Knowing When Not to Push for Broad Stakeholder Consensus: The Alaskan Way Viaduct Story

Scott McCreary

Consensus-seeking dialogues can be instrumental in helping build agreements around complex policy issues, but there are times when the press for agreement can drive parties to take more extreme positions.  This case takes a look at how a deliberately non-consensus-seeking stakeholder process helped get one such stalled effort back on track and ultimately supported a high-level political agreement that is now headed for implementation.

Background

The City of Seattle had been struggling for years to find the elusive answer that would allow it to address a critical need: replacing the Alaska Way Viaduct, the at-risk stacked highway that separates downtown Seattle from its waterfront.

For nearly a decade, effort after effort fell short.  Environmental advocates wanted a solution that would favor mass transit and bikes over more roadways.  Major corporations and business interests wanted to ensure there would be sufficient capacity to keep their employees and products on the move.  City officials were eager to reclaim Seattle’s waterfront.  And taxpayer groups pressed for low-cost options.  Even those committed to maintaining a major roadway couldn’t agree on an approach.  Should the roadway be a new elevated highway?  A tunnel?  A retrofit of the existing structure?  The project was at an impasse, and city, state and county officials were equally at odds.

In the wake of a failed public referendum, city, county and state leaders committed to making another stab at forging a consensus approach among their respective governments.  But how to succeed where almost 10 years of earlier dialogue had fallen short?  And how to involve a public that needed to have a meaningful voice in the discussion but had had enough of what’s known as “Seattle process” or, less affectionately, “consensus through exhaustion?” 

Scott McCreary and Bennett Brooks worked with state, city and county officials – and a battery of transportation and public involvement experts – to co-invent a new (and, ultimately, successful) way forward. The new path had many important elements.  An upfront commitment by senior transportation staff and political leaders to negotiate a consensus agreement—even though they did not know its precise elements.  A reframing of the problem to look at the region’s broader mobility needs and not just focus on one discrete artery.  Pulling together an independently led, integrated technical analysis of a range of possible solutions.  Repairing and restoring frayed agency relations to foster better coordination and integration of their respective technical expertise.

But a particularly interesting facet of the effort – and the focus of this piece – was the role of the Alaskan Way Viaduct Stakeholder Advisory Committee (SAC), a group of thirty stakeholders newly convened to provide ongoing input to the three departments of transportation charged with developing potential solutions.  The committee brought together a diverse set of stakeholders, from the chamber of commerce and shipping interests, to neighborhood groups, downtown businesses and environmental activists.   Participants were identified by city, state and county executives for their ability to represent a wide array of views, as well as serve as effective conduits to a broader constituency.   Alternates were not permitted, so as to encourage continuity.

The SAC process proved to be an essential dialogue – creating a productive forum where stakeholders could raise questions, get answers and begin to build a common base of understanding.  In fact, this non-consensus-seeking dialogue eventually generated many aspects of the final agreement eventually adopted by the state, city and county.  (More on that later.)

Elements of the SAC Process:

Several crucial factors distinguished this “hybrid” process from other stakeholder dialogues.

  • Information-sharing, but not delegated consensus-seeking.  The SAC, by design, was established as a sounding board, a place where representatives of the varied interests could track and provide input into the three agencies’ collaborative decision-making process.  This charge – one that focused on information-sharing, not forging consensus – proved instrumental, as it enabled stakeholders to engage more freely.  For most, discussions became an opportunity to understand the inherent trade-offs among the different possible solutions, rather than a chance to convince others of the “rightness” of their position.  The stakeholder participants themselves pointed this out numerous times during the year-long process.  As one agency staffer said:  “I don’t think we would have gotten as far if we had been trying to reach consensus.  Folks would have dug in their heels early on.”  In essence, the iterative fact-finding nature of the dialogue enabled technically stronger options to emerge and weaker alternatives to collapse on factual grounds and lose support.  Over time, stakeholder support coalesced around a handful of project elements.
  • Rotating facilitation by top agency staff.  Unlike most dialogues, this discussion was chaired each month by senior leadership within each of the three departments of transportation.  This revolving chair model impacted the deliberations in several key ways.  For one, senior leadership was keenly engaged, as each of the three players needed to stay abreast of all issues to be effective at running the SAC meetings, responding nimbly to participant questions and integrating the group’s feedback in real time.  Additionally, it demonstrated to stakeholders the import of the SAC process; with the three senior policymakers actively engaging in discussions each month, there was less need for end-runs to others.  Finally, it created a monthly opportunity for each agency to speak candidly about its interests and assessment of the evolving analysis.   It is also worth noting that while all three co-chairs brought their unique styles and a high level of analytic skill and political acumen to the task, they also injected a great deal of humor into the process – an unscripted element that helped set a lighter and more constructive tone.  As strategic advisors to the process, we prepped senior staff for each meeting and then provided detailed debriefings.
  • Transparent analysis in the raw.  More often than not, the various analyses presented to the SAC were often “hot off the presses.”  Part of this was by design; the intent was to have a transparent process and invite stakeholders to “learn along with the decision-making agencies,” as one participant put it.  Part of this was also driven by the tight timeframe; with less than a year to undertake a massive alternatives analysis, there was little opportunity to polish presentations before bringing the latest data to the SAC.  At times, this proved awkward, as stakeholder questions could not be readily answered or the three transportation departments would sometimes disagree on the analysis, interpretation or next steps.  But, more fundamentally (and perhaps unexpectedly), this “in the raw” style helped to build credibility in the process and created an opportunity for real-time joint fact finding, as stakeholders struggled along with the agencies to interpret the impact and ramifications of the latest findings.  “Stakeholders were able to see the complexity of it all,” said one transportation planner involved in the project.  “People could see they were unlikely to get everything they wanted in any one solution.”
  • SAC as forcing function.  The SAC served as a critical forcing function – both for getting the analysis done and for integrating staff perspectives.  Meeting on a monthly basis at the outset (and shifting to bi-weekly or even weekly meetings towards the end of its deliberations), the SAC became a driver for setting and meeting project deadlines.  This was, to be sure, challenging for staff tasked with conducting technically dense analyses and then distilling them into an accessible format for stakeholder presentations.  Yet it also prevented project drift.  Moreover, with the agencies on tap to jointly – and publicly – present and engage difficult issues at each monthly SAC meeting, these discussions became the impetus for, when necessary, surfacing and working through agency differences; divergent views were simply not able to fester.
  • Focused sidebars.  On several occasions during the SAC process, there was not enough time at the monthly meetings to adequately engage the thorniest (or most controversial and technically dense) issues.  In these instances, rather than pushing past the topics with insufficient deliberation and understanding, the agencies set up separate briefings that allowed interested SAC members and others in the community to delve deeper into the topic.  This approach proved highly effective for most.  As one person put it:  “The discussions allowed another venue for people to dissipate their energy.  It really did shift some people.”  Or as another person said:  “That education of the whole yielded an opportunity to move forward.”

To be sure, the process was grueling on both stakeholders and staff.  Stakeholders committed far more hours of time to the process than originally anticipated.  Turnaround time between meetings was short, and the constant need to “feed the SAC” left some staff feeling they had too little time to complete the actual analysis.  Still, the SAC process was widely applauded as an essential and effective part of the effort.  It brought together a smart, skilled and dedicated set of stakeholders.  It modeled good practice.  It established solid working relationships among parties around the table.  And, most critically, as demonstrated below, it galvanized broad stakeholder support around a narrow set of well informed options and incentivized participants to build unlikely coalitions. 

As the year-long SAC process ground towards a close, city, state and county transportation staff were leaning towards recommending two options to their chief executives:  either a new elevated roadway or a hybrid that would rely on transit expansion and improvements to both city streets and the north-south I-5 corridor.  SAC members, concerned about limitations associated with the two options and intrigued by the potential for a bored tunnel (based on briefings they had received), pressed for ongoing consideration of an appealing but costly third option:  a bored tunnel.  This feedback proved pivotal and it created a potent (and earlier elusive) constituency for implementation of the eventual $4.2 billion approach selected and endorsed by the three executives:  a deep-bored tunnel under downtown Seattle, coupled with significant improvements to current transit service and city streets.  The project is now under construction, with a formal ground-breaking held earlier this year and completion expected in late 2015.

Take-Aways:

In many ways, the stakeholder process used in this case mimicked the more traditional consensus-building processes we facilitate.  The SAC brought to the table diverse, effective advocates able to engage in a well structured joint fact-finding process.  An extensive joint fact-finding process created a common platform for understanding options. Extensive public briefings, coupled with outreach by SAC members, enabled more disparate constituents to stay informed and provide feedback.  Policymakers were able to use SAC feedback to identify more and less feasible alternatives. 

The key difference, in this case, was the lack of an overt goal of consensus.  In many cases, such a construct would be problematic – creating a disconnect between the stakeholder dialogue and the eventual decision-making and potentially leaving stakeholders feeling burned.  In this instance, however, the design worked.  Stakeholders wanted to stay engaged, but they were comfortable ceding the consensus-building exercise – with their ongoing input – to city, county and state executives serving as a proxy for their varied interests.  They also seemed to value greatly the opportunity to explore options without the pressure of seeking consensus or needing to deliver constituencies.

Our key take-away:  Coming together to learn – rather than explicitly being in search of a solution – can sometimes create a smoother path forward and create the space for parties to find common ground.

 

Bennett Brooks is a Senior Mediator with the Consensus Building Institute.  Scott McCreary is Founder and Principal of CONCUR, Inc., based in Berkeley, CA.  He also is a Strategic Partner of CBI.

Photo credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Washington State Department of Transportation