Answering Questions from the Consent vs. Consensus (March 2011) Brownbag

Question #1: Getting Informed Consent When Your Project is a Stakeholder’s Worst Option

A listener from the Alaska Fish and Game Department asked a question that Hans promised to answer in the Blog. The participant’s question was along the following lines:

“OK Hans, in your story about Benjamin Franklin – you explained why HE was Consenting to ‘go along’ with the adoption of a Constitution that he, actually, was opposed to. In that scenario, he had the luxury of saying that the consequences of having a walk-out, losing a quorum, and not adopting ANY Constitution would be VERY grave: the British would not only waltz back in, they would probably be welcome to waltz back in because the government that was in place really was NOT working.

  • So, in a way, he had the ‘luxury’ of predicting a very bad scenario, if the delegates did not Consent to the adoption of the Constitution.
  • What if, . . . one doesn’t have that option? In other words, what if the course of action you are asking a stakeholder to Consent to is – at least for that particular stakeholder – far worse than what will happen if nothing gets done (the null alternative)?”

Fair question! . . . And, as Hans mentioned during the Brownbag session on March 8th, he wanted to take more time to answer the question than the remaining time during the Brownbag session was going to allow.

As we see it, there are two different questions contained within the above question. The questioner might have had either one in mind, so we will answer both of them. Let’s call them Question A and Question B.
Question Relative to Situation A:

  • What if the solution (the plan) you are asking stakeholders to Consent to, has serious negative impacts on those stakeholders . . . when, in fact, nothing bad is going to happen – to anybody — if NO solution is implemented?

Question Relative to Situation B:

  • What if the solution (the plan) you are asking stakeholders to Consent to, has serious negative impacts on those stakeholders . . . when implementing NO solutions DOES have dire consequences for some people – but not for the stakeholders in question?

These, indeed, are two very different situations. First, we’ll deal with question A, then tackle question B.

Situation A

When a public agency proposes ANY project, program, plan, regulation, bond issue, taxing scheme, etc. . . . that proposal MUST (at least in the United States) satisfy the 1st and 2nd Laws of Public Administration (which we have defined in our SDIC courses and in previous Brownbag sessions).

Unless the proposal in question satisfies those two GIANT Laws, it is NOT a LEGITIMATE proposal. (Just ask any of your colleagues who have had our 3-day SDIC course within the last 30 years, and they’ll fill you in on this topic!)

Legitimacy is a BIG deal; you, your team, and whatever you are proposing MUST have it. There’s a lot to legitimacy. (We will, in fact, get much deeper into the sub-components of legitimacy as part of the July 12th, 2011 Brownbag session.) But, let us for now, talk about the MINIMUM ingredients of legitimacy; they ARE the 1st and 2nd Laws . . .

1st Law of Public Administration

For ANY public-sector:

  • Project,
  • Program,
  • Plan,
  • Regulation,
  • Taxing or bonding scheme, etc…

that does NOT address a serious problem – or opportunity – and or that’s PERCEIVED not to address a serious problem or opportunity . . . is living on borrowed time.

2nd Law of Public Administration

Unless you can argue convincingly that failure to solve / or prevent the problem-at-hand (or make the most of the opportunity-at-hand) will significantly reduce someone’s Quality of Life below:

  • What it is,
  • What it could be,
  • What it ought to be,

you will have a hard time convincing the American public that the problem-at-hand (or the opportunity-at-hand) is a SERIOUS one.

Now, to answer Question #1

Situation A describes a governmental proposal that fails to meet these two laws.

The consequence is that the public (at least the American public) won’t consider that proposal a LEGITIMATE proposal . . . chances are, neither do YOU.

Situation A DOES happen. And, it DOES need to be addressed. But, it’s not a Citizen Participation problem; it’s a MANAGEMENT problem. Just because it doesn’t involve citizens, doesn’t mean you don’t have to do Consent-Building. But, it’s your boss and your boss’ bosses (i.e. your agency’s policy-makers) whose Informed Consent you need to develop.

You need to get them to consent that your agency shouldn’t be proposing what it is proposing.

If and when you are in Situation A, take a careful second and third look into Steps 1, 2, and 3 (of the Diagram with the 16 Minimum Ingredients of Rigorous Problem-Solving that was included as part of the Handout material for the March 8, 2011 Brownbag.) If YOU feel that “failure to implement a solution” will NOT have serious consequences on ANYONE, you obviously feel there isn’t a “serious problem” (Steps 1 and 2) that your agency – because of its mission (Step 3) HAS TO address.

And yet, the project obviously DID wind up in your IN-basket. What you need to do is develop your boss’ Informed Consent that your agency has better things to do than to address NON-problems . . . And, don’t tell us that it can’t be done. Of course it’s sensitive business! You’ve got to be diplomatic, patient, and – most of all – CONSTRUCTIVE.

You need to ask yourself: “What can I do so my boss, and my boss’ bosses, see what I see?”

You need to use the exact same Consent-Building skills and tactics that you use with your external publics, in other words:

  • The ‘Bleiker Life Preserver’ is probably the most powerful structure for convincing your boss:
  • That continuing to try to sell the public a Solution to a NON-problem damages your agency’s LEGITIMACY . . . not a good idea,
  • That continuing to do things that damage your agency’s legitimacy constitutes a serious problem, . . . one that just has to be addressed, . . . etc.
  • Revisit the October, 2010 Brownbag session “Using the Bleiker Life Preserver as a Quick-and-Dirty Consent-Building Tactic” for an in-depth explanation on how to do it.

Step 1 of EVERY Problem-Solving process is “Define the Problem.” Notice that in the Handout Diagram Step 1 also mentions that you need to “Articulate the Null-Alternative.” If you try to do that in the case of a NON-problem (i.e. in a Situation A case) you’ll stop yourself right there in your tracks . . . right there at Step 1 . . . BEFORE you waste several months of your life, and someone’s tax money!
Remember from several earlier Brownbags that there is much more to the Null-Alternative than meets the eye.

Here’s the definition of the Null-Alternative

“The ‘Null-Alternative’ is that sequence of events that . . . most likely . . . will come to pass, if NO workable solution is implemented.”

Situation B addresses the following

What if the solution (the plan) you are asking stakeholders to go along with, has serious negative impacts on those stakeholders . . . When implementing NO solution DOES have dire consequences for some people – but NOT for the stakeholders in question?
Another way to phrase situation B: What about the situation where the course of action you are proposing IS bad news for a particular stakeholder, and where that stakeholder – therefore—PREFERS the Null-Alternative?

That stakeholder, obviously, has an incentive to torpedo your proposal. After all, that’s how the Null-Alternative comes about: someone finds a way to prevent the implementation of a solution.

Well, if THAT’s the QUESTION, . . . then What’s the Answer?

The answer is simple . . . REAL simple:

  • It’s ALWAYS like that! . . . Situation “B” ALWAYS exists! . . .
  • That’s PRECISELY what Consent-Building is all about. . .

It’s about getting those stakeholders who are going be HURT by your proposal – and who, therefore, OPPOSE your proposal – to ‘go along’ with implementing a solution, . . . a solution that’s NOT in their best interest.

In other words, Situation “B” is not some special case. “Systematic Development of Informed Consent” (SDIC) is the management/and communications strategy for nudging your fiercest opponents off the “Over-my-Dead-Body” position . . . up as high as possible on the Agreement/Disagreement Scale . . . at a minimum up to the “Informed Consent” position. At that point those opponents, though still opponents, are – grudgingly – willing to ‘go along’ with a course of action they, actually, are opposed to.

Needless to say, pulling THAT off is no easy task. Pulling it off ALL THE TIME . . . on EVERY project, on EVERY plan, on EVERY proposal, . . . is what qualifies a person as an “Implementation Genius.” Being able to pull it off all the time – i.e. SYSTEMATICALLY — is so amazing and, to an agency, so valuable is absolutely amazing.

That’s why we have studied the methods and tactics of Implementation Geniuses for decades. And, that’s why we do what we can to teach those of you who are interested in becoming Implementation Geniuses everything we’ve learned in the past 43 years. (1968 was our first encounter with an Implementation Genius.)