Draft (October 2007)

Counter-productive consensus-building

Part 5 of "The Palo Alto Process: A culture of bad decision-making"

By Douglas Moran

In the Palo Alto Process, "consensus-building" often means deferring necessary decisions in the unrealistic hope that someone can find a solution that pleases absolutely everyone. When our current City Manager did a "listening tour" just after he was hired (in 2000), one of his questions was why so many issues in Palo Alto seemed to be unnecessary contentious. My explanation to him was that the large "reasonable middle" gets driven from the process early on. These are people who could bring a balanced view to the issue because they have balanced lives and interests, but it also means that they have limited time to spend on any particular issue. As the "reasonable middle" starts to drop out (from exhaustion), the debate becomes increasingly polarized, further alienating the reasonable middle, until none are left.

For people with strongly-held views on an issue, this well-known dynamic actually rewards them for refusing to compromise or otherwise try to reach an acceptable decision. Victory comes by outlasting your opponents, by enduring a seemingly endless series of meetings. Success becomes not a measure of the quality of your ideas and proposals, but of your commitment to them.

Because Council doesn't recognize that those still involved in the issue may be only a tiny remnant of those that started the process, the appearance is that all options have strong opposition from the community. Politicians naturally abhor such situations, and try to find ways to defer making the decision.

The simple answer is to vigorously prevent any stretching out of the process. Simple, but very wrong. As an isolated measure, it would simply shifts how the process was abused by insiders. We already have problems with advocates for one viewpoint excluding their opponents from the initial meetings, and then saying "Too late" when the excluded people try to get their concerns and issues considered. A simplistic approach would further empower these bullies and abusers of the system.

What is needed are Council members who willing to extend deliberations when there is reasonable evidence that it has been abused or manipulated, but they need to be willing to impose penalties on those who necessitate such extensions. Currently, opposition to extending deliberation is typically based only on partisan considerations, rather than protecting the integrity of the process.

Earlier articles in this series have included examples where this has been a problem. The redevelopment of Alma Plaza became a huge problem because the City - the Council and the City Manager - refused to exercise even minimal leadership. While there were reasonable compromises possible, the City's top officials repeatedly deferred hoping that a consensus would emerge, despite overwhelming evidence that that would not happen.

However, my best example is a trivial one, because it shows how institutionalized this attitude is in our decision-makers. Years ago I was involved in an attempted donation to a local park. There was opposition from a tiny group of residents (my recollection is 5 people), which I eventually figured out was only indirectly related to this donation. Their issue was how an earlier project effected their corner of the park and they wanted changes before any other projects occurred, regardless of the tenuous linkages. A simple letter to a Council would generate a request to City staff to revisit the issue, and the subsequent meeting would find their ill-defined concerns baseless. This would then be followed by a minor variation on this letter from a different member of this tiny group, and the process would repeat. After more than two years of delays, the donation offer was withdrawn. In retrospect, the offer should have been withdrawn much sooner because the value of time wasted - by both staff and volunteers - far exceeded that of the donation.