In the June edition of Bright Ideas we started In The Gears, a series on how PSC turns the gears on public policy innovation: research and analysis, program implementation, evaluation, and defining problems and solutions through facilitation, strategic counsel, and strategic planning. This is the next installment of the series featuring PSC’s take on facilitation by our very own Amanda Menzies.
In a nation where even the choice of where to live polarizes, how does one forge the consensus needed from diverse interests to move public policy forward?
You could talk past each other, or even give up. Or you could bring in a facilitator that not only has a great track record in leading constructive discussions, but one fully conversant in the nuances of the public policies under review.
Public Sector Consultants’ Amanda Menzies, and her colleagues in the Health Division, employ this potent combination of policy knowledge and consensus-building skills to give PSC clients the ability to clear the highest hurdles of disagreements.
PSC’s extensive facilitation practice generally takes different forms depending on the client’s needs, Menzies explains.
“Sometimes you have general stakeholder agreement, where the client wants to move forward on policy, but wants to hear specifics from others on the hows and whys. Examples of such projects are work we did for MDCH to gather input on services for dual eligibles and pre-planning for a health insurance exchange.
“Other clients need input on broader issues through focus groups, which are usually more freewheeling. It’s a ‘tell us what you think’ animal. And often clients want our help facilitating a strategic planning process that will establish a clear path for their work.” And behind every meeting is plenty of preparation time.
“For today’s session for the Office of Great Start, I will spend at least an hour reviewing the format and language that we developed,” Menzies says from her office overlooking Lansing’s Washington Square. “For many events, there will be hours of prep work, including meetings with the client and background research. Being confident in your mastery of the material is important because it lends to your credibility to lead the discussions.”
“It’s important to have a common starting place for a discussion, so that may call for giving homework in advance.”
Before meetings are set, PSC staffers sit down with the client to answer a few critical questions:
- What do you want to accomplish?
- What background information do people need for the discussion?
- What topics will be covered, and which topics will be moved to “the parking lot”?
- What are the specific planning or policy questions that must be tackled?
“This is the advantage of policy knowledge in aiding the client. For example, on the dual eligible topic, we were grounded in the policy goals and challenges, so we were able to construct discussion questions to target the client’s needs,” Menzies explains.”
Participants get their own dose of preparation, too.
“It’s important to have a common starting place for a discussion, so that may call for giving homework in advance,” she says. “This can range from readings in advance for larger, technical groups to a brief presentation at the start of a focus group.”
Menzies adds that she has learned much from watching PSC President Peter Pratt and Vice President Jane Powers handle group dynamics.
“You pick things up through observation of others, in this case, Peter and Jane,” Menzies says. “Natural curiosity is critical. As a consultant, I did a great deal of scribing (taking notes during facilitations), which gave me an understanding of the process.
“Peter and Jane use a variety of techniques. I recall one project when Jane was working with a group that was particularly contentious. Participants had very legitimate concerns about how changes would affect services. When they would throw out problems, she helped them turn them into statements of goals. She heard their complaints and then probed for areas of progress. We call that ‘Kung Fu facilitation.’”
“Peter has his own techniques. He was working with a group that was really stuck on a question. One morning, he walked into the meeting room and, on a big pad, wrote out a poem in French, then recited it to the group in French. Switching back to English, he linked this poem to the Bill Murray movie ‘Groundhog Day,’ in which a man is stuck in the same day over and over again to emphasize the need for the group to move forward. Humor can be a powerful tool to get through roadblocks.”
Paulette Porter of the Battle Creek Community Foundation has seen PSC’s facilitation skills in practice and could not be happier.
“Calhoun County decided we needed a community health needs assessment. I had been familiar with PSC’s work and, after a large vetting process of similar organizations, it became clear that PSC was the best fit for us,” Porter says. “Amanda and Jane were so easy to work with and they did such a great job in leading us to consensus that we asked them to come back and do more work for the Regional Health Alliance.
“And it wasn’t just us who noticed. Several adjacent counties were so impressed about our health needs assessment that they contacted me and I referred them to PSC.
“I can’t say enough good things about them,” Porter says.
That doesn’t mean Menzies and her fellow PSC’ers are sitting on their laurels.
“We are frequently trying new techniques and we tailor our facilitation processes to meet clients’ needs. In a recent project, we gave participants index cards to write out ideas to convey during discussions. This is to draw out more participants in each group, since, as we know, plenty of people have anxiety when it comes to speaking in front of others,” Menzies says.
“There’s a maxim in our work: ‘Everyone’s voice is important.’ Our job is to make sure they are heard.”