At Civic Strategies, we live by two principles that, at a glance, may seem contradictory. The first principle is that, in every community, the real experts are the people who live there—the citizens and their leaders. The second is that the best person to guide citizens and leaders through critical decisions comes often from the outside.
The first idea is easy to grasp. As longtime community consultants, we know a lot about communities and their issues, but we can never know as much about your community as you and your fellow citizens and leaders. Makes sense: The citizens know where they want to go, and the leaders know how to get there. What's lacking in some cases is a good decision-making process—a logical and open process that allows the citizens to say what they want and the leaders to consider alternatives and choose the best course.
Since 1998, we've managed numerous public decision-making projects, from planning retreats to year-long visioning initiatives, task forces to community summits. Along the way, we've helped citizens express their hopes and desires and leaders make good, cool-headed decisions.
But we've also learned that sometimes this guidance is best performed by outsiders. The reason: As professional consultants we come to communities with no private agendas, pet ideas, or biases about leaders—just a personal and professional desire to help communities work better and prosper.
Do we give advice? Yes, but it's mostly about structuring the decision-making process. We will do "best practices" research (where we help communities identify good models elsewhere), but almost always after citizens and leaders have already made clear the direction they want for the community.
Do we do things this way because we believe in democracy? Of course. But we know enough about communities to understand this is realism, not idealism. That is, if you don't start an important decision-making process by asking citizens where they want to go and involving leaders in setting the course, there's little chance that the community will move ahead.
"With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed. Consequently, he who molds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions. He makes statutes and decisions possible or impossible to be executed. "
"If you have policy without politics, you're ineffective. If you have politics without policy, nothing changes."
Former U.S. Senator
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