Reflection in an Aged Mirror: Community Decision-Making

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Antique MirrorThere is a special magic in the reflections from an old mirror.  When we look at a reflected image in a new mirror we see every detail; we can be overwhelmed by light and color and line.  An old mirror provides a much different view:  oxidation of the silver behind the glass gives a dimmer less-nuanced image.  Darker gray to almost black areas further obscure the image, often forcing us to look more closely to make sense of what we see.  Ironically, we often gain a truer representation of reality in an old mirror because we are forced to seek the pattern in the darker outlines and are not overwhelmed by detail.  In an old mirror it’s easier to find the forest; in a new one we see only the trees.  From time to time I will reflect on topics important for community resilience and – like an aged mirror – try to reflect the larger truth that is too often obscured by the detail published in research papers.

Earlier this month I presented two companion papers on community resilience assessment approaches.  I focused on their value in informing the decisions made by community leaders.  I began “Between the idea … and the act falls the Shadow.  Between our ideas about our communities’ resilience (from assessments or measurements) and the actions we take to improve our resilience, falls the shadow of decision.”  In this post, I want to add substance to the shadow.

The research community has intensively focused on how community decisions should be made – collaboratively, reflecting the diversity of the community, with wide and deep community engagement.  But the research community has left in the shadows how community decisions actually are made.

The collaborative model of community decision-making implicitly assumes that community decision-makers will behave like economists’ rational investors – always acting on the basis of what’s best for the investor or the community – their self-interest.  We know that’s a faulty assumption.  The fluctuations of the stock markets attest to the importance of other factors in investors’ decisions.  The poor decision-making in Ferguson, Charlotte, Baltimore and elsewhere point to the importance of other factors in community decision-making.

A better assumption might be that decisions are made on the basis of perceived self-interest. Perception is not reality but it does shape how we interact with each other and the real world.  In that light, bad decisions due to a tragedy of the commons, or bounded rationality or the inability to “rise above principle to do the right thing” reflect perception distorting reality in decision-makers’ eyes.

Conflicting interpretations of what’s in the best interests of the community also attest to the importance of perception.  The African-American residents of Ferguson had a very different view from Asian-American and Caucasian business owners about what was best for their community.  In this instance, perceptions were so different that they led to distrust and eventually conflict. It is hard to be collaborative when parties neither trust nor respect each other.

This then begs the question – what other strategies can communities use (have they used) to make important decisions, particularly if there are barriers to collaboration?  While I’ve found little in the literature that bears directly on this, my experience has conjured up a small menagerie of answers (somewhat whimsically titled).

Ostrich strategy.  Don’t make a decision (obviously beloved of politicians!).  This actually works sometimes, particularly in very fluid situations.  If a problem’s context is changing it may morph into something more amenable to solution.  For example, it is easiest to gain support for disaster mitigation right after experiencing one.

Owl strategy.  Take the time to better understand the context for the decision before making it.  For this strategy to work for decisions relating to a community’s resilience, accurate assessments / measurements of resilience are essential.  In general this strategy hasn’t worked when there is a perceived “need for speed.”

Ant strategy.  Nibble at the edges of the situation, fixing symptoms.  In cases where there are both an urgent need to “do something” and strongly conflicting perceptions of what’s ultimately the “right” decision, this at least allows community leaders to make some progress.  It also has the advantage that positive action can begin to build bridges and trust where there is conflict.

Hungry turtle strategy.  Take small steps in some direction, then stop and evaluate progress.  This is similar to the ant strategy, but assumes there is time for reflection.  Thus it is not useful if there is perceived urgency.  For this strategy to work for decisions relating to a community’s resilience, accurate metrics of progress are essential.  This strategy has the advantage that there is little need to argue about the first step; progress metrics will validate (or not) the direction.

Raging rhino strategy.  This is the “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead” strategy.  A bull-headed very determined leader will sometimes take what sometimes seems like unilateral action. Surprisingly, this approach is successful more often than is commonly acknowledged.

Find an elephant strategy.  Often, when stakeholders cannot agree, someone at a higher level can force agreement, so that action can be taken.  This strategy can work quite well if all parties can agree on an “elephant.”  The elephant has to be able to enforce its decisions, and have no stake in the dispute beyond resolving it.  This strategy can work well as long as the elephant is independent.  Given the deepening penetration of the federal government into almost everything, the federal government is becoming less useful in this regard.

Beaver strategy.  Often, there is no clearcut path between a desired endstate and the community’s current status.  Like beavers transforming trees into a dam, a community can work to transform the situation so that a starting point becomes apparent.  This might include pushing responsibility for the decision down to a lower level. It might include lowering expectations (i.e., going for a more modest endstate).  This is especially useful if there is no readily apparent general solution to a problem (One might cite health care in the US as a good example.).

It is important to note that most of these are not mutually exclusive.  For example, an owl strategy could lead to a raging rhino (To be consistent, I guess we should probably dub the collaborative model of community decision-making the gather the herd strategy.).

In this post, I’ve tried to shine some light on community decision-making, to give some substance to the shadow.  While there are many reasons to prefer the collaborative model, sometimes it just won’t work.  However, there are other approaches – strategies – that a community can use to make decisions.  But it must be clear that a community cannot become more resilient – will not act to become more resilient – until the decision is made to do so.

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