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.

 

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.