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.


Conflict Resolution: Ever Heard these Devastating Words from Your Public (or Your Spouse)?

In Consent-Building Clinic #70, we discussed “What to Do when Your Public is Convinced it’s Too Late to Give Input (and How this Hurts Your Credibility).”

One of the most serious facets of this issue, and related topics we’ve discussed in Clinics (Brownbags) #5, 30, 51, and 60, is the devastating accusation from the public that “You’re Not Listening!”  And worse, that “You Don’t Care!”

In this short segment, we round up our discussion on this critical issue and how you’re likely proving yourself guilty of the accusation — even if you’re actually not guilty of it!


Watch the video below now.

It’ll make sense of:

  • How you can be both guilty and not guilty of “not listening/caring,” 
  • Why your public is convinced you’re nothing but guilty.


What are the specific ways you and your team are working to correct this misperception?

If you, or your agency, have been guilty of not truly listening and/or caring — what made you realize you were paying more lip-service than genuinely listening and caring?

Overusing Techniques such as Meetings & Committees for Public Engagement & Decision Making

Following this month’s Brownbag Session, we had a couple of questions that need answering… Feel free to add your own questions or thoughts at any time.

Question #1

Are other forms of Social Media more Useful than a Blog?

Hans recommended moving to virtual advisory committees via a blog; our group liked the idea but some participants suggested that social media such as Facebook have overtaken blogs and would be a better choice. Can Hans discuss this question on the IPMP blog? Thanks! -Karen

You are right that there are many other means of communicating with a group of PAIs (Potentially Affected Interests), that in some ways might be more effective than a blog. We have analyzed what does and doesn’t work through the research I’ve (Jennifer Bleiker) conducted in order to write my Master’s thesis on the various pros and cons of using different forms of Social Media as tools to communicate with various publics.

From what we can tell, a blog tends to be more comprehensive in that you are not limited to 140 characters as you would be with Twitter, or 450 with Facebook (although there are plug-ins which allow users to create longer documents within Facebook outside of status updates).

The major drawback to a blog is that people have to take the initiative to go to YOUR site to read it, rather than opening up a platform (such as Facebook or Twitter) that they are already using, and simply getting an update on your project without any additional effort on their behalf. That being said, in the case of an Advisory Committee that meets in person (and as mentioned by one participant in the Brownbag session as many as 50+ hrs a year), going to a website is a lot less inconvenient than aligning several schedules to meet in person.

While a blog is one of the less convenient Social Media tools you might consider using to communicate with PAIs because it requires them to go to your blog’s page, it is worth noting that it can be somewhat difficult to ensure that PAIs read or are exposed to a status update from a project or agency’s Facebook page or Twitter feed. The reason being is that the timing of the update may not coincide with when they are using or checking that particular medium. In other words, the message sent out might get lost among other status updates unless the user goes to that agency or project’s specific Facebook page or Twitter feed.

As with many of the Citizen Participation tools we discuss in the CPO course, we have found that it appears most useful to use BOTH a blog and other forms of social media. This way, each is supplemented so that the weaknesses are not quite as likely to hinder effective communication, and the strengths can be more fully utilized.

So, in the case of an agency or project that has a blog, we would recommend using that as the place to develop a more thorough discussion on a particular topic. The blog (and associated website) would enable an agency to also post links to relevant video, plans, other websites, contact information, upcoming and past information, etc. that would more fully inform PAIs. Then, we would encourage the use of platforms like Facebook and Twitter to alert people to these blog updates, to give them a sense of what is discussed, and to pique their interest so that they are more likely to follow what is going on with the project.

Micro-blogging tools (such as Facebook, Twitter, Google +, etc.) are just that — great for micro- or mini-blogging. They allow an agency to bring up things that might be too insignificant for a blog, but can be said in a snippet.

As you learned in the SDIC course, it is often imperative that you get bold, or even provocative in your communication with your PAIs so that they are more likely to pay attention and tune-in to what and why things are happening in relation to the project. Using these micro-blogging platforms are a great way to bring up sensitive information, and can be another facet of the tactic of “Public-Hangwringing” (a previous Brownbag topic).

So, in the case of creating a “Virtual Advisory Committee,” we think that using a couple of different and complimentary social mediums is the best way to go. That is, unless the discussions need to be closed to the public. In that instance, creating a Facebook “Group” or a Google + “Circle” might be easier than a blog that cannot be accessed by the general public.

Otherwise, using micro-blogging tools such as Facebook will allow you to reach the folks who will never have or take the time to go to your particular blog or website, and yet you can still alert that via Facebook that an even more thorough and dynamic conversation is taking place on the project’s blog.

Again, we highly recommend that any blog or Facebook page be well monitored. It’s best if folks are allowed to post messages and comments to a blog, but that those comments are either vetted before they go public, or are watched extremely closely. Comments on a Facebook page will be instantaneous, so it’s important to figure out who and how someone will react if something inappropriate or off-topic is posted. Ideally, such guidelines are posted to your website and/or Facebook page well in advance, so that your PAIs are forewarned that not just anything can be posted.

Question #2

How Useful is an Advisory Committee when they ARE the Decision-Makers?

I found yesterday’s brownbag topic to be very relevant and interesting. I was also quite intrigued by the use of virtual meeting and committees. I had a question about the usefulness of an advisory committee when they are actually the decision makers – they are given a set of options or guide lines and as long as the decision is w/in the guide lines it’s approved. If there is any blow back from the public they are given the contact info for the committee members to call and complain because they are responsible for their decisions. Thanks, Brenda

In this Brownbag session, Hans was talking as if there was only one kind of advisory committee, when in our SDIC course we cover 10 different kinds. Most of those we discuss are Content-Type advisory committees, but there are situations when Popularity advisory committees are useful.

To determine if a Popularity-Type advisory committee is warranted, you’d have to be able to determine that it is a situation where all of the different approaches to the project (i.e. all of the solutions) would work technically as well as any other.

For example, a planner who outlined several kinds of playground equipment that would be technically acceptable to meet the requirements for a new children’s’ park, might decide to use a Popularity-Type advisory committee composed of parents to select from the list of equipment because the differences were technically immaterial, but perhaps important to parents.

Another example of when it would be appropriate to use a Popularity-Type of advisory committee would be for wildlife biologists who manage a reservoir used for sport-fishing. While it may be technically insignificant whether the team of biologist stock the reservoir with a small quantity of large fish, or with a large number of small fish (only that it is one or the other, but not both); they may decide to use a Popularity-Type advisory committee to allow the stakeholders (in this case the sports fishermen) to select between the two alternatives.

Hans didn’t touch on this kind of advisory committee, so we are glad you brought it up. The first decision you must make is if an advisory committee is the appropriate Citizen Participation tool to use at all. If so, you must then determine the nature of the advice that you are seeking on your project.

As long as professionally and technically the differences between the alternatives from which a Popularity-Type advisory committee has to choose from is insignificant, then it is fine to use such a technique (instead of a Consent-Type of advisory committee). The result is that Popularity-Type advisory committees make the ultimate decision between the various (technically identical) options, which is very different from the role of Content-Type advisory committees.

Our only warning is that you be certain this is the kind of advice you are seeking, otherwise you’ll end up making the serious, but common, Error #3: of “Confusing Advice-Giving and Decision-Making.”

Consent vs. Consensus: A Classical Case

One of the things I promised to cover in the Blog, was an example of Consent that is so typical, so representative, so demonstrative that it deserves to be called a case of “Classical Informed Consent” . . . as opposed to “Consensus.”

In thinking about an example, many came to mind. One that I’ve not talked about – or even thought — about for years, is an absolutely beautiful case of classical Consent-Building that was pulled off by Tim Carlson in the mid-1980s in Jackson, Wyoming.

What Classical Consent-Building Looks Like

Here are some of the project highlights, as I remember them:

The town of Jackson hired ARIX, Consulting Engineers from Colorado, to redesign the town’s waste water treatment system. One of its young engineers, Tim Carlson, served as the project manager.

Early on in the project, Tim showed the Town Manager what he had come up with, thus far, as possible alternative treatment schemes, asking for his “input.”

One thing that all of his alternative solutions had in common was the location of a holding pond. (The treatment process, evidently, required that the effluent — which we non-experts, incorrectly, call it “sewage” — be held during the water treatment process in a lagoon for some time.)

“Well,” the Town Manager said, “that’s fine, but you’ve absolutely GOT to find a different location for that holding pond.

“You’re from out-of-town, so you wouldn’t know, but where you’ve put it is LITERALLY in the backyard of the richest, most powerful person in the whole valley.

“He would stop this project – if you propose the holding pond where you are proposing it – either by end-running us politically, or by tying the project up in litigation till the cows come home!”

Tim explained that the location in question really WAS the best location, that all other locations would require that all of the town’s waste-water be pumped uphill as part of the treatment process.

With the location that he was proposing, gravity would take care of that chore. The Town Manager responded by saying: “Don’t even THINK of proposing it there; you have NO IDEA how powerful, difficult, and ruthless THIS particular person is!”

Getting an Opponent’s Informed Consent

What Makes an Implementation Genius

Being a good student of SDIC, Tim said “Thanks for your input” and then promptly went to see this particular stakeholder (whom I’ll call him “Mr. X” because I cannot remember his actual name.)

This Mr. X was feared by public officials across the board. The Town Manager wasn’t exaggerating in his description of him. Other students of mine have had interesting encounters with the very same Mr. X! And yet, Tim didn’t hesitate to go knocking on his door, asking if they could talk over a cup of coffee.

Tim introduced himself with saying something along the lines of:

“I’m the guy redesigning the town’s sewage-treatment system. I need to show you some of the preliminary ideas I’m considering because they involve you . . . Well, actually, your property.

“Because water likes to flow DOWN-hill, and because you are located right where it wants to flow, I’m thinking that that’s where the holding pond ought to go . . . As they say: right in your backyard.

“And, because I figured that while you might not be all that interested in sewage-treatment, you probably ARE interested in a waste-water holding pond in your backyard . . . That’s why I came to show you my idea.”

Mr. X’s response:

“Ha, ha, ha . . . son (Tim WAS young enough to be his son), you’re NOT – in fact NO ONE is – going to put ANYTHING into MY backyard! . . . No sir!!!

“But, you ARE welcome to a cup of coffee.”

Tim stayed for coffee and kept up his effort to get Mr. X’s Informed Consent:

“I knew you were going to say that. In fact, I don’t blame you. No one wants a waste-water holding pond in their backyard; especially in a beautiful place like this.

“But, you see, geography and geology are conspiring to put it there. There ARE alternative places where I could put it, but they all would fail to take advantage of gravity, and require that the waste-water be pumped uphill as part of the treatment process . . .

“So, this really IS the logical place for it.”

Mr. X wasn’t about to change his mind, and gave numerous LEGITIMATE and rational reasons as to why he couldn’t possibly be in favor of placing the waste-water in his backyard:

“Son, let me show you something out in this little stream. It’s not just that I don’t want the holding pond in my backyard. I’ve been raising phenomenally beautiful trout in this little stream that your pond would be impacting. Wyoming Game and Fish Department biologists have been working with me in this very successful effort. I’m NOT about to let you interfere with that.

“Another thing: I notice on your drawing here that you would dig out a big – to me — ugly rectangular pond. When you DO build a pond SOMEWHERE, would you consider an irregular shape that is more natural-looking?

“One more thing: Wherever you are going to build that pond, you might also consider putting an island in it. There have been some water fowl around here that, I have noticed, have great difficulty keeping the coyotes out of their eggs. If they had an island, I think, they might do lot better.

“Here’s yet another reason why you can’t put your pond here. The way you have it laid out, it would interfere with one of the elk herds that come right through the area that you would be blocking. As a minimum, you’d have to split the pond into two, or make some other provision for the elk.

Responding to Mr.X’s rationale for being opposed to the proposal, Tim replied:

“Wow! . . . I didn’t know all that! . . . You make some good points! . . . Let’s bring that fish biologist from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department you’ve been working with into the discussion.

“Let’s bring in their most appropriate person to help explore whether an island WOULD work, and would be helpful.

“Let’s talk to their elk expert to make sure I don’t do any inadvertent harm to that part of the ecology . . .

“Let’s see what a holding pond might look like that takes all of these issues into account, and yet prevents us from pumping effluent uphill when we could have gravity work for us.”

Why Would Mr. X Ever Give His Consent?

To make a long story short . . . In Mr. X’s backyard is precisely where the holding pond wound up!

Make NO mistake, the Town Manager knew what he was talking about when he said: “Don’t even THINK of putting it there.” He was correct in assessing that for Mr. X to torpedo the whole project – if that’s what he chose to do — would be like taking candy from a baby.

Furthermore, Mr. X really, really, really did NOT like the idea of a waste-water holding pond in his backyard. There was no question, he was OPPOSED to it.

But, because of:

  • Tim’s brutal honesty,
  • Tim’s willingness, and courage, to argue for the most unpopular — but most responsible — alternative,
  • And because of how Tim went about it all, including . . . his willingness – his eagerness – to incorporate any and all ideas that would enhance the project’s environmental consequences . . .

Because of these critical, but perfectly attainable factors, Mr. X decided to “grudgingly go along” with Tim’s unpleasant proposal. Essentially, Mr. X Consented to its implementation.

As I remember, when it was all over, the US EPA recognized Tim’s outstanding work with an award for being one of the most sensitively designed environmental projects.

THAT, folks, is whatInformed Consent looks like in real life. This isn’t the exception, this is a CLASSICAL case.

Today, Tim Carlson lives in Grand Junction, Colorado, where he has created and worked with a number of environmental organizations, including the Tamarisk Coalition.

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.

Convincing the Public it’s Not Too Late to Participate (and Protecting Your Consent Building Credibility)

Consent-Building Clinic #70: July 14th, 2015:

“No matter what we tell our stakeholders, they always assume a decision has already been made, and that – therefore – it would be a waste of their time to get involved in our planning process.”

Boy oh boy! . . . Are there ANY public officials who DON’T give voice to this complaint?

So, if your public again and again feels that you’re asking them to get involved in a process where the horse has already left the barn, when – in fact – it has NOT, stay tuned.

On the one hand, the perception that their involvement could not possibly make a difference – when it still CAN – is a very damaging misperception. It undermines your credibility. It is a very damaging misperception, one that hinders your team’s effectiveness!

On the other hand, stakeholders’ feeling that their involvement is not going to change anything isn’t always a misperception. Quite often, it’s the TRUTH! . . . Public agencies often inadvertently create – or aggravate – the perception that their stakeholders can have a greater influence on the outcome than is really possible. You’ve got to be careful that you don’t create unrealistic expectations.

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