Expertise is very useful to civic conversations, but every expert also holds a particular point of view.
Most citizens understand that there is never one expert whom everyone recognizes as a credible source of information. Good community conversations are designed to illuminate the various perspectives on a particular topic. These can include views from people who have studied the topic more than others or who can convey a particular body of knowledge, but every person has a right to voice his or her point of view—however that point of view is informed. If all views are not heard and respected, a community has little chance of generating quality solutions.
Posing a few thoughtful questions easily demonstrates respect and civility. Leaders and participants may even discover new ways of looking at the issue.
Reliance solely on experts to frame a problem and create the solution leads to poor results for the community. Experts play a critical role in many community-decision processes, but their role should be limited to providing factual information and research upon which community members can base good decisions. The role of experts is not to make decisions but rather to inform those decisions. In the worst cases, experts impatiently and arrogantly dismiss concerns of community members, which is a breach of their responsibility as well as a frequent source of indignation and resistance within the community.
It is too easy to blame uninformed or uneducated citizens for sabotaging community decisions. Making the right decision does not necessarily equate to a good community decision. A community that doesn’t support a solution—no matter how technically “correct”—risks frustration, broken relationships, and lawsuits. Leaders who place too much emphasis on their own or others’ expertise can get locked in a battle to prove the “rightness” of the solution (often by bringing in more experts). The better response is to engage resistant community members in a review of the expert opinions, and take the time and effort required to address community members’ concerns. This can sometimes be a slow process requiring strategic educational components such as community meetings, newspaper articles, surveys, and other mechanisms.
The good news is communities that commit to this process and dedicate time and resources to it will become better over time at gathering and sharing relevant information. The result is the community-education process becomes easier and easier. Community members learn where to go for information, and the leaders learn how to communicate with various constituents on future issues.
- Rely solely on experts to frame a problem and to create the solution.
- Dismiss concerns of community members as uninformed or uneducated.
- Drive to the one and only “right” solution.
- Have you designed the process to encourage community learning from multiple expert opinions?
- Have you allowed community concerns to help frame the problem?
- Have you remained open to more than one “right way”?
— Previous book post: Moment of Oh! – Core Principle: Understand Each Other
Greg Ranstrom and John Blakinger are authors of the new book The Moment of Oh! a guide to help communities make tough decisions.