Consultations and Action

I had a long coffee visit this week with a staff person whose job it is to work with a local community and to assist them to vet ideas and visions and in the end create some kind of project or program. I have been part of these public consultations and the input from the community has been impressive and lasting. This staff person is now tasked with the work of fostering continued community input, focusing on consensus, analyzing the outcomes of these consultations and identifying clear priorities for this area. It is a heady experience for him and he is clearly enjoying his work.

This focus on consultation and a process to facilitate it is a reaction to the old days of experts coming to a problem situation and using their “expert” information and experience and devising a solution than then implementing this plan. In such an execution the community is passive, in a sense their views are secondary since they don’t have access to the resources that will “fix” the problem. But almost all of these fixes were counter-productive, the legacy of this way of doing things ranges from the “white elephant” on one end of the spectrum (the solutions is ignored by the community and just sits there as a reminder of the blunder) to social damage on the other end (witness the residential schools and other examples of cultural arrogance). Thank God we have moved away from such a thought, that a small group of bright and talented white men could sit in a room and come up with a solution to a challenge they neither lived themselves, nor understood.

And so we have developed protocols of process, ways of consulting with the people directly affected by the challenge that lays before us. As someone involved in community development I have been party to these consultations for two decades and I am constantly impressed by the level of care and expertise that goes into this work. Those persons who do this work, often called “consultants” or “facilitators” have studied long and hard and they know how to elicit opinion and impressions found within the community in question. When the results are read back to the community you can see the look of “now that is us!” appearing on the faces of the participants. Job well done!

But the next steps appears to be problematic for this process. More often than not I have seen these wonderful consultations come to little action. And in a strange way this does not seem to bother those in the consultation network. I have been involved in communities on their third round of consultants and visioning reports in five years and it is amazing to me how unaffected the consultants are about the lack of action taken as a result of their work. It is as if the process really has become the end-game in the consultation business.

And if you think these comments sound overly critical and cynical you should hear the voices of marginalized people who are now just about as angry about the lack of action taken after consultation as they were when they were not consulted by so-called “experts”. Yes we have reached this point and as someone involved in community development this concerns me.

My hope is that we can find a middle ground, where consultations are extensive but where action happens sooner than later with openness to change and adaptation along the way. It is amazing the upside in a community when their visioning has come to some form of life. The tangible feeling of hope will more than make up for any mistakes or corrective action that is necessary to improve the plan.