Citizen Action Monitor

The rapid rise ─ and equally fast fall ─ of a Residents Advisory Panel. Part 1: Lessons learned in the start-up phase

No 1 Posted by fw, March 25, 2010.

On February 11, 2009, thirteen members of a Windsor, Ontario ward-based Residents Advisory Panel (RAP) held its inaugural meeting.

On December 16, 2009after just five meetingsRAP was terminated.

What happened? What contributed to the decline and ultimate failure of Windsor’s first-ever residents advisory panel? And what lessons were learned in the process?

RAP’s Origins

During the 2006 Ontario municipal election campaign, a Windsor candidate for councillor expressed an interest in establishing a ward-based residents advisory panel. He was subsequently elected. But for whatever reasonstime pressures, higher priorities, perhapstwo years later no advisory panel had been created.

In the late fall of 2008, I contacted this councillor, reminded him of his proposal, and offered to get a panel up and runningprovided he was still interested. He was. Here is what we tentatively agreed to:

  • Initial group size of 8 to 10 members
  • Two or three meetings a year of no more than two hours in length
  • Suggested format: 30 to 45 minutes for the councillor to review hot-button municipal issues or to run some ideas by the panel in focus group fashion; the remaining time could be used for a Q&A session or discussion of residents’ concerns
  • First meeting scheduled for February 2009

By the end of December 2008, with 16 members signed up, we were ready to launch RAP.

Lessons Learned

“How do humans learn naturally? They pursue their own goals, they fail, they try again, then develop a theory of how to improve. We’re all failure devices. We make mistakes all the time.” Roger Schank, American educator

As RAP’s start-up organizer, what follows is my personal account of the factors that I think may have contributed to its demise. The purpose of this retrospective analysis is not to point the finger of blame at anyone. However, having read Carol Tavris’ and Elliot Aronson’s insightful book, Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me), I have engaged in some personal introspection in order to assess how my words and deeds might have contributed to RAP’s decline.

Start-up phase

Lesson 1. If possible, avoid making unilateral decisions

Having spent much of my career as a project planning and management leader, I was comfortable taking the lead in getting the panel up and running. In hindsight, however, I could have done a better job of proactively involving members from the outset, particularly in setting the agenda for our inaugural meeting. Instead, I sought their input only as an after-thought, emailing them my agenda topics for their review, along with an admittedly sheepish and belated invitation to respond with their suggestions. It’s impossible now to tell what impact, if any, this unilateral decision-making approach might have had. Certainly no one raised this with me as an issue, which doesn’t mean they didn’t consider doing so.

Lesson 2. Don’t presume that what might have worked well in one setting or with one group will necessarily work as well in/with another.

In looking back, I was too quick to rely on methods that had worked well with highly task-oriented teams that I led in the large federal bureaucracy where I had honed my skills. I foresaw no reason why they shouldn’t work equally well with a neighbourhood panel. Consequently, I based the format of my opening agenda on an approach that had served me well, especially with new teams:

  • Opening words of welcome, in this case from our councillor
  • Self-introductions by each panel member
  • Defining RAP’s mission using a conventional brainstorming technique
  • Inviting members to draw on their experiences to compile a do – don’t do list of business meeting etiquette

I also proposed a brief post-meeting assessment of what worked/didn’t work in the meeting.

The first two agenda topics posed no problems. But we stumbled through the other two. Members’ body language signaled restless impatience to get on with more substantive matters. As for the post-meeting review, it prompted little more than a tepid “thumbs up” salute. Not quite what I expected.

In a word, my approach “fizzled”. It just didn’t translate well from the highly-structured, task-oriented teams in a work setting to the relatively unstructured group of residents who did not yet share a normative way of getting things done.

If I were doing this over, I would have selected a couple of members to work with in setting the agenda. A steering-team approach might have prevented me from relying exclusively on what I presumed were “tried and true” techniques. So, lesson learned.

Lesson 3. Going into the first meeting with a new group, be prepared to check your expectations at the door

I entered our first meeting with high expectations. As a result, I was probably not very good at masking my disappointment with the outcome. The biggest let-down was the mission statement that we settled on. Without much in the way of a brainstorming discussion, the group adopted this statement: “The mission of RAP is to share information relevant to the ward or to the city as a whole.” I felt at the time that this mission would not provide RAP with a sufficiently robust common cause that would unite and sustain us over the long haul.

Somewhere along the path to wisdom I had forgotten the words of anthropologist Angeles Arrien: “Be open, rather than attached, to the  outcome.”

In Part 2, I’ll continue the story of what happened at our first meeting.


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This entry was posted on March 25, 2010 by in political action and tagged , .

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