A Community Engagement Strategy for Negotiating a Package of Community Benefits

Respectful Closure

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In this stage, it is between the company and the community to see if they can jointly wind up at the same place.

The goals of this stage are to:

  • Complete the development of the giveback package.
  • Answer any lingering questions about the project and gain acceptance of (or at least tolerance for) it. Endorsement of the large project is not required.
  • Leave the working relationship between the company and the community members in good shape.

These goals have both the immediate need to move forward on the project and the long-term need to build strong relationships with the affected parties. Coming out of the process without both of these goals met would not be acceptable.

The group has the power to conclude the session or not. If participants are not satisfied with the results or need more information, or want to keep talking, there is no closure and the process continues. If, on the other hand, the group agrees to the givebacks (verbally or in writing, but not through silence or acquiescence), the process achieves closure.

When the facilitator can see a result that would satisfy each key player, it’s time to move to the stage of respectful closure.

  • Complete the formulation of a set of givebacks.
  • Obtain group support for them.
  • Close the group process with a strong relationship between the community and the company.
  • Off-line progress needs to be brought back to group.
    If the off-line research demonstrates that the costs of a given proposal are inordinate, why waste the whole group’s time on reviewing that proposal? Why not just remove it from consideration and tell the group the reasons? The answer is based on preserving the integrity of the relationship between the company and the other participants. It is not the role of the company to make the judgment for the community. Community members have to weigh the costs and benefits of their recommendations, and decide for themselves. They have the option to go ahead and recommend a proposal despite its costs, and despite the risk of undermining their credibility in the larger, public context. If they were to make that choice, the company would still pass along the recommendation to the powers-that-be — the Public Utilities Commission, or a legislative committee, etc. The probability that the recommendation would be accepted would be extremely low, and the fallout could be significant; nonetheless, the community has to make that judgment for itself.
  • Non-participating stakeholders need to be brought up to speed.
    At the end, with all the weeks and months of hard work together, the group has probably reached a state of mutual trust. However, the broader constituencies being represented have not had the benefit of developing shared understanding, and their trust remains low in all regards: the company, the giveback agreement, and the process in general. Therefore, key leaders who participated in the process may be asked if they’d like have the first word about what happened. They may want the opportunity to convene their constituencies first and explain what happened and why, before the story is publicized through media.
  • There’s a need for good closure even without agreement.
    Sometimes it simply is not possible to reach an agreement. If this is the case, it is critical to end the process on a strong and positive note. The facilitator could say something like, “Thank you so much for your work on this issue. While we could not reach agreement, there is a great deal that we have learned through this work.” The goal, in part, is to make sure that the company is in a position to bring people together again, which means that the process should not end with a sour taste in people’s mouths.
  • An important, but intangible risk associated with making bold and/or costly recommendations is this: The first time a giveback process is being held in a given locale, the entire process inevitably sets precedents for future activities. If the process is successful, it is more likely to be emulated. If a process is viewed as a failure—because, for example, the recommendations were vastly unrealistic—the process is likely NOT to be repeated in the future. This awareness on all sides of the significance of the process acts as a restraint on the temptation to be excessive.
  • There is no formula for the number of meetings that should occur before the final meeting is scheduled. The message from the sponsor is that they will keep working on this as long as needed; the deadline is open-ended. At the same time, there are concurrent activities underway—activities by the company, by the legislature, etc.—that have their own pace and deadline. For example, a project can obtain federal stimulus money, but only if the filing is completed by certain date. In cases like this, the group has to be informed of the other deadlines or processes that allow them to make the calculation on the optimal number of meetings to schedule given the surrounding circumstances.
  • While it should have been made clear upfront that specific action steps (for example, permitting) would be undertaken by the sponsor, not by the group, this stage may include a discussion about further involvement by participants in subsequent processes.
  • The company executive who is serving as facilitator could go into the final session either with the authority to agree to a final settlement or with the caveat that he/she needs to go back to the company’s executive team or board of directors for ultimate approval. The former is vastly preferable as it allows the process to conclude with a strong ending, rather than leaving it open for later closing.
  • A key objective in this stage is to ensure that the working relationship between the company and the community is left in good shape. However, sometimes an agreement on givebacks cannot be reached. When this is the case, an effort should be made to let all parties get comfortable about being able to respect each other in spite of not having reached agreement. The facilitator can reframe success as having the process result in mutual respect, if not in givebacks.
  • Because givebacks acknowledge the burdens of a project on a community, once the process is completed, it may be appropriate for the group to end with a pule or acknowledgment of completion of the joint work and not “high fives” or a sense of celebration.

At the end of the process of working with the West Oahu community on the placement of a new power plant in the Campbell Industrial Park area, the package of givebacks that the community would receive was reviewed and each member of the audience was given an opportunity to reflect on whether the package was complete and acceptable. After that, the facilitator asked if there was anything else that anyone wanted to say … and then let the silence go on for at least two minutes. It served to let the result of the process settle on the group members and remove any sense of a rush to conclusion. At the end of the silence, one of the participants led the group in a pule to acknowledge the work that had been done together.

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