Public Involvement Techniques
1.B.d - Collaborative Task Forces
What is a collaborative task force?
A collaborative task force is a group assigned a specific task,
with a time limit for reaching a conclusion and resolving a difficult
issue, subject to ratification by official decision-makers. Its
membership usually includes local people or representatives from
interest groups, appointed by elected officials or agency executives.
Agency staff people are frequently assigned to provide technical
support. Collaborative task forces have been used on a project level
and for resolving issues within a project.
A collaborative task force differs from a civic advisory committee
and citizens on decision and policy bodies. While they focus
on similar issues, each plays a different role in the decision-making
process. A civic advisory committee acts primarily in an advisory
role, studying issues and presenting a mosaic of opinion to the
agency; consensus is not required. (See
Civic Advisory Committees.) Citizens on decision and policy
bodies are local community people appointed, along with other representatives,
to boards or agencies that make decisions or propose recommendations
to elected officials. (See Citizens on
Decision and Policy Bodies.) By contrast, a collaborative task
force usually helps solve a specific problem, working strenuously
toward consensus and presenting a strong and unified voice.
A collaborative task force has these basic features:
- A sponsoring agency committed to the process;
- A broad range of representative interests;
- Emphasis on resolving an assigned issue through consensus;
- Detailed presentations of material and technical assistance
for complete understanding of context and subject matter; and
- Serial meetings to understand and deliberate the issues.
Why is it useful?
A collaborative task force can extend community input for decision-making
and enhance self-governance. Task force discussions help agencies
understand participants qualitative values and reactions to
proposals. They can aid in development of policies, programs, and
services and in allocation of resources. A collaborative task force
was used to explore alternatives for the Charles River crossing
of Bostons proposed depressed Central Artery and to recommend
a preference to the Massachusetts Highway Department.
A collaborative task force helps resolve impasses through
a participatory process. Following a difficult process or unsettled
controversy, it involves people in solving a problem. In Fort Worth,
Texas, the issue of a controversial widening of a downtown interstate
freeway was assigned to a collaborative task force.
Decisions can be expected to have broad (although not universal)
community support. Task force members represent a broad cross-section
of interests. This helps legitimate the process and decisions. The
views expressed are typically exhaustive. Often the group begins
by making small and specific decisions early in the process; later
group decisions become somewhat easier.
Does it have special uses?
A collaborative task force deals with high-profile issues
that have generated significant public or media attention and community
polarization. It can be used productively at any time in a complex
project or planning study, but because of time and cost commitments
it is often used to resolve an impasse. If some participants or
the agency itself take intractable positions, consensus is very
difficult or impossible to achieve. (See Facilitation;
Negotiation and Mediation.)
It can bring together a wide range of opinions to assist
in exploring issues. The breadth of representation is accompanied
by depth of probing. In a collaborative task force, a great depth
of discussion is expected and can be accommodated. For example,
in Maine a group of 58 community people and agencies worked together
to explore Turnpike widening and alternative modes of transit in
implementing an initiative approved by the voters.
Who participates? And how?
Participant groups are invited by the sponsor, with the
groups selecting their representatives. Representatives are selected
from affected interests, but the collaborative task force may add
new representatives to round out its membership.
A broad cross-section of interests is desirable and may
include local governments, transportation or environmental groups,
civic or business groups, and consumer organizations. Other people
are involved through outreach and participation programs, including
open-house presentations or newsletters. (See Public
People participate by engaging in the discussion. Members
of the group react to each others opinions and bring up alternative
ideas. The facilitator guides discussion to cover all agenda items
that the group determines it wants to cover. Coaching and training
of participants in the process and in conflict resolution is sometimes
How do agencies use the output?
A collaborative task force helps resolve a difficult issue
or problem. Such a group is used primarily when an agency can seriously
commit to incorporating the groups decision into ongoing work.
Because of the important role of a collaborative task force, the
sponsor may agree to ratify its findings, if not too costly or unimplementable.
For example, the Connecticut Department of Transportation (ConnDOT)
formed a collaborative task force to deal with the difficult issues
of rebuilding an interstate highway bridge and its approaches in
downtown New Haven and agreed to accept the task forces consensus
recommendations among alternatives if technically feasible and within
The sponsor sets broad limits on issues to be explored.
A mission statement for the task force is clearly identified before
it begins its work. The schedule reflects the complexity of the
issue and the time required to come to a resolution within the task
Many sponsors observe groups in a non-participatory role
without assuming any leadership function. Representatives of the
sponsor respond to questions from the group and provide technical
assistance while retaining a neutral position. Expressions of support
for the process from high-level agency leaders also help sustain
commitment and progress, especially when a task force is wrestling
with difficult issues.
Who leads a collaborative task force?
A collaborative task force needs a facilitator to maintain
the agenda and schedule and assure that all participants are heard.
The facilitator assists participants in verbalizing or crafting
positions and in developing a constructive process for group decision-making,
problem-solving, and conflict resolution.
The facilitator plays a special role in the task force.
Feedback and encouragement to the group are required to maintain
progress in the development of issues and steps toward resolution.
Facilitators need to tell the group when the process is doing well
and warn them if a dead end or irresolvable conflict is approaching.
They may need to coach and instruct task force members in methods
of conflict resolution.
The facilitator must be viewed as neutral to the process
but supportive of the goals and outcomes determined by the group.
The chosen person may be from inside an agency but is typically
an outsider provided by the sponsor. The group can dismiss the facilitator
if it perceives that the person is not serving their interests.
What does a collaborative task force cost?
Significant resources are required. A facilitator experienced
in group processes and conflict resolution is mandatory, and staff
technical support required. Graphics—and in some cases, presentations
by technical experts in language geared to lay people—are
necessary to understand technical issues. Modeling of anticipated
impacts, structural and engineering issues, and traffic simulations
need to be explained. Each meeting can consume several hours.
Specialized consultants may be needed to provide a neutral
facilitator or technical support for complex projects. Schedules
are tailored to fit the needs of participants and the sponsor. Meetings
may be held in the evening to allow participants to attend without
interfering with daytime jobs. The time required for preparation
is substantial, because each meeting must be tailored to the agenda
determined by the group.
Policy support within an agency is required. Staff follow
the course of discussions and respond to the need for information.
A neutral meeting site not associated with the agency or any stakeholder
must be selected. Staff work is essential for preparation of meeting
minutes, notices of upcoming meetings, correspondence, newsletters,
press releases, or advertisements about outreach events.
How is it used with other techniques?
A collaborative task force uses other techniques as needed.
Brainstorming or a charrette can be integral to a task forces
work as it seeks solutions to difficult problems. (See Brainstorming;
may establish a desirable goal to work towards. (See Visioning.)
Facilitation is essential early in the process, when goal-setting
helps establish a means to measure progress. (See Facilitation.)
A task force can sponsor its own events to apprise the community
of issues and potential solutions. These events are useful ways
to elicit and review community comments and to find responses as
How is it organized?
The sponsor determines the interests to be represented on
the task force and selects a facilitator. Typically, a cross-section
of organizations is invited to participate, and each selects its
representative to the group. The task force then identifies additional
participants essential for broad representation. On two rapid transit
lines in Boston, task forces were assembled for design of each individual
station. The Federal Transit Administration has a current project
to develop collaborative decision-making processes.
A collaborative task force has a target date determined
by the sponsor to provide a framework for and guide scheduling.
For example, in Canada a task force of 24 interest groups met over
an extended period to plan a light-rail transit facility for Calgary,
Alberta. A task forces mission may be defined by the sponsor
in broad terms, but the group usually determines its own approach
to problem-solving. It is self-governing, and its work is usually
based on a consensus process rather than voting.
The sponsor sets an overall schedule, leaving detailed scheduling
to the task force itself. The sponsor provides technical support,
either from within the agency or from consultants familiar with
the topic. To retain neutrality, the technical staff should not
be co-workers of the facilitator.
The task force determines the need for a chairperson. The
group develops its own norms or rules to guide the process over
time. These may be explicit or implicit; in some instances they
are prepared in written form to remind participants of their expressed
The task force monitors its own progress. Where appropriate,
the facilitator reminds the group of the agenda and schedule and
makes suggestions to keep the work moving toward resolution.
What are the drawbacks?
The process is long and expensive. To achieve a full understanding
of all issues, an extensive number of meetings and presentations
is required. This long process demands patience, good will, and
a commitment of continued funding. Participants must make an extensive
commitment to the process. Staying with the program over a long
period of time may be difficult for many individuals. Similarly,
agency commitment is critical; the process can be long and wrenching.
A high degree of facilitation skill is required to keep
the task force on course. Technical support is needed to respond
to questions and prepare responses to unforeseen work that may be
For further information:
Alberta (Canada) (Light-rail study)
Department of Transportation, Environmental Planning Division
(Q Bridge Study)
Transit Administration Collaborative Decision-Making
Highway Department (Charles River Crossing Design Review Committee)
of Transportation (Ft. Worth study)
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For more information about the TPCB program, contact Michelle
at FHWA (202-366-9206) or John Sprowls
at FTA (202-366-5362).