Giving Informed Consent and Non-Adversarial Participation

 Question #4 from March 2011 Brownbag
What about when YOU Are the Citizen Whose Consent is Needed?

One listener asked what help, or resources for help, we could suggest for the role we all play when we are in the citizen – or stakeholder – role.

Here’s how she put it:

I just participated in my first Brownbag on the topic of “Consent vs. Consensus” (March 2011). I appreciate that your target audience comprises public agencies, which is where I wear my professional hat. However, I wonder if you have any resources for how public participants (my citizen persona) can “be reasonable” and work on GIVING informed consent and encouraging others to participate in a way that allows for consent?

  • In particular, I am thinking of our local school district (which by the way, could probably use some help in this area) and how, as a parent, I can be involved without coming across as too adversarial (which I’m not, but some of my fellow parents are).

OK . . . Good question! . . . Interesting angle! . . . After all, public officials are ALSO citizens in another context!

There really are two situations in which this question arises. Let’s call them Situations “A” and “B.”

Situation A

This is the situation where you’re concerned about coming across as being “too adversarial” because you don’t entirely agree with what the school board – or its superintendent – is proposing.

In this situation you ARE criticizing their proposal. But, you don’t just want to find fault, you really want to be helpful.

In that case you’re probably asking:

  • “How can I make sure the school district listens to my ideas, and uses them in the constructive spirit in which they offered? . . . What can I do keep them from becoming defensive when I’m really trying to help them come up with an improved proposal?”

Situation B

Although we suspect that the question really was in reference to Situation A, the question also applies to this quite different Situation B.

This is where you are fully supportive of what the school board is proposing. You find nothing wrong with it, but there are plenty of other parents and other stakeholders who DO object to the board’s proposal.

In that situation, you might be asking:

  • “Although it is the school boards job to develop the public’s Informed Consent, is there a role for me in that Consent-Building effort? . . . What, if anything, can I do to keep those of my fellow parents who tend to be adversarial, rather than constructive, from making the relationship unnecessarily polarized?”

Answers to Both Situations A & B

Although situations A and B are quite different, the answers as to what you – as a parent – can do are pretty much the same.

First of all, as you hinted in the original email, it truly IS the school board’s job to develop Informed Consent for whatever they are proposing. . . No one else can really do it FOR them.

What’s helpful in both scenarios is if you make sure that the criticism (in “A” your criticism, in “B” the other parents’ criticism) is explained in terms of the four Life-Preserver points (revisit your notes, or purchase a copy of the recording from the October 2010 Brownbag on: “Using the Bleiker Life-Preserver as a Quick-and-Dirty Consent-Building Tactic”):

  1. Does the board’s proposal, maybe, NOT address a serious problem or opportunity?
    • If it DOES, give them CREDIT for that.
    • If it does NOT, help them re-focus on that question. (In both cases make sure you’re being CONSTRUCTIVE.)
  2. Is the school board, maybe, the WRONG entity to address the problem-at-hand?
    • If they ARE, give them CREDIT for it . . . PUBLICLY.
    • If they’re NOT, help them – and the public – realize that they aren’t the right entity.
  3. Has the school board been REASONABLE, SENSIBLE, RESPONSIBLE in how they have gone about analyzing the problem and generating solutions?
    • If they HAVE, give them CREDIT for that, . . . PUBLICLY.
    • If they have NOT, don’t just criticize them for that. Help identify which specific step in the Problem-Solving/Decision-Making process (refer to the diagram of the 16 Minimum Ingredients of Rigorous Problem-Solving) need to be re-visited and improved on.
  4. Has the school board LISTENED . . . and convinced all the Potentially Affected Interests that it has listened to their concerns?
    • If the board HAS, give them CREDIT for doing so . . . PUBLICLY.
    • If the board has NOT, you can play a constructive role by helping those interests, who are convinced that their concerns have not been heard ,formulate those concerns into CONSTRUCTIVE input . . . rather than just negative criticism.

To the degree you can make some, or all, of these things happen, you will play a constructive role as a citizen in HELPING the school board develop the public’s Informed Consent . . . But, it won’t – and can’t – be a substitute for THEM doing THEIR job.