points we could have discussed come to mind. Right after the January 2011 session which covered the topic of “The Tactic of Focusing on Higher Values… When Your Proposal is Really Bad News for Some of Your Stakeholders,” I sat down with a cup of coffee to get caught up on my stack of newspapers.

Because the Brownbag was still very much on my mind, three little articles jumped out at me as examples of how we — as a society — explore, debate, and eventually settle on the finer points of what is “fair,” and what is “unfair” . . . What “rights” and “limitations of rights” apply in certain specific situations.

Case #1

In the article “Pay Sale Rewards Good Looks” Amelia Rayno reported that researchers found that “thin women are paid significantly more than their average-size counterparts” (Monterey County Herald, January 11, 2011). The article went on to note that “skinnier-than-average men, on the other hand, cash smaller paychecks than their average-weight peers.” According to Rayno’s report, although these pay differences are unintentional, they nevertheless bear significant impacts on individuals: Thinner women make — on average — $16,000 more than their less-thin counterparts, while thin men earn on average $8,000 less than their stouter colleagues.

What Does This Have to Do with Me and My Work???

Perhaps you’re asking yourself “what’s the reason for the research that led to these findings?” And” why did journalist Rayno write an article about it?” More pointedly, “what does this have to do with my work as a public-sector professional or even with the January 2011 Brownbag session on legitimate projects that have (unintended) and unavoidable negative impacts for some stakeholders…?”

Glad you asked because while it is obvious to me, you might dismiss it without even a modicum of interest. But there is a lesson within it that is worthy of your attention…

Although it is never directly mentioned in the article, the entire point is that it calls into question our feelings of “fairness.” Americans, — that includes you, me, ALL of us — have the need to “be fair.” When we catch ourselves NOT being fair, our behavior violates our values, which — in turn — bothers us. Even though the article delineates the likely reasons why this discrimination happens, you can’t read it without thinking what the article never actually says “This just isn’t fair.”

Case #2

Another article that caught my eye was in the Wall Street Journal “Judge Rules that NY City Can Release Teacher Ratings” from January 10, 2011. According to the article, a judge ruled that the Department of Education in New York City must release the ratings and names of some 12,000 public school teachers. (How well — or poorly — students perform on standardized tests determines an individual teacher’s rating.) Part of the justice’s basis for the decision and a rejection of a petition by the United Federation of Teachers to keep the names private was that by releasing the names along with the ratings, “would not be arbitrary or capricious under the law.” A teachers’ union lawyer argued that “releasing the data would unfairly subject teacher to possible ridicule.”

What is “Fair?” What is a “Right?”

You see, when we can’t settle what’s “fair,” or what defines a “right” (i.e. higher level of values I discussed in this Brownbag — the meta-values), and what the limitations to those rights (i.e. meta-meta-values) then we turn to a court to settle the issue. That’s what has happened here. . .

While this judicial ruling probably DOES settle this particular “fairness-values” issue, courts don’t always have the last word. When the public feels that the court is too far removed from its interpretation and application of society’s values, the public — through its elected representatives — changes the law. In other words, the public usually has the last word on values-related issues. In fact, the next case I bring to your attention, makes reference to just such an instance. . .

Case #3

Following the recent attempted assassination of Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (where she and 13 others were seriously wounded, and another six were killed), was an article focusing on the alleged shooter’s likely “insanity” defense. In the Monterey County Herald piece dated January 11, 2011, reporter Mark Sherman’s “Insanity Defense Difficult in Tucson Case” lays out the history of the insanity defense, and how a previous case changed the standards and outcomes of such a defense.

Here are the most values-pertinent parts of the article:

  • “In an earlier time, the emerging portrait of a deeply troubled man might have given Jared Loughner’s lawyers the basis of an insanity defense. But John Hinckley’s successful insanity claim after shooting President Ronald Reagan led Congress to raise the bar, making the task harder.”
  • “The Justice Department has not said wither it will seek the death penalty against Loughner. . . But federal prosecutors already are moving forward with charges, and veteran lawyers anticipate they will ask for him to be executed.”
  • “Yet comments from friends and former classmates bolstered by Loughner’s on Internet postings also have painted a picture of a social outcast with almost indecipherable beliefs steeped in mistrust and paranoia.”
  • “On Monday, Loughner made a brief appearance in court, where he acknowledged the charges against him and was ordered held without bail.”
  • “Public outrage over the jury’s verdict in Hinckley’s trial — not guilty by reason of insanity — prompted Congress to make it much more difficult to establish that claim in federal criminal trials.
  • According to Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz, prior to the Hinckley case Loughner’s “would be a clear case of insanity because the pre-meditation would not be seen as undercutting insanity, it would be part of demonstrating insanity.” However, under the current rules, which were created because of the Hinckley case Loughner’s lawyers will have a “very uphill battle.”
  • “‘Arizona also has modified the insanity defense so that a defendant in a state trial no longer can be found not guilty by reason of insanity. Instead, the jury can deliver a verdict of guilty but insane,’ said Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall. ‘So the person is held at a state mental hospital, and if sanity somehow comes back, he’s transferred to prison, not just let go,’ LaWall said.”
  • “The case against Loughner is at an early stage, as is his defense.”
  • “Among arguments that could be made is that, if not insane, Loughner was ‘mentally impaired’. That argument concedes that a defendant bears some responsibility for what he has done, but lacks the guilt necessary to face the death penalty. The compromised state of mind sometimes is referred to as ‘diminished capacity.'”
  • “Dershowitz predicted that federal officials will seek death for Loughner no matter what his lawyers argue. ‘The prosecution will seek the maximum punishment in a case like this,’ he said.”
  • “A veteran of death cases, San Diego attorney Judy Clarke, led the team that represented Loughner at his court appearance Monday. Clarke succeeded in negotiating a guilty plea and a life sentence for the Unabomber, Theodore Kaczynski. She also helped spare the life of serial bomber Eric Rudolph and Susan Smith, convicted of drowning her little boys.”

Understanding Meta-Values

Note: We — as a society — feel it would not be fair to subject an insane murderer to the death penalty, but we DO consider it fair to a mentally stable person. But when John Hinckley was found “not guilty by reason of insanity,” people felt that was going too far. They corrected it by making it more difficult to use the insanity defense, and Arizona came up with a very practical correction. Since the concern with Hinckley was that, if and when he could convince mental health professionals that he no longer was insane, he would be free, Arizona got rid of the “not guilty by reason of insanity” finding and replaced it with the “guilty, but insane” finding.

This responds to our society’s sense that it isn’t fair to treat an accused killer who is mentally impaired as we would an accused person with full mental capacity. And yet, they managed to fix the problem of murderers who might claim insanity to take advantage of our society’s sense of “fairness.”

By the way, what kind of value — in the Bleiker Hierarchy of Values (you have the diagram of what I call the “squashed wedding cake” in the handouts from the January 2011 Brownbag session) — is this value? This value that says “While it is OK to execute a murderer, it is not OK if he/she is mentally impaired”. . . .?

Deciphering Between Higher and Object-Related Values

Let’s explore the levels of values . . .

  • “Life” . . . is actually an Object-Related value (as I mentioned in relation to one person’s question during the Brownbag session)
  • “The Right to Life” . . . is a Meta-Value (i.e. a value about a value) — because it is ABOUT another value: Life.
  • “The Death Penalty” . . . is a Meta-Meta-Value (i.e. a value about a meta-value) — because it is about a Limitation to a Right.
  • “The Death Penalty is ruled out for mentally impaired killers” . . . is a Meta-Meta-Meta-Value — because it is a Limitation on the Meta-Meta-Value of the Death Penalty being OK.

Become a Student of American Values

Well, it’s this kind of stuff that I delve into as a “Student of American Values,” and strongly encourage you to do the same in order to better understand your PAIs, and even yourself.

Next time you read your own newspaper, find instances on your own that offer insight into what we as a society debate when there is a collision of values . . . Because that’s when it gets interesting, when — for example — we DO want to dish out severe punishment to a murderer, but we also want to be “fair.” We are then, in such an instance, forced to figure out just what we MEAN by “fair.”

There are many reasons you need to become a “Student of American Values.” One major reason is that if you insist on earning a living by working in the public-sector; you BETTER understand your public’s values . . . ESPECIALLY what I call their “higher values.” And, the reason you really need to become a lifelong “Student-of-Values” is that understanding Americans’ Higher Values is a real challenge. They are MUCH more complicated than you’d think. That’s why I feel obligated to help you gain insights into them as best I can. . .

Using the Stagelights Tactic

What Can I Do When Some Stakeholders Play Dirty?

In discussing how the Stagelights Tactic gets stakeholders who play dirty to clean up their act, I wanted to add a subtle – but very important – point.

The Stagelights shame the player into better behavior; that much is observable. Psychologically, however, what I believe REALLY happens is this: the misbehaving stakeholders discover – because the bright Stagelights don’t allow them to ignore it – that their misbehavior is violating THEIR OWN values.

Why Most People Will Choose to Stop Playing Dirty

Remember from the previous Brownbag session on American Values (January 2011), what happens when something (such as our own misbehavior) violates our values: our Quality-of-Life suffers. Well, we don’t like that. So, we may choose to do ourselves a favor: often times, we choose to change our behavior so that it aligns with our personal values.

Notice, we do this for the SELFISH reason of not doing any further damage to our own Quality-of-Life.

Looking at the Values Hierarchy (page 18 of the February 2011 Brownbag handout), the values that most likely are involved in this 2nd, 3rd, and 4th levels of that hierarchy:

  • Level 2: Process-Related Values, i.e. issues of Fairness
  • Level 3: Meta-Values, which are issues of Rights, Freedoms, and Liberties
  • Level 4: Meta-Meta-Values, are issues of Responsibilities . . . which is the same as Limitations of Rights, Freedoms, and Liberties

What’s going on psychologically with the Stagelights Tactic is yet another reason for you to become a “Student of Values.” And, with that, of course, we’re talking about American Values. Americans have amazingly similar 2nd, 3rd, and 4th – level Higher Values.

That’s why in the Stagelights examples that I gave (the US Forest Service’s overhaul of its Electronic Site Leasing Fees in New Mexico and in Arizona, the Land-Use Planning incident in Laramie, WY where the Mayor talked out of both sides of his mouth, and the Los Angeles planning case where an LA City Councilor did the same thing) we could predict that – once the misbehaving stakeholders HAD TO look at their behavior – because the public-at-large was looking at that behavior – they would choose to change it.

But, as I warned you during the Brownbag session: Don’t rush into the Stagelights Tactic. It DOES constitute a form of hardball. Be sure you’ve thought it through. Be sure to “get license” to use it (which is NOT the same as asking for permission to use it.) BEFORE you go very far with it.

Remember the key phrase in getting the public’s and the stakeholders’ license: “We owe it to you . . . We owe it to you to tell you who we’re talking to, what we’re hearing, what we’re thinking . . .“

Of equal importance, be sure the light you shine is directed at the person’s behavior, not the person directly. This is the underpinning of providing constructive criticism, rather than destructive criticism.