Identifying Open & Closed Doors

 
 

What it is:

The terms “Open” and “Closed” Doors refer to those decisions that are open to influence and those that are not.

Why does it matter?

  • The most compelling reason that someone would participate in an egagement process is that they believe there is a decision that they have an opportunity to influence.
  • The more transparent you are about what is open for influence and what is not, the easier it is for people to understand their role and what they can contribute. This builds participant trust because it is clear from the beginning what is on the table for discussion, what isn’t, and the reasons why.
  • Some doors are closed because they are beyond the mandate of your organization. Once participants understand what your organization has the power to change they will be able to contribute to your process in a more meaningful way.

Examples of how it matters:

  • Towns and cities across Ontario have been updating their Official Plans in response to direction from the Province regarding where and how growth would be accommodat- ed. In many communities there has been resistance to the idea that neighbourhoods have to grow. Planners consulting the public as part of one town’s OP review clearly explained that the decision on whether to grow was a Closed Door, since that decision had already been made (by the Province). An important Open Door remained however, which was how and where growth would be accommodated. If a participant preferred not to see any growth, then that participant was encouraged to direct their feedback to the Province. As a result, time was not taken up at the meeting discussing something that was not available for change. Instead, time was spent providing useful feedback on the Open Door.
  • “The key to successful self-gov- ernance in our Age of Information is to create a new balance between public and experts. Today that relation- ship is badly skewed toward experts at the expense of the public. This out-of-balance condition is not the result of a power struggle (though this is not wholly absent) but of a deep-rooted cultural trend that elevates the specialized knowledge of the expert to a place of high honor while denigrating the value of the public’s potentially most important contribution — a high level of thoughtful and responsible public judgment.” (Yankelovich, 1991)
  • Faced with a potentially significant budget shortfall, a major public service provider was consulting their users and the community about how services could be adjusted. Several participants were inclined to focus on fundraising (Closed Door) rather than service changes (Open Door). The consultation heavily emphasised that fundraising efforts were already being championed by a high profile working group of city leaders who were brainstorming different revenue options and who would conduct their own consultation. This made fundraising a Closed Door. By clearly explaining that this consultation was providing an opportunity to talk about adjustments in service delivery, participants were able to offer input where it was most needed
 
 

Creating a Big Tent

 
 

What it is:

The term Big Tent is intended to reflect the number of people and diversity of interests that are wel- come to an engagement process. Strong processes are open to anybody who wants to participate.

Why does it matter?

  • When you are working in the public interest every perspective matters. It is important to be as inclusive as possible, and people will look to see if your process includes participants with a balanced and diverse set of interests. Creating a Big Tent is one of the important contributions to the legitimacy of your process.
  • By having a rich and diverse mix of stakeholders, you are demonstrating that there are a number of perspectives that need to be considered by a range of interests that look at a project through different “lenses”. This also helps reinforce the fact that it’s not just what any one stakeholder says that goes.
  • When you have a full understanding of who will support or oppose your project, you know what you’re working with. You are in a stronger position to maintain and build support, and to proactively manage or address concerns.
  • Players can contribute technical expertise. They can help compile the facts, whether because of their professional training, their hands-on experience, their Internet research, or any other source of knowledge.
  • Every participant is a potential future advocate and supporter.

Examples of how it matters:

  • A large public school board was struggling to keep pools open in their schools due to high maintenance costs and limited funding. A large aquatic summit was held and anyone inter- ested in helping keeping pools open in the schools was invited. Over two years a huge range of both “the usual suspects” and a number of “unusual suspects” worked together to dramatically increase permit revenues — a very Big Tent was created. Parents from dif- ferent schools in different neighbourhoods worked together. Swimming instructors worked with non-profit groups and local businesses to raise awareness. Private foundations sup- ported advocacy efforts, seniors lobbied their elected officials, and entrepreneurs set up new swimming programs with the help of funding from companies run by former Olympians.
  • A large city was bidding to host the Olympic Games. There were a number of organiza- tions opposed to the bid because they preferred to see public funds spent addressing pri- ority social issues like poverty and homelessness. Rather than ignoring opposition groups, the Bid team worked with the anti-poverty groups to develop an Olympic Bid related plan to address social issues. Because of this inclusive Big Tent philosophy the project set a new bar for excellence in international bid submissions.
 
 

Framing the Narrative

 
 

What it is:

Framing is about the language you choose to use to describe your project. It fits issues within the context of a storyline or narrative that reflects a particular world-view that participants can relate to.  

Why it matters:

  • There may be many narratives about how and why things have unfolded. Projects need one strongly framed narrative that all stakeholders and decision makers can support. This provides a shared starting point for the discussion and acts as a steady reference throughout the process.
  • A strongly framed narrative helps organize the content of a discussion. It makes what could be overwhelming information easily understandable.  It does this by presenting content around a small number of topics that communicate what a project is about and the thinking that needs to happen to move a project forward.
  • The narrative frames the relationship between you and everyone else involved in the process. 
  • Framing is also valuable when working within your organization.  It will provide the decision maker the tools they need to sell or support your project with their peers and constituents.  When the project is described in terms of the value it can provide, it is much easier to build support and keep the overall work in the broader context.

Examples of how it matters:

  • A city was consulting the public as part of one of their regular Official Plan reviews. The city staff wanted to signal that they were open to any and all comments about the Official Plan, while at the same recognizing that not all residents are familiar with the Official Plan. The challenge was to figure out how to take a potentially overwhelming discussion and focus it in a way that residents could easily relate to. The most important framing decisions they made were (1) to tell people that the Official Plan focused on how the city grows and changes; (2) that the Official Plan directs changes to only 25% of the city’s land area, while 75% of the land (primarily stable neighbourhoods) is protected; and (3) that the consultation would focus on the changes happening in the 25% of the city where change was being directed. This framing automatically focused the scope of the discussion during the consultation to a subset of the city’s geography while at the same time managing fears that stable neighbourhoods would change.
  • A large municipally-owned public square was developing its strategic plan in consultation with the surrounding community. There was a strong desire among some participants to frame the discussion in terms of the revenue generating potential of the square, while others were keen to focus on the balance of uses of the square, including the important responsibility of the square to be available to the public. The framing of the strategic planning process was essential to its success.  Rather than having one of the two “competing” perspectives frame the discussion, the team of staff running the square framed the discussion.  They framed it in terms of confirming the role and identity of the square, which then helped inform decisions about revenue generation and users.