‘Here’s a question we recently received:

“I [am] the new director of a program that has extensive public participation. What I am finding is that the history and expectation is that some public groups have way too much power over the process. In the last brown bag, I was very much in agreement with the point you made about some groups confusing the right to be heard with the right to prevail. It seems the stage is set in my situation with rather high and difficult expectations and I am wondering how to ‘fix’ this.” – T.K. from NM

Unfortunately, this is a commonplace problem for public-sector professionals; so T.K., you are in good company. At essence to the situation is the problem that members of the public (and probably even some staff) are confusing the roles of Advice-Giving and Decision-Making.

Can We Fix This?

Absolutely. The first step to take is that the MOMENT you realize that the roles of Advice-Giving and Decision-Making are being confused — YOU need to jump on it. Further, you must exploit every opportunity to correct the confusion.

How to Correct the Confusion

Look for opportunities (informal, formal, related to these stakeholders who are confused about their right to be heard versus right to prevail, as well as those that are unrelated) to get your PAIs (Potentially Affected Interests) to understand:

  1. Your MISSION (your agency or organization’s Raison d’Etre – Reason for Being), which includes:
    • WHY your organization was ever created (give the history, of WHEN and by WHOM), and what problems/opportunities it was expected to address
  2. HOW your organization works to accomplish that Mission. In other words, the Problem-Solving and Decision-Making process you and your staff use. Often what the public does not understand is:
    • RIGOR (the thoroughness and objectivity) of the process
    • the FAIRNESS of the process
    • the inherent challenges and resource limitations
    • and your collective continuing effort to be both RESPONSIVE to the public AND, at the same time, RESPONSIBLE to the mission you’ve been given.
  3. You need to emphasize:
    • that the INPUT you need is THAT input that allows you to do your job better… that assists you in accomplishing your Mission.
    • That it would be IRRESPONSIBLE of you to give-in to any input that diverts from your mission. (It is worth mentioning that it IS understandable that some stakeholders will try to get you to do precisely that… After all, they’re not responsible for the mission, on you and your staff are.)

These three steps form the basic Recipe for “Developing Your Legitimacy.”

What Shifts for Stakeholders?

When PAIs/stakeholders understand – and own up to the fact – that YOU have a mission, a RESPONSIBILITY… it’s only then that they are ready to accept that they may have the RIGHT to be HEARD by you and the organization, but that do NOT have the right to PREVAIL.

Some Additional Suggestions

Go out of your way to BLAME YOURSELF (rather than the PAIs) for somehow having created this misunderstanding of roles. Not only is this good diplomacy, it’s also the truth. It IS YOUR FAULT! Even if you are new on the scene, blame yourself and the agency at large for managing to contribute to this confusion.

Why are We at Fault for this Confusion?

Because people almost always confuse Advice-Giving and Decision-Making. . . . UNLESS you work tirelessly to prevent it. Even then, when you have prevented it, you must work to maintain a distinct understanding of the differences. Don’t let people get sucked back into confusion. This is something that requires maintenance on YOUR part.

Although PREVENTING confusion is a lot easier than straightening out confusion after the fact, it IS perfectly doable. Don’t throw up your hands, you CAN get people to understand they have the right to be heard, but not to prevail.

Thank you for bringing this problem up for discussion, and let us know if you (or anyone else) has follow-up questions, problems, or suggestions. We wish you the best of luck on straightening out this confusion about the right to be heard vs. right to prevail. Do keep us posted on how this works for you!