As a capstone to a series of articles on sustainability assessments, we look at consultation in place planning and early feasibility studies.
Whose values matter most in community consultation?
The role of the public participation adviser is to seek out a diversity of views on an issue. And then to help the decision-maker understand the emotion of an issue and the strongest lines of reasoning.
So having explicit conversations about different values helps a community appreciate the diversity of views on a matter. It also allows people to see where there is agreement. Below we share a tool that can help in talking with communities about values. We explain the advantages of using swing weights.
Values are what brings the community together
Where there is a lack of agreement or where parties take fixed positions on a course of action, there is potential for conflict. A poor consultation process can damage a community. In our work in high-conflict situations, we normally see an overlap in the values important to the parties. This is precisely where we want to work.
Working with the overlap means leaving adopted positions to one side. It means having explicit conversations about what objectives people have for projects or programs. This work is akin to building a community scorecard for a potential solution – or what we call decision-making criteria.
But how can competing interests be reconciled in situations of low trust to provide the decision-maker with useful scorecard with which to assess proposals?
Pitfalls with sustainability assessments
Last year we shared a series of articles exploring some of the process issues with sustainability assessments of programs or projects. The series flagged issues that can arise where a social impact assessment is inadequate, the proponent does not seek the input of affected communities, or such engagement is poorly executed.
This article touches upon some of the same issues and is an applied example of community planning using weighted concept selection criteria. We report on the use of a tool that may help community workshops grapple with the difficult concept of swing weights
The area is a fast-growing local government area. With some controversy many years ago, it closed a run-down caravan park on the foreshore. It assisted remaining elderly residents into appropriate housing and left the park (adjacent to protected bushland) vacant. However, in the absence of communications on plans, expectations had grown around both rehabilitation and tourism redevelopment.
The local government envisaged leasing land to a private tourism park operator. It commissioned a feasibility study and planned to seek market proposals. It first wanted to conduct a high-level fatal flaw analysis that required input from surrounding residents. Sociometry advised on engagement.
The feasibility study consultants had constructed a performance matrix for five preliminary concepts designed to help the local government articulate its development intent for the site. During the course of the investigation, they wanted to assess the performance of these preliminary options or other concepts on criteria of importance to the community. Through preliminary interviews, we confirmed that views in the community were highly-polarised.
The strategy proposed two themed workshops as input to a Community Panel workshop. The Community Panel was designed to be representative of the broader place-planning local area.
We felt that presenting three scorecards (or lenses through which councillors could view the opportunity) maintained the integrity of peoples’ ideas and concerns. It had the benefit of also demonstrating shared interests between these perspectives as well as disagreement.
In two workshops we asked participants to think about both the intuitive notion of the importance of a matter and the range of outcomes possible for that matter. One group included a community environment group; the other involved near neighbours and tourism business operators.
It is intuitive that something that affects something the community values highly should be given greater weight in decision-making. However, we also need to consider how sensitive a criterion is to small changes in outcomes. Other things being equal, the larger the range of possible outcomes on a criterion, the more interested the decision-maker will be in that criterion and the greater the weight that should be assigned.
Like buying a car
In making a big purchase like a car, you might consider the cost to be important in an absolute sense. However, if you have already shortlisted three cars that only differ in price by $300, you might not care very much about price relative to, say, the colour. This means the price criterion actually receives a low weight because the difference between the highest and lowest price cars is so small. If the price range were instead $3000 around a median price of $20,000, you might give the criterion more weight. The weight on a criterion reflects both the range of difference of the options, and how much that difference matters to us.
There is a crucial difference between measured performance and the value of that performance in a specific context. This is because improvements in performance may be real but not necessarily useful or much valued.
The math is tricky. The purpose of weighting is to ensure that the units on the different preference scales can be compared and combined across criteria. We want to understand the comparative value of specific changes on any criterion compared to another in a way that means we can consider trade-offs.
Visualising both importance and change
Applied academics (Parnell & Trainor, 2009) have shown that it is difficult for workshop participants to evaluate the importance and range of change simultaneously. They developed a tool (Figure 1) to assist stakeholders to hold both of these considerations in their minds. We used that tool for our workshop processes.
We challenged our first group by using the Parnell & Trainor tool in the absence of concrete proposals for the site. With hindsight, we might have introduced theoretical options.
We modified the process for the second and third workshops and created an additional worksheet. First, we identified the identification of key issue and opportunities themes. After that, participants worked to identify the best possible outcomes and worst possible outcomes. Participants recorded these on their worksheet (rows 2 and 4).
The process allowed for simple, ordinal ranking based on the importance of the range of change possible between the best and worst outcome for that matter (row 1 on the worksheet). We captured the ranking by electronic keypad voting.
The last task was the allocation of a budget of 20 counters across the criteria. Participants placed counters on their worksheet to again reflect the range of possible outcomes and how valued a change (or swing) from worst to best outcome on one criterion was relative to changes in an option’s performance on other criteria. We recorded the number of counters allocated to each criterion allowing us to show a ratio scale.
Participants found this worksheet easier to work with than Parnell and Trainor’s tool. We attribute much of this to the time allowed to explore the worst and best case outcomes. Unlike the military capability planning scenario that Parnell and Trainor describe, this preliminary coastal tourism hub planning didn’t have public options for participants to visualise. The additional step allowed meaningful discussions about the value of swings in performance rather than merely ranking criteria themes. The modified worksheet may be helpful in such circumstance.