Agreement on Framing and Operating Principles
The transition from organizing to deliberation takes place in the very early stages of the process, as the group takes ownership of some of the key tasks begun during the organizing stage.
Whether setting out to undertake agreement-seeking or collective action, a new collaborative governance group is embarking on a journey together. The first meeting of any collaborative group is filled with a certain charge of excitement, even if it is mixed with trepidation or sometimes with skepticism. Everyone is looking to see who else is there. There is often a sense of optimism in the air, or at least possibility, with participants sharing their aspirations for the process. Before the group takes its first step, the facilitator or convener has the opportunity to first acknowledge the effort it took for each participant to get there and then reinforce the moment as a promising new beginning, even if there is a history of distrust. Then the group can turn to two of the organizing tasks discussed in the previous chapter, the group’s initial framing of the issue or project, and development of the operating principles. This work not only creates a sense of joint ownership in the problem and the process, it also gives the group an opportunity to practice collaboration and get a sense of early accomplishment.
We discussed in the last chapter how the framing of a project or issue can make a significant difference in how the process unfolds. In our experience, it is not uncommon for stakeholders in a collaborative process to initially bring different ideas about what the group is intended to accomplish. Group members can also be impatient to move beyond this task and get to formulating solutions. Taking the time to agree on the framing of their purpose and objectives, however, is hardly a trivial exercise. It is also a step that may need to be repeated as the deliberation proceeds and a more nuanced understanding of the issues emerges.
Another initial deliberative act is ratifying the group’s operating principles, discussed in the previous chapter. Collaborative governance groups often discuss operating principles at their first meeting, perhaps with a sample or two from other groups distributed and discussed. Unless there is clear consensus in that first meeting, we have found it useful to assign a smaller committee to return to the next meeting with recommended operating principles for the group to formally consider.
It is important that the members of the collaborative group own their operating principles, and take them seriously. While we sometimes expedite the process by providing examples of other groups’ operating principles as a starting point, blithely adopting ground rules from another group without due consideration is rarely productive. Along with framing the goals as described above, these early ratifications can help build group solidarity. They represent early and hopefully easier wins that can help propel the group forward with a sense of accomplishment. Now they are ready to get to work.