Please invest in the success of leaders in the public sector by providing technical assistance for their leadership development. Just like athletes, they need a practice field with coaching to make the organizational system changes required to make public participation a true reality. Many leaders hold the intention to be open, transparent and collaborative, but they do not possess the knowledge, skills and attitudes required. Research shows that clarity on strategic intent and a positive learning culture are essential. Studies also show that these elements are often missing in the public sector. What are the consequences? What do we know about what creates success?
The National Research Council studied the effectiveness of public participation efforts in the environmental realm. The Council concluded that when done well, public participation improves the quality and legitimacy of a decision and builds the capacity of all involved to engage in the policy process. Yet the book’s authors provide a cautionary note, “evidence shows that it is possible to conduct public participation processes that are counterproductive and that may be worse than not including the public at all.” The Council reviewed the results to establish critical elements for success. According to the authors, “When government agencies engage in public participation, they should do so with:
o Clarity of purpose
o A commitment to use the process to inform their actions
o Adequate funding and staff
o Appropriate timing in relation to decisions
o A focus on implementation
o A commitment to self-assessment and learning from experience."
Leaders face an enormous paradox that must be managed. Public agencies are bureaucratic hierarchies with conflicting stakeholder interests. Yet finding answers to complex problems requires shared leadership dedicated to serving the common good – gathering those impacted by a decision and listening and learning with both internal and external stakeholders. Bridging between the organizational structure and an empowered microcosm is an art form, not a science. It requires skillful, intentional, courageous and ethical leaders with good judgment and the curiosity to host strategic learning conversations.
Lastly, we suggest the government support a learning community for agencies – taking full advantage of social media tools. As Omega Point International, we initiated a Kansas + Colorado Learning Partnership with our clients at the state, county and city levels. Yet the effort is hampered by a lack of resources. Please find the resources to invest in these pioneers and others who have learned tools for thinking and acting in new ways and are committed to sharing what works and what doesn’t.
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