Citizen involvement in public policy decision-making is essential for success

Time dedicated to full discussion, idea generation and problem solving efforts may be extended, however, the likelihood of final project support and completion is increased if key stakeholders are involved.

Have you ever had a great idea to solve a problem being faced by your community, only to hear that a different solution was announced before you had a chance to share your idea with anyone? Was the project successful? Who has the power to decide what is going to happen in your community?

According to Ronald A. Heifetz and Riley M. Sinder,  “Political Leadership: Managing the Public’s Problem Solving,” there are proven models to follow when making decisions that will impact people in the community.

Truthfully, there are times when no public input is necessary; if the problem is easy to understand and the solution is simple. Think about a street intersection with a high number of car crashes or the results of a crash are severe due to high speed; installing a traffic signal or stop sign could be an obvious fix.

What if the problem is commonly understood but there are alternative solutions, and each solution has different consequences for different people? Suppose the local landfill fails to meet new state and federal requirements; this is a clear problem. However, garbage is collected and must be properly disposed, so what is the answer? Citizens and businesses could increase their efforts to recycle solid waste and decrease amounts going to the landfill, or the waste hauler could use a different landfill. Other options might include solid waste incineration or building a new landfill. Local leaders would benefit from public input to help decide how to solve this problem, and more than one solution might be right for the community.

Finally, there are really controversial issues, where people disagree on the fundamental problem. When no single problem can be identified, it is no wonder when people disagree on any proposed solution. A real example of this fiasco is given in the MSU Extension Citizen Planner module, “The Art of Community Planning”, with an announcement to solve a problem based on “expert” advice, with no public discussion.

About 20 years ago, a local county road commission decided to build a bridge over a river to connect two roads on opposite sides. The plan was to solve the issue of driving east to west within a 60 mile corridor without passing through a busy downtown area. Unfortunately, the true problem was not fully discussed by all stakeholders. Although the bridge may be a good solution, environmentalists didn’t like it because it disrupted wetlands, downtown business people didn’t like it because it could pull traffic away from the downtown area, and other people had additional concerns that were not addressed. In this case, people should have worked together to define all issues and then discuss options for resolving them. Although the process takes longer, there is usually success in finding a solution.

What is the real problem, and who should be involved in proposing solutions?

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