Co-creating our future by building trust, empathy, and collaboration
in partnership with www.DiaPraxis.com, Great Barrington, MA
The purpose of Community Councils is to engage community members in generating constructive ways to move forward on knotty issues while also building stronger communities. When used appropriately, this format develops strong community policy directives that help elected officials and public administrators move forward effectively on challenging issues. It also generates a greater degree of trust among community members along with a greater appreciation for the complexity faced by public administrators, while building energy for constructive action.
At a time when polarization is deepening and traditional political leadership is increasingly being questioned, all of us are confronted with complex issues about the future that are challenging the effectiveness of current decision making processes. At the same time, significant democratic innovations are also being developed. The design of Community Councils is based on the many Citizens’ Councils that have been held in Austria and Germany. The international Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has recognized the Citizens’ Councils model as one of 12 best practices in their recent report on “Innovative Citizen Participation and New Democratic Institutions“, published in June 2020.
How it works:
Community Councils are convened at the invitation of a governmental, community or private entity to address complex or potentially divisive issues. For a detailed step-by-step description see page three; this is simply a brief overview.
12 to 25 community members are selected through a carefully randomized process, and invited to participate in a facilitated gathering of up to 2 days in length. The facilitation is highly structured, creating an atmosphere of intent listening and giving participants the opportunity to dive deep into their own thinking and contribute to the group. Common ground is discovered, while the full diversity of contributions are recorded, thematized and documented as a “harvest”, which is presented to the larger community and decision makers.
Citizens’ Councils are based on the Wisdom Council model created by Jim Rough, a management consultant based in Port Townsend, Washington State. Their effectiveness is fueled by a creative group process called Dynamic Facilitation. In the early 1980’s, Jim Rough worked as a Total Quality Improvement consultant in a timber company, helping hourly sawmill workers in Northern California reach creative breakthroughs on challenging workplace issues. In 1990 he began offering public seminars on Dynamic Facilitation, the powerful approach he developed during his time at the sawmill. In 1993, Jim created the “Wisdom Council,” a strategy for working with larger organizations or communities based on this method of group facilitation.
In 2005, Jim and his wife Jean were invited to teach Dynamic Facilitation in Germany. One of the participants was the director of a sustainability office in the state of Vorarlberg in Austria. Inspired by Jim’s work, this state-level office developed the Citizens’ Council format as they worked with local municipalities to address their needs. Councils have been held on various topics, including the repurposing of a rail corridor, agriculture, transportation, and land use issues. Eventually this public participation format became so popular that it was written into the State Constitution.
In 2015, this office was asked to host a state-wide Council on finding a response to the refugee crisis. This project subsequently won two national awards for being an exemplary instance of public participation. Presently, the Citizens’ Council process is increasingly being used across Central Europe.
|“To encourage people to think together, collaborate and co-create lasting and sustainable solutions, you need Citizens’ Councils or a similar process.”|
Dr. Manfred Hellrigl, former director of the Office for Future Related Issues, Vorarlberg, Austria
Some things to consider when planning a public participation project:
- Support from decision makers is key. Sponsors need to honor and integrate as much as possible the decisions or recommendations of the Council. Otherwise people simply become more cynical.
- Follow-up is essential. People need to know that their voices matter and their time was not wasted..
- It’s helpful to build capacity by starting with smaller projects, yet ones where there is a real need for new approaches.
- Repeated use of this format by the same community (with different participants each time) on a regular basis lends credibility and increases impact.
|“We believe that the disposition toward social cooperation that exists across broad sections of society should be further strengthened by […] participatory processes that harness the human capacity for empathy, trust, and cooperation..”|
Patrizia Nanz and Claus Leggewie, No Representation without Consultation: A citizens’ guide to participatory democracy p.56
Local and national resources
We use the term Community Councils to highlight the tremendous value that can emerge from “regular people” engaging in creative collaboration. As a small consultancy, we:
- Teach the Dynamic Facilitation process locally, nationally, and internationally, to organizational consultants, mediators, public engagement professionals, and interested community members.
- Provide informational resources for people interested in learning more about Wisdom Councils, Citizens’ Councils, and Community Councils;
- Offer consulting as well as customized learning opportunities for public officials and public administrators seeking to experience these approaches.
For further information about Community Councils in Western Massachusetts, please contact
Uli Nagel, firstname.lastname@example.org or Rosa Zubizarreta, email@example.com
A step-by-step guide to how a Community Council works:
A community council begins when a local governmental agency and/or local non-profit organization decides they want to sponsor, pland convene an effective public engagement process with the support of local elected officials and public administrators, to address a challenging public policy issue on which there is as yet, no ready answer.
Step One: Between 500 and 1,000 invitations are sent to community members selected through sortition ( a random selection process much like a poll or a survey) formally inviting them to participate in the Council process. From those who accept the invitation, one or two small groups of 15 are created, based on stratified sampling, to maximize diversity along several dimensions (age, gender, race, etc.)
Step Two: The Council meets for two days in a structured Dynamic Facilitation format. The intention here is to create an atmosphere where a wide variety of diverse perspectives are welcomed, and each participant has the opportunity to be deeply heard. This creative and collaborative process evokes a variety of insightful contributions, all of which are written on chart paper, sorted and eventually documented as a “harvest”. The process is also designed to help the group identify their areas of common ground.
Step Three: After the conclusion of the two days, an open public meeting is held. The Council sponsors introduce the meeting, and the Council members share their stories about their Council experience, along with their shared outcomes. All of the participants then have the opportunity to respond to the Council’s findings at small tables, and afterward share their responses with the large group.
At the end of the meeting, the Council is thanked for their work, and their membership is dissolved. The next time a Council is convened, an entirely new group of people will be selected. Also at this open public meeting, a few volunteers are invited to join in the next step of the process.
Step Four: A “Responder’s Group” is formed by the organizations who sponsored the Council. This group includes members from the sponsoring organizations, local government, and two members from the Council and/or from the public meeting. This new group then meets monthly, to track the response to and implementation of the Council’s recommendations.
Step Five: at the end of six months, the Responder’s Group presents an update at an open public meeting, on how and to what degree the recommendations of the Community Council have been implemented.
Brought to you by: www.DiaPraxis.com, Great Barrington, MA
In partnership with Living the Change Berkshires, Lee, MA