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Promoting Collaboration and Inclusion in Land Use Planning

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By The Center for Public Policy at VCU’s Wilder School
August 29, 2019

“If you want to make enemies, try to change something” —Woodrow Wilson

Although Wilson made that statement in the early 1900s, the message still rings true today. Change isn’t always easy, and it isn’t always accepted or wished for, but it helps to move our communities forward. As public administrators we encounter—and help to create— change on a daily basis. This is also true for subsets of the public policy and administration fields, including land use and planning. Fortunately, we can mitigate some of the challenges and concerns that come with change by incorporating collaboration and inclusion into decisionmaking processes.

Through our Land Use Education Program, the Center for Public Policy at VCU’s Wilder School provides training and educational programs that help planners make decisions that are legal, fact-based, community-oriented and equitable. As we work with planners, we consistently hear stories of successes they’ve encountered during collaborations, as well as challenges they’ve faced while trying to make a collaboration successful. This includes collaborating with fellow planners; collaborating with government agencies, nonprofits, and businesses; and collaborating with members of the community.

These stories led us to seek out promising practices for engaging in collaborations during the planning process. As a starting point, we considered a few questions might arise as collaborations are initiated:

  • What do we—as a community—want to achieve?
  • Who will be impacted and, therefore, who do we need to involve in the planning process?
  • How can we form an effective team?
  • What are current barriers to collaboration, and how can we address them?
  • How can we reach a consensus?
  • How do we know when we’ve achieved success?

The answer to the first question will likely be found in existing documents (e.g. a community’s comprehensive plan). Though the degree to which the comprehensive plan provides specifics will vary, this document should serve as a guide for the community’s future. This plan should be periodically revisited to ensure relevance, and this revisiting and updating process is an excellent example of a time when collaboration can take place.

Addressing the second question of who should be involved in a collaborative process poses challenges and opportunities. Planners may want to consider scope, i.e., who can reasonably be included in collaborative efforts, and to what degree people will be involved. Some may become involved in the planning process by sharing their thoughts at a meeting of the planning commission (a lower level of involvement), while others may become involved by serving on a special committee (a higher level of involvement). It may also be important to remember times when collaboration may not be needed. This could include instances in which issues are already well-understood and there is existing consensus, minor problems that do not warrant the time or cost needed to collaborate or times in which immediate action is needed.

FEMA provides an excellent resource that addresses how to form effective team-building. While their focus in on planning in emergency situations, the recommendations can easily be applied to routine planning as well. Their recommendations include having:

  • Participative leadership.
  • Shared responsibility.
  • A commitment to a common purpose and performance goals.
  • The utilization of resources and talents.
  • Open communication.
  • The capacity for self-evaluation.

The FEMA document also addresses barriers to effective collaboration. Primarily, turf concerns (e.g. a lack of role clarity, conflicting goals, the desire for power and/or competition for resources) and mistrust (different values, unfamiliarity, a lack of prior relationships and/or withholding information). While these challenges are all nuanced and won’t have simple one-size-fits-all solutions, planners can work to build trust and understanding by identifying common goals, ground rules and purpose. By seeking common ground, all involved can in turn focus on areas of agreement.

When seeking to reach a consensus once barriers to collaboration have been overcome, there isn’t typically one right or wrong way find common ground. There are, however, promising practices:

  • Welcoming participation from all stakeholders.
  • Working to build relationships.
  • Determining how a decision will be reached (e.g. unanimous decision, majority decision, committee decision, etc.).
  • Focusing on whole group thinking rather than individual thinking.

In other words, those making a decision should provide ample opportunities for stakeholders to have a voice, work to build relationships grounded in trust and respect with these stakeholders, identify common goals and metrics, and continually ask – “what is the best outcome for all involved?”

This brings us to the final question: how do we know when we’ve achieved success? As was the case with the question on reaching consensus, the answer will look different for each community, but three indicators include:

  • Alignment with existing plans (e.g. the comprehensive plan).
  • The satisfaction of all stakeholders.
  • An equitable result for all stakeholders.

Just as creating collaborative processes is important, it’s also important to take the time to recognize and celebrate success. Enjoy the work you’ve done, recognize and thank those involved, remember what you’ve learned and take pride in the ways in which you’ve helped to build your community’s future.


Authors: The Center for Public Policy aims to advance research and training that informs public policy and decision-making to improve our communities. We provide diverse public-facing services including leadership development and training, economic and policy impact analysis, survey insights and program evaluation to clients in state and local governments, nonprofit organizations, businesses and the public, across Virginia and beyond.

Contact email: [email protected]

Twitter: @CPPatVCU

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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