I have been involved in large-scale community visioning projects for years and worked on them in all sorts of places, from metro areas to individual cities. I recommend visioning as a way of pointing communities forward. I’ve seen how it can engage citizens, give heart to political, business and civic leaders, and help set bold new directions for communities. But . . .
There are limits to what visioning can do by itself, and it can be done poorly, which is worse than not doing it at all. So, over the years, I’ve created a list of the five elements of successful visioning. Here it is.
Make it as representative as possible. The hardest part of visioning isn’t the meetings or analyzing what the citizens say. The hardest part is getting a cross-section of the community to the meetings. Believe it or not, there are people who think there are better things to do with their evenings than spend them in a public meeting.
But it’s worth the effort to be sure all parts of the community are heard. First, visioning’s power comes from its legitimacy; these are, after all, large-scale efforts to listen to and report accurately what the citizens want. If parts of the community aren’t heard, visioning loses its legitimacy. Second, it improves the visioning process to hear from a wide variety of citizens. That’s because people who are different sometimes think differently about community issues, and you need that diversity of thought, both in the meetings and in the final report. I’ve seen people change their minds during visioning meetings because another point of view caused them to think more deeply about an issue. We don’t have nearly enough opportunities for people with different ideas to talk with one another in communities; we should make sure it happens in visioning projects.
Ask appropriate questions. Once you have a cross-section of citizens in the room, make sure you involve them the right way. The best way is to ask them to talk about things that they—and only they—are experts in. My favorite is to ask participants to imagine that, in 20 years’ time, the community has become the place they want it to be. What does the community look like and work like? What is the same as today and what is different? What obstacles did the citizens and their government overcome to make it happen?
This asks citizens to define broadly what they want their community to be. You don’t spend a lot of time asking them how to make it happen—these are questions best asked of technical experts. The citizens are experts in what, the way they want things to turn out.
Listen to the citizens first. Many times, visioning is combined with a planning project, such as developing a comprehensive plan. There’s nothing wrong with this as long as two conditions are met:
- It needs to be an authentic form of visioning with a sustained outreach effort to get a cross-section of people involved, hundreds of citizen participants, appropriate questions asked, and an honest report summarizing what they said and containing every single idea that was offered. To repeat: Bad visioning is worse than no visioning at all, so don’t cut corners.
- It needs to end before the planners begin their work. I regularly get phone calls from planning firms that are looking for someone to help with “citizen outreach” or “citizen engagement” at a mid-point in their work. My answer is always no. If the citizens are worth hearing from, then hear from them first. Reaching out to the citizens after plans have been drafted isn’t visioning; it’s salesmanship.
Create accountability. Nothing breeds cynicism like being asked to speak your mind, being thanked for doing so—and then being forgotten. If you ask citizens to share their dreams with you, you should report back to them on what’s happening with their dreams. They don’t expect immediate success in all areas, but they want to know if there’s any success—or even backsliding.
If the visioning precedes planning, there are immediate opportunities for accountability. You could ask some of the citizens to serve on a steering committee to make sure the plans are true to the citizens’ desires. You could have a large community meeting and invite all who participated in visioning see the plans and comment on them. Better yet, you could do both.
However you do it, make sure that once citizens are “in the loop” of community progress, they stay in the loop.
Understand visioning’s limitations. Visioning is probably the best way ever devised of listening in an organized way to what citizens want. It helps build a sense of ownership and citizenship in communities. It can be an important way of moving a community forward. But it’s not sufficient by itself to create progress.
As I’ll write about in the future, breakthrough ideas for communities come from places where three judgments overlap: What the citizens want, what is politically possible, and what is best for the community at this point. Visioning can deliver the first judgment, and political leaders the second. The third can come from individual leaders and blue-ribbon committees or it can bubble up from the bureaucracy or from community groups like a chamber of commerce or civic league.
But even then, an idea is only an idea. What turns an idea into reality is someone committed to building support and removing obstacles. And we have a term for such people: We call them “leaders.”