Tag Archives: Public Involvement

Four ways to break up a coalition

If you’re in the business of building formal or informal coalitions to get things done, you know that you are going to run into people who are working just as hard to undo your good work.  As I’m currently working on a legislative initiative, I’m seeing that dynamic in action.  Here are just a few of the many potential ways that opponents try to peel away supporters (be on guard):

  1. Allege that the proposed action is insensitive at best, unethical at worst, while attacking the motivation of the proponents. Few people want to be evil, and this will cause supporters to at least temporarily question their involvement. Response: Make sure coalition front organizations are recognized positive advocates for change and that communication facts and analysis as to who is affected and how are bulletproof.
  2. Claim that the effort, while perhaps not unethical, is certainly illegal or unconstitutional, especially for obscure or highly technical reasons.  Leave a whiff of litigation threat in the air. People are so skittish about getting sucked into the American legal system that some will start to flee.  Response: Come prepared with legal precedents and analysis that the proposed change has/can withstand legal challenge.
  3. Suggest that the proposed initiative is unneeded because existing entities or organizations can make the changes under their current framework or rules/statutes.  Standing pat is a comforting position for many folks and will sap their drive, ignoring the fact that change wouldn’t be in the air if those groups had done something already.  Response:  Prepare timeline of worsening conditions and/or failed opportunities to previously address needed change.
  4. Agree that change is needed and then propose a complex administrative or funding scheme for making the change happen. The more intricate the problem-solving approach – often offered under the guise of “if we’re going to fix it, let’s get it right the first time” – almost always guarantees failure.  It ensures that the effort will likely collapse under its own weight and inertia. Or it creates a situation in which there are so many things, each hated by one person or group, that the coalition driving for change falls apart.  Response:  Stay focused on solving only the precipitating need and, to use the cliché, harvesting the low-hanging fruit first.  Further change can be pursued when successes have been established and everyone wants to be on the winning side.

Making the business case for dedicated truck lanes

Our project team, which has been studying the business case for designing and building dedicated truck lanes on 800 miles of I-70, have just  submitted our project nomination for a Transportation Planning Excellence Award.

This biennial awards program is sponsored by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), in partnership with the Transportation Research Board (TRB).

Our nomination is focused on the innovative planning goals and strategies we employed on the I-70 Dedicated Truck Lanes Feasibility Study, which was sponsored by Missouri, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio.

The Transportation Planning Excellence Awards (TPEA) Program recognizes outstanding initiatives across the country to develop, plan, and implement innovative transportation planning practices. Winners represent a variety of planning organizations from across the county, and will be published in an Excellence in Transportation Planning resource report for their peers.


What the “Superstar Effect” may mean for stakeholder engagement

There’s an interesting piece below from the Frontal Cortex about how “superstars” can depress – rather than inspire – performance among those around them.

The question for coalitionists is whether this may also apply to the task, advisory or working groups that we often use to study issues, develop solutions or build consensus.

There’s always a lot of discussion in engagement efforts regarding group composition to get a balance of interests, experience or willingness to participate.

But seldom, if ever, is there a discussion as to whether high-quality participants – stakeholder superstars – may in effect suppress the quality of thought/participation by others.

If the “Tiger Woods effect” is universal, perhaps we need to add another filter layer as we construct our engagement groups, one that attempts to group people of comparable levels of ability, if we want to maximize participation and creativity.

The Superstar Effect: ”

I’ve got a new essay in the WSJ about Tiger Woods, the hazards of playing against a superstar, and why we choke in high-pressure situations. The subplot of the piece is the positive feedback loop of success, or why winning in the past makes us more likely to win in the future. Every underdog, it turns out, has to rage against the natural insecurities of the mind (take note, Butler):

Competitors playing a match against Bobby Fischer, perhaps the greatest chess player of all time, often came down with a mysterious affliction known as ‘Fischer-fear.’ Even fellow grandmasters were vulnerable to the effect, which could manifest itself as flu-like symptoms, migraines and spiking blood pressure. As Boris Spassky, Mr. Fischer’s greatest rival, once said: ‘When you play Bobby, it is not a question of whether you win or lose. It is a question of whether you survive.’

Recent research on what is known as the superstar effect demonstrates that such mental collapses aren’t limited to chess. While challenging competitions are supposed to bring out our best, these studies demonstrate that when people are forced to compete against a peer who seems far superior, they often don’t rise to the challenge. Instead, they give up.

The negative effect of superstars has been most clearly demonstrated in professional golf, which for the last decade has been dominated by Tiger Woods. Next week, Mr. Woods ends his self-imposed exile from the game and returns to the PGA Tour at the Masters Tournament, in Augusta, Ga. It will be his first competition since November, when he won the JBWere Masters in Australia.

According to a paper by Jennifer Brown, an applied macroeconomist at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, Mr. Woods is such a dominating golfer that his presence in a tournament can make everyone else play significantly worse. Because his competitors expect him to win, they end up losing; success becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Ms. Brown argues that the superstar effect is not just relevant on the golf course. Instead, she suggests that the presence of superstars can be ‘de-motivating’ in a wide variety of competitions, from the sales office to the law firm. ‘Most people assume that competing against an elite performer makes everyone else step up their game and perform better,’ Ms. Brown says. ‘But the Tiger Woods data demonstrate that the opposite can also occur. It doesn’t matter if the superstar is an athlete or a corporate vice president. After all, why should we invest a lot of energy in a tournament that we’re probably going to lose?’

Ms. Brown discovered the superstar effect by analyzing data from every player in every PGA Tour event from 1999 to 2006. She chose golf for several reasons, from the lack of ‘confounding team dynamics’ to the immaculate statistics kept by the PGA. Most important, however, was the presence of Mr. Woods, who has dominated his sport in a way few others have.

The numbers back up the legend: When Mr. Woods’s break from golf began, in November, he had a World Golf Ranking score of 16.169, which was nearly twice the total of the next two players. He has more career major wins than any other active golfer, and has been awarded PGA Player of the Year a record 10 times.

Such domination appears to be deeply intimidating. Whenever Mr. Woods entered a tournament, every other golfer took, on average, 0.8 more strokes. This effect was even observable in the first round, with the presence of Mr. Woods leading to an additional 0.3 strokes among all golfers over the initial 18 holes. While this might sound like an insignificant difference, the average margin between first and second place in PGA Tour events is frequently just a single stroke. Interestingly, the superstar effect also varied depending on the player’s position on the leaderboard, with players closer to the lead showing a greater drop-off in performance. Based on this data, Ms. Brown calculated that the ‘superstar effect’ boosted Mr. Woods’s PGA earnings by nearly $5 million.

The analysis is really an investigation into economic tournament theory, which looks at competitive situations in which success is based on relative performance, and not absolute metrics. (It’s the difference between a sports game and a standardized test.) Modern management practice assumes that the best way to maximize employee performance is to institute sports-like tournaments, in which people compete directly against each other. Consider, for instance, the competitive structure put in place by former CEO Jack Welch at General Electric. He instituted what became known as the 20-70-10 rule: the top 20% of employees got generous financial bonuses, and the bottom 10% were ‘managed out.’

There is little doubt that, in many situations, such incentive structures lead to motivated employees, working hard for the top spots. But the presence of a superstar can reverse this dynamic, so that instead of trying our best we accept the inevitability of defeat.

According to Ms. Brown, the superstar effect is especially pronounced when the rewards for the competition are ‘nonlinear,’ or there is an extra incentive to finish first. (We assume that the superstar will win, so why chase after meaningless scraps?) Just look at golf: Not only does the tournament winner get a disproportionate amount of prize money, but he or she also gets all the glory.

Ms. Brown cites the competition among newly hired associates at a law firm as another example of a nonlinear incentive structure. ‘The lawyers know that most of them won’t be retained,’ she says. ‘They either win the competition, or they’re let go.’ The problem with such competitions is that when a superstar is present–when one of the legal associates is perceived as the clear favorite–every other lawyer is less likely to exert maximum effort. Because we assume we’re going to lose, we decide to cut our losses, which leads to an overall decrease in employee effort. The cutthroat competition made people less competitive.

Here’s the link for more.

Read the comments on this post…

(Via The Frontal Cortex.)

Why don’t we reward committed stakeholders?

I’ve been having a Facebook conversation with a colleague of mine, Erin Browning, regarding a recent post on this blog.

As our conversation has unfolded, it’s dawned on me that we seldom – if ever – directly reward stakeholders for being committed participants

Think about the typical public involvement for a typical infrastructure study, for example.

If you attend every public meeting, visit the project website regularly to stay updated, take all the surveys, go to outside information sources to learn more, what do you get?  Bupkis.

So now I’m wondering what would happen if we rewarded people for outstanding participation in a project or campaign?   Perhaps it could be something as simple – and powerful in terms of building an informed, engaged group of stakeholders – as detailing in advance a participation path along which you could promote yourself from the public to something more substantive like a topic advisory committee.

I realize I’m begging some really critical questions like how you’d measure the quantity and quality of involvement, but…..

Online meeting strategy for coalition building wins kudos from Missouri Governor

An online public meeting strategy developed in partnership between the Missouri Dept. of Transportation and HNTB’s public involvement group was honored by Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon on Oct. 15.

The Governor’s Award for Quality and Productivity recognizes State of Missouri teams that excel in the areas of excellence, efficiency, innovation, technology, process improvement, customer service and employee development.

MoDOT and its partner, HNTB Corp., an engineering firm, held Missouri’s first-ever electronic meeting to meaningfully and cost-effectively get input from the public on rebuilding Interstate 70 with lanes separating cars and trucks.  This innovative public involvement tool is believed to be only the second such online meeting in the country.  Due to this innovative approach, up to 10 times as many people attended the online public meeting than had attended previous face-to-face meetings.  MoDOT has since used virtual meetings for other projects as a way to broaden the agency’s outreach efforts and get more people involved in its decision-making process.

Representing HNTB at the award ceremony were Betty Burry and Michael DeMent, APR.

The online public meeting was honored earlier in the week as 2009’s best public involvement approach in the nation at the 2009 National Transportation Public Affairs Workshop. NTPAW is a national organization representing public affairs, public involvement and communications professionals at the nation’s departments of transportation.

Is there a place for social profile screening in coalition building?

Mashable: 45% of Employers Now Screen Social Media Profiles:

Nearly 1 in 2 companies are doing their online due diligence for prospective job candidates, according to research firm Harris Interactive.

HI was “commissioned by CareerBuilder.com and surveyed 2,667 HR professionals, finding that 45% of them use social networking sites to research job candidates, with an additional 11% planning to implement social media screening in the very near future.

According to the study, ‘thirty-five percent of employers reported they have found content on social networking sites that caused them not to hire the candidate.’ The big lessons you can learn are quite obvious, but bear repeating. Provocative photos and info are a bad idea (53% of employers won’t hire you), shared content with booze and drugs is also highly dangerous (44% dismissed candidates for this reason), and bad-mouthing former employers is very risky behavior (35% reported this as the main reason they didn’t hire a candidate).”

(This might be a good time to see if you pass the social media recruitment test.)

The interesting question is whether this growing employment trend has a place for coalition building and stakeholder engagement.

Should people who want to be engaged in a community decision-making process or issue advocacy effort be vetted at even the most rudimentary level and, based on results, steered to or away from the initiative?

If you’re responsible for maximizing the value, effectiveness and/or and inclusiveness of such efforts, do you have a responsibility to try and weed out wackos, criminals or others? And if so, how do you establish the criteria for in or out?

What do you thinK?

Open source public engagement

I’ve been pondering the typical state of public involvement and civic engagement processes since reading a great article in Business Week that compares and contrasts Detroit automakers with Google.

The negative comparison the article draws between Google and Detroit is one that could be drawn with in relation to PI (assuming Google really is or should be the paradigm). 

How PI is implemented often has more to due with bad law, bad precedent and bad habits than with effective consideration of stakeholder information needs, communications preferences, learning styles or participation preferences/barriers.

Sounds positively SUVish, doesn’t it?

(And yet, ironically, get two or more PI practitioners in a room together and that’s all they’re focused on – trying to figure out how to brings stakeholders into developing and participating in the process despite habit, budget and discomfort of higher ups.)

So let me propose a thought experiment based on the interesting sidebar to the Google car article: “A Management Tip Sheet.”

I’d like to use its framework to ask some questions about what we as PI practitioners might keep or toss if we did our work using the Google model – at least to the extent allowed by law, money and daring.

So, with apologies to Business Week, how would our discipline change if we used the following Google principles: 


Much of public involvement is focused on narrowing the range of information stakeholders get. 

Partly it’s a rational allocation of project team resources.  Partly it’s because we want to get information just right so as to minimize confusion and demand on busy stakeholders’ time.  

But if we’re being honest, it’s also driven by concerns that stakeholders will gain access to information or perspectives that we think are wrong, incomplete or “fringe.”

But what would happen if – like Google – we broadened stakeholder access to all kinds of information via outbound and reciprocal links (even or especially with critics), suggested key word searches, and the like?

What if we ranked the information based on our assessment of the validity just as Google does with its rankings?

Holding on tightly to information may actually defeat our goal of more participation.  Research that shows the most engaged individuals are those who know very little – or a whole lot – on a topic.  So a case can be made that we build participation – and trust – by loading the bejeebers out of stakeholders with access to info of varying types and quality


PI practitioners spend a lot of time making it perfect – plans, processes, messages, content – from an organizational perspective.

But is there room – and even value – for “good enough” in PI as there is in software, where the idea or product is given to the users to respond to, criticize and improve upon from their own perspective of understanding, usability,  etc.

What if we started communicating with the public and stakeholders when information wasn’t completely available, plans not totally formulated, even when the engagement plan itself wasn’t drafted? 

Would we discover that the information we provided, the tools we used, would differ greatly if we asked the targets how they wanted to be aimed at and with what?

If we were trying to build internal support for our ideas and actions, we would involve our colleagues and associates from the beginning; yet we don’t know the same when dealing with external audiences. We come to them having made very fundamental decisions about need, communication, etc.


Some of the questions posed earlier really lead to a more global thought experiment.  What if you gave complete control of a public involvement process over to the public you’re trying to involve? 

Through wikis, social sharing sites and communities, the technology exists to ask a group of stakeholders to think about, draft, edit, consult and agree on at least the communication plan for a project.  Heck, we might even be able to enlist some of them to carry out the implementation. 

And if you think that’s crazy – some would claim that approach just played a key role in electing our new president.


PI isn’t free; we exact a significant time price from people we ask to be and stay involved.  When people judge the cost to be too high, we’re frustrated when they don’t participate or worry about the effectiveness of what we do.

So what would be the impact – or the benefit – if our communication efforts were focused only on sketching the outlines of what we think the project solution is going to be? If we came up with a preliminary idea for a solution and then asked people to give a thumbs up or thumbs down on it before deciding whether or how we’re going to proceed with a project or its engagement process?


We ask stakeholders a lot of questions and seek a a bunch of feedback within the boundaries of what we deem to be objective criteria. 

But many times we fail to listen to, or denigrate, non-technical responses from stakeholders.

However, what would happen if we gave greater weight to those subjective assessments.  What if every project came with its own “Evil/Not Evil” gauge driven by the subjective, ineffable sense of stakeholders for what they want their community to be? 

Is there – should there be – room in public decision-making for acknowledging that sometimes things that are logical just don’t feel right – and thus should be put on hold or abandoned?