Process Design Decisions in Community-Based Collaboration: Implications for Implementation and Collateral Social Benefits

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Planning Theory & Practice


Collaborative decision-making processes are conducted widely in public affairs at various scales, from community to metropolitan, regional and national. They vary from highly formalized and prescribed processes, such as “regulatory negotiations”, to collaborative planning processes directed by urban planners or other public agency staff, to rather informal processes within community-based organizations. While substantial effort has been invested in identifying the benefits of collaboration, we ask; do the benefits materialize in each case? We researched one ad hoc community collaborative in Oregon, USA, widely considered a success in the aftermath of agreement. We were interested in the implementation of agreement provisions, as well as in any social benefits from the process. Relying on published documents, surveys and interviews one year after the process ended, and additional interviews and on-site observations five years later, we found that despite the initial enthusiasm and confidence in actions proposed in the final report and social relationships strengthened during the process, evidence of long-term success on these two dimensions was mixed. This case provides a cautionary note to process facilitators, urban planners, public administrators and stakeholder and citizen participants. Participants face many strategic and process design decisions. Among these are choices about institutional linkages, stakeholders, the decision rule, and clarity about the purpose and goal of the process. While the degree of “success” of any collaborative may not be our call as observers, we contend that implementation and social impacts are critical to assessing the value of these processes. Consequently, we propose that participants and facilitators alike should understand and consider appropriately the micro-decisions that can and do add to critical implications on these two important dimensions.