E Pluribus Unum (out of many one)

This post originally appeared on Consensus Building Institute’s blog in October 13, 2016. We are reposting it with the Patrick Field’s permission.

By Patrick Field for EDRblog.org.

Consider editing a major planning document with 5 federal agencies, 3 agencies each in 6 states, 15 non-profit organizations, three to four layers each. That equals ninety commenters and thousands of comments over multiple drafts. That’s any author’s nightmare! Comments come in late. Multiple commenters from a single agency contradict one another. A new high-level commenter suddenly demands a host of changes without any context, history, or understanding of why you are where you are. This is the reality for many planners, coordinators, and technical writers in multi-stakeholder processes. How in the world do you manage wide-ranging opinions on topics from common usage to fundamental substance, from multiple commenters, and get a product out and done?

Given our experience engaging with talented (and overworked and sometimes frustrated) convenors and coordinators working on issues from oceans planning to government transparency, we at CBI wanted to offer some good practices for such a challenging task. How do you ensure transparency and create legitimacy? How do you provide reasonable procedures for coordination and bring the process to a decisive end? How can you be thorough and collaborative without collapsing under complexity and confusion? In short, what to do?

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Establish norms and expectations A coordinator’s job, first and foremost, is to help establish norms and expectations for the process. The basic expectations and norms should include roles and responsibilities, the process or procedures for how comments are collected and considered, schedules and milestones, and how decisions will be made. It’s best if the group builds norms and expectations together rather than if they are imposed from above or the side. Then, when the coordinator has to “bring the hammer down,” she can remind the offending party of the process the group jointly established. Lastly, whatever the norms, expectations, and process established, the participants will likely need reminders all along the way, and sometimes not just via email, but in direct conversation, be that face-to-face or over the phone. Yes, picking up the phone can help!

Ensure transparency There’s nothing worse than your comments being ignored or the final product seemingly almost unrelated to earlier drafts. The coordinator’s job is to ensure transparency in multiple ways. First, the process should be transparent: this is how and when decisions will be made, and by whom. Second, comments need to be transparent to all who are participating. This involves providing mechanisms so that every commenter can see the comments of others and not wonder who said what. Third, the disposition of those comments needs to be transparent.

In a fast-moving, complex environment, it may be too much to ask for a detailed responsive summary often provided by federal agencies in federal rulemaking. But, a coordinator can deploy any number of techniques. A coordinator can provide a concise summary of key comments or comment themes and how she addressed them. A coordinator can provide a section-by-section redline document (which may or may not include all the comments, depending on how many and how messy it makes the document). A coordinator can take key issues and build a comment matrix of original text, comments, changes, and reasons why comments were not accepted.

Lastly, a coordinator may need to reconcile the comments through group process and meetings so she can rely on the participants themselves to reconcile differences and not hope she gets it “right enough.” Technologies like Google Docs, WebEx, Zoom, and others allow you to share your screen and even share the document for joint, simultaneous editing.

Centralize tracking The mechanics of keeping track of multiple commenters, comments, and versions of the document can be daunting. But here, logistical and technical expertise can be very helpful. The coordinator needs to establish a tool or tools to track the changing nature of the document. First, providing a procedure for version control and a nomenclature is essential. Second, utilizing Google Docs, DropBox, or other on-line tools can keep versions, comments, and responses all in one place and accessible to those who need them. Third, ensuring there is one or only a few coordinators, who can be the contact person as well as keep the whole in her head as she is buffeted by contradictory comments, needs, and expectations from all directions, is very important.

Provide comment guidance To help guide the process, a coordinator should provide clarity on what to comment on. It’s one thing to say, here’s the document and comment away. It’s another thing to say: 1) please focus on the introduction, key findings, and draft recommendations; 2) don’t focus on style or visuals at this time; and, 3) leave copy editing for later drafts. Of course, some participants will not be able to help themselves. They’ll fix commas, semi-colons, and provide lots of visual ideas. But most will appreciate the direction. They are busy people too with too many things to do.

It is also important to provide guidance on what portions of the document are open for commentary at different phases of the process. For example, it may be that this is the second or third draft, and only outstanding sections or issues are up for discussion and others are considered final. That is, it’s not a wholescale revisiting of the whole document.

It can also be useful to ask people to identify the strength of their comments: please identify comments that are “must haves” versus those that are “like to have.” Of course, some commenters will feel each and every one of their suggestions is essential, but many will help the coordinator parse priorities and needs. To encourage all commenters to focus on what is most important to them, a coordinator can also ask each commenter or organization to name their three highest priority areas for improvement.

Organize talent The downside to large groups is their extensive range of views, opinions, and comments. But the upside is that likely, within it, are multiple talents to help get the job done. Some people are terrific copy editors. Some are particularly good at explaining complex issues. Some are good at driving to substantive recommendations. Some are good at detailed analytical work. Some are good at copy editing. The job of a coordinator is to work with participants to identify those skills within the group and harness them. The temptation among large groups – whose members are busy — is to simply foist most of the work on the coordinator. You write and edit, we’ll comment! But that leaves on the table the talent that can be harnessed to help. A technical committee can review and provide sections on data and analysis. Another group can work on developing and honing graphics. Another group can help with clarity of communication and style.

This dispersed method, though in itself a coordination challenge, shares and distributes the workload. As important, it spreads the responsibility to ensure joint ownership. When a coordinator takes it all on, she should be prepared to take on all the complaining and sniping too!

Clarify decision-making One essential task of the coordinator is providing clarity on what and how editorial decisions are made. Are participants providing the coordinator advice and consultation, but the coordinator will make final editorial decisions? Are there co-chairs or others who will resolve outstanding issues and finalize the document? If the participants are deciding, at what level of decision – every word, key recommendations and conclusions, style as well as substance, visual as well as narrative? Generally, it’s easier to build agreement around concepts, outlines, and key points, and more difficult and time consuming to do so around all aspects of a report, from grammar to style to content.

The decision rule will of course depend on the desired level of support or ownership for the final product. Is the final document a product of the coordinator or coordinating agency, with extensive advice and input from others, but ultimately “owned” only by the one entity? Is the final product a shared document where individuals agree to lend their names if not their signatures? Is the final product a shared document that agencies and other organizations will need to “ratify”? Is there a “caveat” such as “we support the document as a whole, but are not necessarily endorsing each and every aspect of the report”? Each decision-making approach is different and, in turn, requires different timelines and procedures.

Establish “deciders” to reconcile conflicts The coordinator needs to establish what we’ll call “filters” or “deciders,” some small set of individuals granted authority by the larger group to reconcile differences and move the product forward. There are a number of ways the coordinator might do this. The point person within each organization might be tasked not only with organizing the comments from one entity into one place or document, but also with resolving any internal differences so that the comments back to the coordinator are both consistent and have the sanction of the entity, not just a single person within it. A coordinator might assist participants in creating a drafting committee, not only to draft original portions of the document, but also to take comments and reconcile any differences. Participants might come together in a drafting workshop, and then in smaller groups of 2 or 3, to address comments related to sections of a report. Or, participants might create co-chairs who are trusted by all and can jointly work with the coordinator to resolve conflicting comments and difficult substantive issues, reaching back to constituents as needed. Dealing with a few individuals to reconcile differences is much easier than doing so one by one with 25, or among all 25 at once!

Integrate the visual and the narrative As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. Most of today’s reports have extensive charts, graphs, infographics, and photos. And as we know, intentionally or not, these kinds of visualizations can convey all sorts of messages. To make matters more complicated, many new reports exist partially or wholly online, allowing for greater interactivity, updating, and depth of material. But this all poses a problem: how do you resolve comments in a narrative or Word document, complete a publishable form of a report with the visuals, and deal with any on-line presence? Graphics can of course be reviewed and commented on separately. Participants will have opinions on aesthetics (which may or may not be helpful) but also on what the visual may be signaling unintentionally, for better or worse.

For reports that live partly or mostly on-line, there’s a whole new challenge to integrating written text and report drafts and on-line language, visualizations, data, and structure. Website revisions can happen quickly with last week’s version lost in cyberspace to this week’s version. Participants can have a difficult time keeping track of the evolving versions. In addition, many designers deploy a user-centered design approach that engages representative users (the public, for instance, or academics, etc.) outside of the drafters to obtain their feedback. Stakeholders may have strong views about an approach, but more typical audiences may actually have quite a different response. Thus, extra care has to be put into the process for on-line comment review and incorporation to help track these many moving parts.

Stick to deadlines Deadlines, milestones, and schedules are essential in any project management and critical to getting to a decisive end. The coordinator has a responsibility to be clear about the process, key milestones where comment is needed, turn-around times, and final deadlines for comments. Again, this is likely a negotiated approach to meet the needs of the participants. The problem with deadlines, especially if the coordinator has weak authority (i.e., they can’t punish, fine, or fire the miscreant), is that they are often missed.

The coordinator can do a few key things to help. First, communicate clearly and often the process, expectations, and deadlines. Second, explain why the deadlines are as they are. Is it simply to set a deadline? Is it because the document has to be to the press and printed by a certain date, say a publicly announced release date or public meeting? Third, send reminders, and more of them, as the deadline approaches. Fourth, with the participants, establish clear norms for lateness. Does the coordinator just have to hope for the best? Can the coordinator finalize the next draft after a certain date and any late comments will be disregarded? Fifth, it is the responsibility of participants to get their joint work done. Everyone else is depending on it. This point should be reinforced.

Thanks to Sarah Platts, Deloitte, Nick Napoli, EPI Consulting, Judith Wilson, Department of Interior, and CBI staff for their ideas and advice. All errors and omissions, of course, are solely CBI’s!

*For the purposes of this blog, we use the term “coordinators” to be that person or people coordinating if not managing the review and comment process.

Patrick Field is Managing Director of North American Programs at the Consensus Building Institute and Associate Director of the MIT-Harvard Public Disputes Program. Patrick has helped thousands of stakeholders reach agreement on natural resource, land use, water, and air issues across the United States and Canada. He is experienced at working with diverse large groups, including those in high conflict and those seeking collaborative action. He is a dynamic trainer and lecturer, delivering curricula to professionals across sectors in the U.S. and globally.