Jim Kent:

"Human change initiatives must work at social, economic, and ecological levels if they are to succeed."

The Difference between Citizen Issue Groups and Citizen Committees

Posted by Jim on October 28, 2011


Date: July 14, 2008
To: Interested Parties
From: Jim Kent
RE: Email Communication
This is a response to a citizen caretaker who had a question about the difference
between Citizen Groups, that are so useful and successful in generating social capital
in a community, and what was going on in his town with his Towns formal control of
citizen participation through having to serve on formal Committees. The caretaker’s
comment: “ it looks like citizen involvement but the structure being used is not
empowering citizens in their governing process. So what is going on?”
Here was my response:
The best distinction is in the language in your email inquiry. Your reference to“a Citizen
Group”. A Citizen “Group” is formed for a short term task, highly focused,
accomplishment oriented, is solutions based and made up of citizens who have the skills
and talent for resolving a specific issue. It is a Group not a Committee. What your
Manager and Town Board are using are Committees. Committees are generally used to
support the formal policies of the Town Board and are not designed to empower or solve
specific issues of citizens, and are very long term. Most citizens do not want to serve on
such committees but are anxious in participating in action issue groups.
A Committee structure is like what happened at Charley’s first meeting with the new
Open Space and Trails “Committee”. The staff led by your Manager came in with the
program to hire a $50,000 consultant to work on designing an Open Space and Trails
program. Charley raised objection, stating that the Citizens are totally capable of
designing their own process and program. “After all the consultant will talk to the
citizens anyways and we are the citizens, so we do not need to hire a consultant.”
Charley’s model is Citizen Issue Group or Citizen Action Group where citizens are
empowered to address an issue in a “beginning and ending” time frame. So through
Charley’s effort they ended up with a Citizen Issue Group without the consultant and not
a long standing committee that often burns citizens out.
What was happening is that the Manager was trying to use his Town’s Committee
structure which in this case was a disenfranchisement of the citizens by essentially
announcing that “we” the staff are going to control this. “We just need this new
committee to rubber stamp our (the staff and council) decisions”. What generally
happens in a case like this is that the consultant meets with the Committee, does his
deliverables, reports to the Manager and the Manager to the Board. The rubber stamping
process was picked off by Charley because, as I mentioned earlier, he is from the Citizen
“Group” School of participation. The Citizen Group School is where the citizens are in
charge, they do the research and make the decisions with support (not management) from
the staff and the council facilitates the process (not regulates).
Committees are generally burn out for the participants because they work off of a generic
topic (not a specific accomplishable end product), staff controls and there is no letting the
citizens handle the problem in a holistic manner. Committees often function as an
extension of formal power.
Citizen Groups have tremendous energy throughout their issue resolution process. And at
the end are still energized. The Levinson Group for instance had complete responsibility
to negotiate the issues on the Levinson parcel now owned by the Town. The 3 person
group finished in 3 months and turned the results over to the Town Manager who had the
authority to write an ordinance for the Town Board that structured and funded the
solution. We now have a great town park and the Roaring Fork Nature Conservancy on
the site and the old mobile homes were bought out.
In a Committee structure you could not get such a focus because it is not constructed
around accomplishment and responsibility. It is generally structured around an
assumption of passivity and control by the powers that be, even though their intent seems
sincere.
The Town Manager formed the Comcast Citizen Group the same way as the Levinson
Citizens Group. Citizens who knew technology and the Comcast politics were appointed
to take on the Comcast issue. As citizens who knew land use and finances were on the
Levinson Group, financial and Internet Technology talent were on the Comcast Group.
This group took 6 months to do its work. One result of the negotiation is Basalt’s
Community Access station funded by Comcast. We are the only community in the valley
to have such a facility. This facility is a direct negation between citizens and Comcast.
The Town Council or staff would never have been able to accomplish this outcome as has
been shown in Aspen and Carbondale where the policy bodies did the negotiation.
Both were short term and needed specific, non-political, talent to resolve the complicated
issues. That is why Citizen Groups are so affective in building social capital and
Committees are generally not. Usually in appointing a Committee you are trying to
balance the politics, ethnicity, diverse interests and people with formal pro and con
positions.
This is not so with Citizen Issue Groups—this structure goes for talent and solutions
oriented process people on a specific actionable issue.
The River Master Plan (RMP) was a classic example of a Citizen Issues Group approach
even though it was longer termed. There were many well coordinated smaller citizen
groups and each worked on a real issue that aggregated to the whole body. These Groups
had specific names, like Kayak Location Group. The RMP Citizen Group was facilitated
by the staff and supported by the Council, and Council members participated as citizens
when in the Groups. JKA handled the community participation and policy develop part
of the process. It gave them tremendous insight from a citizen, social capital perspective
when it came time to implement the RMP.
To this day no citizen that worked on this (3 years) has talked of burn out.
This is very similar to the very successful Kona Community Development Plan process
just completed on the Big Island of Hawaii. The Steering Committee which was a
facilitative body for citizen participation, not a decision making body, is now out of
business. Their recommendations for an ordinance were approved by County Council on
a 9-0 vote in a very short time frame. Everyone knew what was in the findings and had
ownership of them. There were no surprises.
Having clear beginnings and endings is essential for citizens being able to maintain their
interest in further issue management work. The citizens even worked out an
implementation process that fit the culture and based their solutions on an incremental
time and sequence approach to very complex issues. The talent developed among the
Steering Committee (Group) is very valuable for future action. In addition the citizens
will be ready and have energy for their next challenges when they come. But clearly in
both examples above having a clear ending preserves the citizen energy and enthusiasm
to have new beginnings when the time arrives.
This short term, end state focus of the action enhances citizen spirit and the social capital
that that spirit generates.
Jim kent

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