Public Involvement Techniques

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1. Informing People Through Outreach and Organizationskip page navigation

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1.B - Bringing a Core Participation Group Together
1.B.a - Community-Based Organizations
1.B.b - Civic Advisory Committees
1.B.c - Citizens on Decision and Policy Boards
1.B.d - Collaborative Task Forces

1. Introduction

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 Boston’s 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 Information Materials.)

People participate by engaging in the discussion. Members of the group react to each other’s 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 necessary.

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 group’s 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 force’s consensus recommendations among alternatives if technically feasible and within the budget.

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 force.

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 force’s work as it seeks solutions to difficult problems. (See Brainstorming; Charrettes.) Visioning 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 appropriate.

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 force’s 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 intent.

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 requested.

For further information:

Calgary, Alberta (Canada) (Light-rail study) (403) 268-1612
Connecticut Department of Transportation, Environmental Planning Division (Q Bridge Study) (860) 594-2939
Federal Transit Administration Collaborative Decision-Making (202) 366-4060
Massachusetts Highway Department (Charles River Crossing Design Review Committee) (617) 973-7000
Texas Department of Transportation (Ft. Worth study) (871) 370-6542

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