It’s a spectacle we’ve seen a thousand times: Someone comes up with a grand idea. The idea is introduced to the public. Interest groups emerge to support or oppose the idea. Egos and reputations become heavily invested in the outcome. Positions harden.
Unfortunately, the end result, quite often, is no one is satisfied and everyone leaves cynical about the process.
Some 15 years ago, a group of people in Utah imagined a different approach for making big decisions about big public issues. They devised a model for public participation that has become wildly successful. It is an approach that has influenced planning decisions in roughly 80 different regions of the country, from cities like San Diego, Chicago, Baltimore, and Sacramento to states such as Texas and South Carolina.
The group is called Envision Utah. This week, we interview Envision Utah Community Relations Manager Kevin Fayles about how his group was able to create a national model for involving the public in regional planning and other decisions.
As Mr. Fayles explained to us, Envision Utah began as an effort in 1997 to design a long-term growth strategy for the Salt Lake City region – a strategy that would preserve the region’s quality of life and strike the right balance between economic development and environmental protection.
They had a simple idea: Rather than a top-down approach in which regional leaders come up with a plan and then pitch it to the public, why not take a bottom-up approach in which the citizens themselves come up with the plan?
To be sure, there would be a team of experts in regional planning to help guide these citizens through the process, synthesizing enormous amounts of information along the way. But all the big ideas would come from ordinary members of the public. The elected leaders, consultants and government technocrats would follow the public’s lead.
Some 175 public meetings and 20,000 completed questionnaires later, Envision Utah produced a plan that still serves as the guiding document for land-use and transportation decisions in the section of northern Utah known as the Wasatch Front.
Soon the Envision Utah model of public participation was being used by other agencies in Utah. Other parts of the country started taking notice. Envision Utah’s President and CEO, Robert J. Grow, began touring the country, helping spread this model to planning groups such as Baltimore 2030 and the Southern California Transportation and Land-Use Coalition.
Mr. Fayles described Envision Utah’s model of public participation as “democracy in action.”
“We’re facilitating conversations among regular citizens, elected officials, developers, environmentalists and others,” he said. “Everyone is invited to sit at the table and share their opinions.”
Below Mr. Fayles explains more about how Envision Utah started, what it has become, and where it is headed.
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The planning and public participation process used by Envision Utah has set the standard for long-range regional planning across the country. Why do you think that is?
Envision Utah has dramatically transformed the culture of regional planning both in the formal mechanisms of project review criteria and process approach. Local governments are collaborating as never before, recognizing the regional impacts of their individual decisions. People are concerned how growth will affect their lives and feel powerless to do anything about it. Envision Utah gives voice for the opportunity to share their ideas and understand the complexities of community form. Envision Utah gives them hope that we can accommodate growth without sacrificing quality of life.
Envision Utah’s efforts began in 1997 with an unprecedented public process involving 175 public meetings, extensive media coverage and public education, distribution of 600,000 questionnaires, 70,000 work-hours dedicated to technical modeling, and scores of meetings with key decision-makers to help chart the course for future development. Twenty thousand Utahns completed the questionnaire.
The effort resulted in the Quality Growth Strategy (QGS), which is reflected in most local ordinances and is guiding land-use and transportation decisions along the Wasatch Front. The Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget determined that over 20 years the QGS would save $4.5 billion in infrastructure costs, result in 171 fewer square miles of land being developed, and reduce air pollution and water use.
The Envision Utah process gained national and international attention for its innovative use of scenarios planning and values research to enabled citizens to explore the impacts of a range of choices on future quality of life as they work toward a shared vision for the future.
Previous to Envision Utah, scenarios planning was common to military operations, but the organization’s application to regional visioning and planning processes has proved highly successful in the state and beyond. Scenarios planning has enabled citizens to see the impacts of today’s choices on the future and, as a result, shifted public opinion in ways not otherwise possible.
How is the Envision Utah process different from the ways long-range regional planning has historically been done?
Traditionally in local planning efforts, cities decide what they want to do through analysis and research, educate the public about their proposed “solution,” announce their plan, and then defend it. On the other hand, through the scenario analysis process, residents are educated early on about growth challenges and possible solutions, have opportunities to evaluate and contribute to possible solutions, and are more likely to support the final product because of their involvement.
In each local visioning efforts, Envision Utah has a steering committee of diverse leaders from the public and private sectors as well as those (municipal staff and elected officials) who are likely to implement the final product. This committee ensures transparency, helps identify other community leaders who should be involved, and helps to publicize the process.
Envision Utah realized that politically actionable plans dealing with growth best come from direct citizen input, and that in a state where citizens are often suspicious of government programs and initiatives, change would have to come from the bottom up. Hence, Envision Utah focuses on the use of scenarios to discover how residents want to manage their growth issues. Values analysis strengthens our marketing efforts as well as the creation of growth principles that resonate with residents.
A visioning plan built upon the personal values of residents removes much of the personality and politics and provides critical legitimacy to the direction and priorities of the vision. It’s not about doing what this person or that group wants; it’s about doing what the people value most.
By catalyzing state and local government collaboration with community and business leaders, and by then creating opportunities for local residents to play a major role in making decisions about a community’s future, Envision Utah-facilitated efforts to respond to the public’s desires.
Extensive public participation was done to create the future vision for Utah. Why was having so many opportunities for the public to participate important?
I think the first reason is we wanted to hear from as many residents as possible. Envision Utah was not creating the vision to manage growth; the people were. We facilitated the conversations. We worked with our partners to provide technically-sound information. It sounds simple, but we believe that when people are given good information, they will make good decisions.
I think there was some early skepticism that somehow Envision Utah was a Trojan horse for state planning. In the early 1970s, for example, the Utah Legislature passed land-use planning legislation similar to Oregon’s (a more top-down model). A coalition later pressured the legislature to overturn this legislation. So not only did we have to give the appearance of being a grassroots effort, we sincerely believed in the collective wisdom of residents and wanted to hear from them. I’m not an expert on planning issues, but I have great confidence in the Envision Utah model of involving citizens and learning from them.
How was public input gathered? What tools, methods and strategies were used and which were the most effective?
I’ve been with Envision Utah for more than 11 years. A key part of gathering public input is having a strong and diverse steering committee of local leaders. They often will have suggestions on the best way to reach residents. The steering committee should be a huge resource. Depending on the size of the budget for a process, we could run TV spots or radio public service announcements and newspaper advertisements. We would also draft fliers and letters for our stakeholders to distribute with their peers and organizations. Sometimes, we’ve worked with school districts and are able to have students take home workshop fliers. On one recent project, we literally walked around the geographic district and surveyed people on the street, in businesses and even a homeless shelter.
Keep in mind, too, that when we conduct mapping exercises we ask people to problem solve, not philosophize, and how they use paper chips, markers and colored tape are very valuable input. In Washington County, the beautiful red rock southern area of Utah, for example, we had 115 maps to analyze from the public workshops.
When we facilitated conversations regarding the Wasatch Canyons east of Salt Lake City, one of our partners, the State of Utah, allowed us to invite state employees to participate in an on-line survey. As a result, we likely reached a couple of thousand people that we otherwise may not have reached. More than 16,000 Utahns participated in that effort, for example.
I recall one effort where some of the local political leaders felt “the environmentalists have taken over the public workshops.” We then had an independent poll commissioned. Although the people in the workshops received more information than those who participated in the poll, the independent poll confirmed the workshop results. The political leaders understood that the workshop results reflected the values and goals of their community and they became stronger advocates of the process as a result.
In many of our earlier public processes, we would have a letter from the mayor or county commissioner go to residents and invite them to the workshops. These were very effective, especially if the salutation was personalized – “Dear Betty,” and not “Dear Resident.” This reminds me that it is important to not only develop the right message but to identify who is the right messenger. Who is respected by residents? It may be a current business leader or political leader or it may be someone who is retired.
Many stakeholders were involved in the Envision Utah planning process, including elected officials and civic leaders. What, if any, were the challenges of working with so many influential people to achieve and implement a common vision? How were these challenges overcome?
Before Envision Utah could work to help preserve Utah’s high quality of life for future generations, it had to define what residents valued about living in the state. One of the biggest challenges in regional planning is developing and then building consensus around a regional vision and plan. Competing personalities, agendas and politics quickly begin to erode direction and momentum. A regional plan that is built upon the personal values of the people living in the region removes much of the personality and politics and provides critical legitimacy to the direction and priorities of the vision. It’s not about doing what this person or that group wants; it’s about doing what the people value most.
In 1997, Envision Utah hired Wirthlin Worldwide to identify shared, core values Utahns associated with quality of life and growth issues. Wirthlin Worldwide had previously used their methodology for product placement, never public policy issues.
By understanding what Utahns cared about most, we were able to find areas of commonality among citizens. This built the support for implementation. Wirthlin conducted a series of in-depth interviews to find out what residents valued about living in Utah. Careful survey work validated this research.
The central premise of the Wirthlin communications strategy is that one persuades by reason and motivates by emotion, tapping into the emotional component of personal values. A communication strategy, then, should provide the rational “reason why” but also create a link to personal values and emotions, which are ultimately what motivates people.
Envision Utah applied information learned in values research in advertising, marketing, presentations, and strategies. It has influenced our communications with the public in many different formats.
The Wirthlin research also validated Envision Utah’s underlying philosophy that the public should determine its own future. When asked, “Who can best deal with growth issues in Utah?,” forty-two percent said “residents like you and me.” Only 20 percent answered “state government,” 18 percent said “local government,” and 14 percent preferred “business as usual.”
By catalyzing state and local government collaboration with community and business leaders, and by then creating opportunities for local residents to play a major role in making decisions about Utah’s future, Envision Utah fulfilled its goal and responded to the public’s desires.
A basic assumption of Envision Utah is that when people receive good information, they make good decisions. By focusing on the shared, core values of residents, our scenarios and visions were relevant and our messages have resonated and endured for many years. We have been successful in our activities because we seek to educate by reason and persuade by emotion; both are needed. Values are the central guideposts for human decision-making. Values research was key to bringing Utahns with divergent perspectives to common ground.
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We’ll hear more from Mr. Fayles later this week as he talks about Envision Utah’s Quality Growth Strategy and the influence the organization has had on regional planning and public participation efforts across the country.
The Collaborative Services Blog Team