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All government departments have some sort of reporting structure, but what about their relationships with citizen complaints or suggestions? How are those communications managed? The default experience, for the citizen at least, is often discouragement, cynicism, or worse, when it comes to knowing their concerns will be received, reviewed, and assessed, based on some criteria that can then be explained.

It’s not just the quality of communication that affects people, but the confidence a person has that their concerns will receive serious consideration. Effective risk management means bringing all relevant parties – government officials and citizens – into the process, regardless of where an issue originates. It means an issue can be tracked, from receipt, to review and assessment, then back out to the individual reporting the concern.

If you are the mayor of a village, town, or city, you should be getting complaints and suggestions. If you are not, you are doing something wrong, at least in terms of outreach. Of the two major people-problems that elected officials can encounter – compulsive complainers, and frustrated, discouraged citizens – the discouraged ones can actually do more damage than the perpetual complainer.

The complainer can be annoying and a pain in the butt, but behind the scenes, the frustrated citizen can contaminate the pool of voters, and poison the remaining good will of others similarly afflicted. Leading, ultimately, to an uninvolved electorate. At least, this is one way to look at it.

So how do we help citizens, even the complainers and frustrated, feel listened to and respected?

Answer: By listening to them, giving their issues consideration, and communicating back.

Here’s the plan.

Offer a way for anyone to present a complaint or suggestion and make this way obvious and clear. Then make it equally obvious and clear how their input will be considered and how outcomes, whether to their complete satisfaction or not, are at least coming from a reasoned process, one that has some integrity.

Assessment example

The following is from an actual email submitted at a village trustee work meeting.

“As you may know, we have a ton of children living on these streets, and the motorists do not pay any attention at all to the speed limit. As a parent, I am very uneasy allowing my children to bike ride… it’s quite scary as a parent. Ideally, I would love to see a speed bump – or 10 .. but I am very realistic knowing that will never happen. …for a minute if you could put yourself in the shoes of the parents who live on these streets, I think you would agree with us.”

We can break down this citizen submission into several component parts.

  • Problems are clearly stated: “ton of children living on these streets,” “motorists do not pay any attention at all to the speed limit.”
  • Expresses alarm, discouragement and resignation:
    “it’s quite scary as a parent,” “I am very realistic knowing that will never happen.”
  • Offers suggestion: “I would love to see a speed bump” (aka, speed hump).

This particular complaint was included as part of a broad discussion in a village trustee meeting concerning traffic calming devices. No action was taken addressing this complaint. The discussion and result were noted in the minutes, but tracking of this issue – for possible future action – was not indicated.

Risk management group

Community risk management is a group function: it requires representatives from all branches of local government meeting to review issues in order to determine if they are significant and warrant further attention. The benefits of making community risk management a group effort are several:

  • What one person misses as an important issue, another can catch.
  • The head of parks and events can exchange ideas with the local paramedic – cross-learning.
  • Individuals in the group can share the initial assessment load.

Issues and requests can arise from anywhere – citizen complaints and suggestions, normal department operations, new ideas from a trustee member – and because those on the receiving end can become overwhelmed by a volume of issues, including some requiring unique expertise, some form of prescribed routing can be useful. Receiving new issues requires an up-front assessment so that the proposal can be acted on most effectively and efficiently.

The day-to-day operations of local community governments do utilize – whether formally or not – an information filtering mechanism: various departments manage their own assessments and periodically report results to their trustee boards. And when an issue is deemed more critical, or requires consensus, a multidiscipline work session can be called to make a determination.

One way to filter and sort incoming issues is to assign that function to a rotation of two group members, and sort into groups like: 1. requires immediate action, 2. passed on to specific department for resolution, 3. retained for later discussion by the risk management group.

In the case of the complaint presented at the trustee meeting, it might look like this.

  • What is the issue? It is street safety? In this case it is injury to children.
  • What are the risk factors? There are several: the number and speed of vehicles, and children playing in street.
  • What is the degree of harm that can be caused? Potentially great: a child can be hit by a vehicle. Further study such as vehicle speeds and numbers may be called for.
  • What is the likelihood of harm being cause? Initially, we must conclude that there is some likelihood of harm being caused. The situation may call for direct observation to better assess this.

Discussion is not all talk

How are the decisions that balance gains and losses actually made? Let’s assume the risk management group has before it the necessary pieces – a clear description of an issue and a list of the factors illustrating critical parts of the issue – and there is general agreement on which of these factors is driving the process, those most critical.

There’s a discussion comparing the pros and cons of different ways of addressing the critical factors, and after weighing each path, a vote is taken and a choice is made that hopefully results in the greatest gain for the least loss. Sounds like a nice neat process, until it comes to a vote and some voters – even some in the majority – don’t look that happy.

Decision by group can be tricky even when the path forward can seem clear to most: someone can feel neglected, not listened to, believe that just a slight change should be made, or they actually support the accepted path but still for some reason feel a little uncomfortable.

There is a method of managing a meeting that can help address some of this discomfort. I’ll call it, modified consensus. Consensus describes the result of a group’s decision when all members agree: one could then say that a consensus of opinion had been achieved on an issue. Of course meetings still have discussions about the issues, but when it comes time to approve or disapprove an action adopting consensus voting can offer benefits that standard voting can’t.

The significance of using consensus voting is it allows for the acknowledgment of disagreement while recognizing the overall good intent of a proposal when that proposal is accepted with some reservations.

Here’s an example on how this might play out.

In a non-consensus based process where a proposal is approved, consideration will include discussion of the issues and finally a vote to approve or not. The vote outcomes would be either unanimous yes vote, or a majority yes.

In both cases the proposal is approved but if you were to examine the individual yes votes, you might find that a few of those came from individuals that had reservations, perhaps even strong disagreement, yet decided to go along with the group for whatever reason.

A consensus-based group process is significantly different. There is the same consideration that includes discussion of the issues, but the voting process is different. Instead of having one vote and two options – Yes and No – consensus voting has at least two votes and three options: Yes, No and “I’ll go along.” This third voting option can actually represent a strong disagreement, but not strong enough to prevent something new from being tried.

With a non-consensus process, once voting is concluded, the decision is made and the process ends. A consensus vote does not necessarily end the process; more can follow.

Effectively, there can be two rounds of voting. After the first go-around, the No and the “I’ll go along” voters get an opportunity to restate their positions and engage in further discussion. This added step allows for more refinement of the issues as well as the potential to resolve misunderstandings. Those with some level of discomfort will also be less inclined to feel ignored or left out of the process.

By definition the word consensus implies unanimity of opinion in a group. But in terms of how a group functions in considering proposals, consensus can also refer to the potential for reconciliation if some voters think a proposal is somewhat flawed.

Closing the loop

When hospitals are surveyed to be accredited, departments must be able to show the surveyor a path – tracking that shows significant issues received an assessment, that the assessment was documented, and that responses to actions by other departments were added to that documentation. It’s called, “closing the loop.” This action is critical; it’s the thing that assures standards are met and appropriate people were informed.

The end-point for the citizen request should be a report sent back to the individual who made the request. And that report response should be documented along with any assessment that was made.

Having a risk management group (RMG) is adding another layer of bureaucracy to the mix, but when relied on, it can increase efficiencies along with effectiveness. Instead of bouncing from one person to another or one department to another and perhaps getting lost, issues can be tracked and routed to the right people.

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