Today’s Buzz is by Will Hampton — connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn.
What I’m Watching: Nothing of note. (Waiting for final season of Game of Thrones)
What I’m Reading: First Fruits of Prayer: A Forty-Day Journey Through the Canon of St. Andrew, by Frederica Mathewes-Green
What I’m Listening To: Random Access Memories, by Daft Punk
His nickname was Public Participation Peter. I don’t recall his last name, but I’ll be forever indebted to him because he shared with me a piece of paper that hugely influenced my 21-year career in government communications.
(Is hugely a word?)
He worked for the City of Olympia, Wash. I had just started my job in Round Rock, Texas, and my City Manager sent me to the Pacific Northwest to spend a day shadowing veteran Olympia PIO Cathie Butler as well as attend a 3CMA regional conference in Portland.
Cathie gave me a condensed version of PIO 101, and I got to learn about the City of Tacoma’s singing garbagemen at the 3CMA event. Both were highly enlightening to someone who had spent his career up to that point as a newspaper editor and reporter. I learned the nuts and bolts details of my new job, and discovered you could be creative as hell when delivering government messages.
Most significant, though, was the introduction to Public Participation Peter, who in turn introduced me to something called the Bleiker Life-Preserver. Cathie said Peter was great at making sure there was meaningful public input whenever something significant was going on in his corner of the organization, which I think was waste collection.
I don’t remember anything about what he told me that day. But I’ll never forget what he handed me. It was a simple piece of white paper, with the words “The Bleiker Life-Preserver” in a kind of old English font across the top. Below that funky header it read:
Whatever you say, write or do, make sure that your Potentially Affected Interests all understand the following four points:
There really IS a serious Problem, one that just HAS to be addressed.
You ARE the right entity to address it … In fact, given your Mission, it would be IRRESPONSIBLE if you did not address it.
The approach you are using – for addressing the problem at hand – is Reasonable … Sensible … Responsible.
You ARE listening; you DO care. If, what you’re proposing, is going to HURT some interests, it’s NOT because you don’t care; it’s NOT because you’re not listening.
So simple. So profound. So very powerful.
Point 1 is critical – focus initially on the problem. Frankly, no one cares about your solution until they’re convinced there’s a problem. And this idea has really worked its way into our organizational DNA. If we’re struggling with something, it’s not uncommon for someone to ask, “What’s the problem here we’re trying to fix?” It brings real clarity to the discussion.
Point 2 establishes the legitimacy of your agency. And I could go on and on about the importance of Mission, but that’s another post for another day.
Point 3 forces you to explain and defend the problem-solving approach you’ve implemented to deal with the issue at hand. If you’ve done your technical work well, great. If not … well, you’ve got bigger problems than the Life Preserver was designed to deal with.
Point 4 may be the most important of all. I truly believe half the battle is letting citizens know they’ve been heard and that we care. To show someone we care even though what we’re proposing is going to harm them, may be the biggest challenge we’ll ever face, but the payoff will astound you. Jay Dawkins, CEO of PublicInput.com, talked about the importance of “closing the loop” with citizens in the recent GovLove podcast on engagement. Jay cited research that shows citizens trust government when they know they’ve been heard.
The Bleikers who developed this amazing Life-Preserver are Hans and Annemarie, the husband and wife team who run Bleiker Consent Building. The Bleikers (rhymes with bikers) are experts at teaching bureaucrats like you and me how to get contentious projects approved and implemented.
Most of what I wrote about in my last Morning Buzz I learned from the Bleikers.
But before I got formally trained by Hans and Annemarie, I had their Life-Preserver. I remember reading it, over and over. It was a true godsend, because the first thing my City Manager told me on Day One of my new job was, “We’ve got to find a better way to do public hearings.” I held in my hands the key for unlocking dozens of successful citizen participation initiatives, on projects ranging from transportation master plans to animal control ordinance updates to major economic development deals.
And it will work on any other communication challenge you might have, even the internal ones. I still keep a copy of the Life Preserver on my desk, though I now have one that’s a handy, laminated, business card size. Alas, the one Peter gave me is long since gone. But the knowledge has stuck, and it has been a life saver. Hugely.
(It’s a word. I looked it up.)
Will Hampton is the Communications and Marketing Director for the City of Round Rock, Texas.