Guest Blogger Kristen Blankley on “Taking Charge” and Facilitation

This post comes from my friend, Professor Kristen Blankley, of University of Nebraska College of Law. Kristen writes:
“On Saturday, June 18, 2011, one of my students and I volunteered to act as facilitators in Lincoln’s Nebraska’s Taking Charge 2011 roundtable discussions between Lincoln citizens and officials from the Mayor’s Office. The Taking Charge program requests citizen input on the city budget and how the Mayor’s Office should cut its services in order to balance the budget. The Taking Charge program consists of an online survey and an all-day session with other citizens and representatives of the Mayor’s Office. The online survey asked citizens to consider a series of city services and whether the city should continue to fund them. The services on the proverbial chopping block include: 1) a fire station that receives a consistently low number of service calls (approximately 350 per year, compared to an average of 3,000 for the other fire stations); 2) economic development money pegged for both new businesses and businesses expanding in Lincoln; 3) roadside tree trimming services; 4) neighborhood libraries with the fewest patrons; and 5) neighborhood pools with the lowest attendances, to name a few.
After citizens took the survey, they could volunteer to come for the all-day program, at which they learn more about these programs and would have the opportunity to work with city officials and provide those officials with their views on the issues. The program included both large-group and small-group sessions. The day started with a large group presentation at which the Mayor described the city’s revenues and budget, outlining the need for budget cuts. The program then moved into small groups, where pairs of facilitators working with approximately ten citizens per group brainstormed and chose two questions to ask city officials. Some of the small groups used a consensus model of decision-making, while others using a voting model. The purpose of this first small-group session was to give the groups a chance to work together on a relatively straightforward task and to encourage citizens to make informed decisions later in the day about the programs. Everyone had a well-deserved lunch break following this first small-group session.
Following lunch, the group reconvened as a large group, at which small-group spokespersons asked their questions of city officials – including the heads of Public Safety, Parks and Recreation, Libraries, Department of Aging, Economic Development, etc. After the question-and-answer session, the small groups re-convened with two important tasks. First, the small groups were asked to rank nine city services in order of priority. Second, the citizens then gave a “fund” or “cut” vote to each service individually, after understanding the tax implications for funding each service. After the second small-group session, the small groups reported out to the whole, including the Mayor and the heads of the departments (the officials did not participate in any of the small-group discussions).
This exercise may have been the most rewarding use of my mediation skills. Throughout the day, I used most of the skills in my mediator toolbox, including active listening, questioning, rephrasing using interests, using straw polls, finding common ground, balancing more and less assertive participants, to name a few. My group employed the consensus model of decision-making, which was a concept that my co-facilitator and I repeated throughout our small-group sessions to induce buy-in to the process. The group was a good cross-section of the community, with most age groups and many occupational groups represented. Although everyone came into our group with their own ideas and priorities, by working together, they ultimately agreed on their recommendations to the Mayor, and my belief is that everyone in my group felt heard.
Time will tell how the Mayor’s Office will ultimately balance the budget, but the exercise was a good opportunity for citizens to learn more about city finances and provide some information to the Mayor from their perspective as taxpayers. This project is not four years old, and I hope that it continues in the future. And hopefully they will invite me back as facilitator!”

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