Stakeholder Involvement: The Importance of Consensus Building

Sept. 1, 2001
Many communities are challenged to address long-standing issues around the management of their drainage systems, encouraged to delve into the fray by the mandate of new water-quality regulations. The drainage system has long been managed as an ancillary service within the roadway network, or more piecemeal as the system is expanded or upsized to address development needs. The impact of a regulatory mandate is the opportunity to expand the analysis of potential change to incorporate water-quantity concerns along with those long-standing nuisance flooding problems and, perhaps, tackle those more serious structural issues that you just don’t have the resources to solve.In the arena of public policy and resource allocation, it is appropriate to take a more comprehensive look at the drainage system and address those systemwide quantity problems while you work on incorporating the water-quality protection elements. This creates a great opportunity to involve the stakeholders in the discussion. Not just a great opportunity, but I would seriously challenge you to see this as a critical component of the process.The water-quality protection requirements within the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) Phase II mandate open the door for discussion of communitywide development strategies and long-term management needs of the drainage system. Seize the opportunity to address, perhaps for the first time, a comprehensive look at the overall management of this major infrastructure. It might be your only chance to put in place changes to your design standards, improvements to your plan review process, and requirements for public/private partnerships to maintain the drainage system to the benefit of the community as a whole. NPDES, along with the Government Accounting Standards Board Statement No. 34 on infrastructure asset accounting, brings attention to the drainage system in a way that can motivate divergent and key players to come the table.But what happens once you have the attention of the various interested and impacted parties? The mystery of public policy development needs some demystifying. Reaching consensus on public policy for drainage is not only essential but also critical so that communities can accomplish the goals that are important in protecting public health, environmental health, and real property. I challenge you to bring to the table of policy discussion representatives from industry, education, neighborhoods, environmental groups, development and builder organizations, and other key voices within the community. Let all be heard and begin the process of community consensus-building.Sound a little scary? Or perhaps a lot scary? It doesn’t have to be. You will not change the ultimate outcome of voices in conflict until you are willing to create a forum for changing public policy on storm drainage that allows all voices to be heard and respected. It isn’t too good to be true. You can have the development community supporting environmental protection proactively, and you can create a supportive environment for growth. It starts with a process that is well thought out and with specific strategies, allowing for divergent opinions to find a common ground. It is not about tradeoffs or compromise. It is about respect and genuine support for recommendations and policy strategies that are agreed to by all. It is valuable to have a facilitator that is truly neutral and well versed in the subject matter. It is critical that everyone agree to the discussion format and decision-making process. Ground rules for meetings must be set, and the facilitator will ensure they are met. One voice is not dominant, but all voices are heard, all positions identified, and all points of agreement acknowledged. It is from the points of agreement that change in your policies, your strategies, and your resources will begin.No, it is not easy. If you’re looking for the easy way out, head for the nearest exit. And if your definition of stakeholder input and involvement is a public meeting–by general announcement or by invitation–a forum where you share information and ask for feedback and support, then you will always be up against someone or some group in opposition to your ideas, recommendations, or strategies. If you want to make significant changes to the future of your stormwater program, where you’ll have the community’s support and your elected officials’ support, you must invite the community to the table to participate in the act of governance. Stakeholder involvement can be extremely rewarding, both personally and professionally. Consensus building will lead to real change in the overall management of your stormwater program, and generations from now the results of your work today will be recognizable. Your community will be sustainable for the long term. It starts with an invitation to listen, share, and build on those common points of agreement. It ends with a stronger, healthier environment for all.

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