Beyond stalemate: New decision-making models foster better solutions

Shuvonda Harper works out of the Edington Center on Livingston Street. Harper uses new facilitation techniques to encourage inclusive self-governance in the Residents Council of the Asheville Housing Authority. Photo by Virginia Daffron

Across the country, entrenched differences make issues such as gun control, immigration, abortion and budget priorities seem essentially unsolvable. In Raleigh, the two major political parties tussle over expanding Medicaid, moving toward clean power, funding public education and investing in infrastructure. Closer to home, neighbors and city officials argue about the fate of the vacant city lot across from the U.S. Cellular Center and whether property owners should be allowed to rent out their homes to short-term guests.

At every level, it seems, Americans find themselves locked in ideological conflict, with few useful solutions in sight. And faced with polarization and a culture of siloed thinking, we resort to all kinds of destructive strategies, says local consultant Tracy Kunkler. “We use a whole range of tactics: trying to convince, digging in, pitting one group against another and stalemate,” she explains. But the root of the problem isn’t corrupt politicians, self-serving special interests or even incivility in online forums like Facebook. “This is the outcome of the systems that are in place,” she asserts.

Instead of business as usual, we need a new process that recognizes the complexities of decision-making in an interconnected world that’s facing significant shared challenges, Kunkler and her business partner, Michelle Smith, maintain.

Changing the infrastructure

One of the millions of American jobs lost to the Great Recession in 2009 belonged to Smith. To fill her days and reclaim a sense of control, she began working as a volunteer organizer to support passage of the Affordable Care Act.

“And then, at the end of it, to see what we got for all that effort…” her voice trails off. Smith pauses and then says, “The process was horrible, and no one liked what we ended up with.”

“If this is the best we can do, how are we going to address the enormous issues facing humanity?” she wondered. Smith concluded that achieving the kind of change people want is not about changing leadership or policies: “It’s the infrastructure of decision-making that has to change.”

To that end, Smith and Kunkler now focus on what they call a “key leverage point” in changing the way systems of power work: the rules that govern how organizations gather information and make decisions.

And they’re not alone: Asheville is emerging as a center for thought leaders and facilitators promoting new decision-making strategies that aim to incorporate the entire community’s experiences, desires, creativity, concerns and objections.

Crafting better solutions

Three years ago, Asheville entrepreneur Ty Hallock, the founder of TopFloorStudio, sold the business and traveled to Bhutan to think about what would come next in his life. In what he describes as “literally an epiphany,” Hallock realized he wanted to use his technical skills to broaden participation in the decision-making process.

Upon his return, Hallock founded the Asheville Creative Facilitators Meetup; today, the group boasts some 200 participants; monthly meetings draw 30 to 50 attendees. To Hallock’s surprise, however, he discovered that Western North Carolina was already home to many luminaries in the field.

Juanita Brown and David Isaacs, who now live in Burnsville, created the World Café approach, which has been used by such high-profile organizations as the United Nations, the European Union, many U.S. government agencies and international corporations. Cheri Torres, co-author of the 2005 book Dynamic Relationships: Unleashing the Power of Appreciative Inquiry in Daily Living, makes her home in Asheville and works on projects locally and across the country. Asheville resident Chad Littlefield is co-author of a recent book on team-building activities. And Flat Rock residents Maureen McCarthy and Zelle Nelson are known for developing “collaboration documents” to replace traditional business contracts.

According to Hallock, other nationally and internationally recognized facilitators who’ve worked in Asheville include Jim Rough, creator of the Dynamic Facilitation model; Tom Atlee, author of The Tao of Democracy; and Dominic Barter, creator of the Restorative Circles process.

Dana Roberts, a retired nuclear submarine commander and former inspector general of the Atlantic Fleet, owned a piece of property in Avery’s Creek for several years before relocating here. “I’ve been amazed at how much facilitation knowledge and background exists in the Asheville area,” says Roberts, who’s now the director of online education for the Mid-Atlantic Facilitators’ Network. “I’ve been blown away by it. I didn’t expect it at all when I moved here.”

In describing their methods, individual facilitators use different terminologies; the common thread, says Kunkler, is a commitment to inclusive processes. “Nobody has the complete picture,” she explains, but including diverse perspectives creates better solutions that more people can support.

Beyond Robert’s Rules

“The assumption gets made that the process in place now is there because it’s the best one,” says Smith. But while Robert’s Rules of Order and other governance models may have been useful tools at one time, Smith believes we’ve moved on.

“Right now, people have to make a big effort to participate in the process. In Asheville, if they want to make their voice heard, they have to sit in City Hall for hours until their issue comes up in front of Council,” she points out. That requires free time and an inclination for public speaking that many people just don’t have.

“We want to create the conditions for collaboration,” continues Smith. “When we empower people to talk to each other, they will come up with solutions that integrate the interests of all, rather than pushing one interest to the exclusion of others.”

Kunkler agrees, saying facilitative leadership methods could make government task forces and advisory committees more effective. “It’s possible to work through conflicts,” she asserts. “We have the opportunity to create a different outcome by working together to solve our own problems. We could be a model for other places.”

Government, they maintain, has a key role in creating the conditions for this kind of shared decision-making to happen. In the Netherlands, where a form of participative governance called Sociocracy was first developed, principles of consent and circle-based decision-making processes are widely used in public, private and nonprofit organizations. In Austria, the Wisdom Council method of soliciting public input is being used to address such difficult issues as Europe’s immigration crisis.

Other voices, other rooms

In Asheville, notes Kunkler, a few pioneering groups are already using the dynamic governance methods she and others teach.

The Asheville Housing Authority’s Residents Council is a prime example. With funding from the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, Kunkler trained a group of public housing residents in the Circle Forward method.

Shuvonda Harper, a mother of two who grew up in public housing in Asheville, moved to the Walton Street community after a stint living in Florida. Dissatisfied with the violence and other negative behaviors she encountered, however, Harper decided “This can’t happen around my kids” and resolved to become “that community mom like I grew up with.”

When Harper first saw the Circle Forward approach used at a meeting of the Walton Street Community Association, she recalls, “I thought, now this is cool.” Using a “scribe” to capture participants’ input, says Harper, “made me feel like my voice is being heard and recorded. You could see it, and that opened up a whole new world for me.”

But though she was eager to sign up for the Circle Forward training, she laughs about some aspects of it. “They have this one video with a sailboat. Well, people who live in housing, they can’t really relate to a sailboat,” says Harper, adding, “But that was good feedback for [Kunkler]: Now she can tweak things for this audience.”

It wasn’t a big problem, though, and Harper now uses those skills to facilitate various group meetings. Five days a week, she works out of the Residents Council’s offices in the Arthur R. Edington Education & Career Center on Livingston Street.

Changing the decision-making and community-input dynamic hasn’t been easy, says Harper. “It’s taken some effort to get everybody in the loop and to understand this process. When you’re used to doing things one way and then you switch it up, it does kinda drag things out,” she concedes. “But it saves time over the long run, because you don’t have to go back and revisit things. You can go ahead and hash it out up front.”

In the past, continues Harper, “Sometimes one person would make decisions for everybody. That destroys trust, and now we’re left cleaning up that mess.” And a year into the new process, the Residents Council leaders’ efforts are starting to pay off. “We’ve got our feet on the ground, and we’re showing that we’re about business. We’re going to make stuff happen. … People are starting to get stirred up now,” she reports.

One group of residents Harper coordinated competed for and won a contract to provide curbside trash pickup in the public housing neighborhoods for items that don’t fit in the city’s collection bins, and to clean out apartments after someone’s moved out. “We went through that process to get that contract, and now we’re rolling,” notes Harper.

Another successful effort was the My Community Matters Empowerment Program, which the Residents Council proposed to the Housing Authority. Last summer, 30 kids attended a five-week camp that included such community service activities as cleaning up trash and painting murals, alongside educational and goal-setting exercises. Participants each earned $50 per week for their service. This summer, the residents are aiming for eight weeks of similar programming.

Food matters

The Asheville Buncombe Food Policy Council has also adopted a dynamic governance model, says Mary Lou Kemph, a registered nurse who’s volunteered with the group since its inception late in 2011.

During meetings, she says, discussion moves in a circle; after hearing everyone’s viewpoint, the group fashions a proposal, gets additional input and modifies the proposal accordingly. “It’s the facilitator’s role to ensure that everyone’s concerns have been heard and addressed,” Kemph explains. The goal, she says, is not necessarily consensus but arriving at a compromise that everyone can live with.

Food Policy Council member Jillian Wolf describes the difference this way: “An intentional community might spend weeks stuck on the color to paint the house. Meanwhile the process comes to a halt,” while community members wear themselves out trying to reach complete agreement. Dynamic governance, by contrast, aims for “good-enough” decisions. “If we need to amend it after we try it out, we can come back to it later,” notes Wolf.

Group members participate in “clusters” focused on specific topics such as land use, pollinators, water and access to food. Each cluster uses the circle process to develop recommended actions and then selects two representatives: One takes the proposals to the full council; the other reports back to the cluster. Separating those two roles, says Kemph, reduces the likelihood that individual agendas will influence the process.

For newcomers, the idea of compromise can seem challenging, she reveals. “We’re so used to a strong person saying, ‘This is what we are going to do.’ But in this model, it’s important for people to understand that everyone’s ideas matter.”

And once they become comfortable with the method, continues Kemph, “It opens up the creative process. People are more willing to brainstorm solutions. If they have a concern, instead of being labeled ‘not a team player,’ they can be seen as raising an important concern that no one else saw.”

And while it can be hard for those who haven’t used the method to appreciate how effective it can be, she says, the benefits outweigh the extra effort. “This is a healthier way of making decisions. Emotionally, it brings people together in a creative way. I wish more organizations did this.”

Coming into the myth

Cheri Torres has been working to encourage the development of more sustainable social, environmental and economic systems since 1998. “When we really involve all the stakeholders in the designing process, it’s easy for them to make the leap to implementation: People commit to what they help create,” she explains.

In 2011, Torres helped facilitate a two-day Children First/Communities in Schools summit attended by 120 participants: representatives of local organizations, community leaders, low-income individuals and interested community members. The resulting Success Equation program works to eliminate the root causes of child poverty.

Local governments, says Torres, have traditionally worked by soliciting public input, and “Then we wait for government to make something happen.” In a participative model, the public is involved in both creating and implementing solutions.

Of course, some issues don’t readily lend themselves to that degree of public participation. Torres cites the Interstate 26 connector project as an example. “Because citizens can’t build interstates,” she explains, the connector is the type of issue better managed through existing public input processes.

Nonetheless, says Torres, meaningful public engagement can help address a broad range of issues, from poverty to transportation to jobs to housing. “Anytime you engage people in something they care about, you set the stage for the possibility to co-create the future. It’s a powerful, positive approach.”

Smith, too, sees tremendous possibilities for changing the rules of the game and creating solutions that residents from many different backgrounds can feel good about. “This is a chance for Asheville to come into its myth of itself,” she declares.


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About Virginia Daffron
Managing editor, lover of mountains, native of WNC. Follow me @virginiadaffron

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8 thoughts on “Beyond stalemate: New decision-making models foster better solutions

  1. Asheville is lucky to have a wealth of creative facilitators who can move our communities toward positive self-organizing and collaborative decision-making. What a great article, @VirginiaDaffron! Thanks!

  2. The Big Sort is both the cause of federal gridlock and the solution because it causes local consensus as political minorities move out and to other places where they can be majorities. Federal gridlock is good because a house divided against itself cannot oppress the world or home rule. People are voting with their feet and should do so more. For example Buncombe Distict 2, or Fletcher, are the most empowering places for Asheville conservatives now.

    • hauntedheadnc

      Just out of curiosity here, out of a seven hour school day, exactly how many hours do you think should be devoted per day to contraceptive education?

  3. Team players are tyrannizing the world! the circle rep reporting to the large council is wide open to inject personal agendas, even more so than with the existing system.

    • Virginia Daffron

      As I understand it, the “report back to the smaller circle” rep is there to rat them out if they do.

  4. What we need to do is use recall petitions to recall ALL politicians.
    We need recall petitions and recall elections for all city and town candidates because recalls are the only time that citizens can vote against politicians. Thus very different and far more cynical voters would turn out for recall elections than would ever turn out for a regular election, where you can only vote for the lesser evil, never against. We need many more recall elections in order to turn out the cynic vote, who could easily outnumber regular voters in city and town
    elections several times over. Many cynics would vote in recalls who would never vote in any other election.

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