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Gridlock impossible at 'kitchen table'

By James E. Geringer, John A. Kitzhaber / December 23, 2004


One issue still lingers from the polarized presidential elections: How might we return to more civil discourse, especially among our public leaders? Our fellow citizens aren't interested in a blame game. Leaders: It's up to us to change things.

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We'd do well to start at home, in our states and communities, whether we are Democrat, Republican, or of another stripe. It's time for public leaders to make a real effort to draw fellow citizens to the kitchen table, where America has traditionally found its most durable solutions, and begin to make progress together. Absent this, the polarization that now grips our land can only continue.

One approach is "collaborative governance." That's a fancy name for getting everyone - every agency, citizen, community - with a stake in a particular issue to come together to talk about what ought to be done. This is different from your typical town meeting, which is too often just a one-sided exercise in appearing to listen. And, it's different from a public hearing, often attended only by policy experts or by those with vested interests to promote. Instead, collaborative governance takes as its starting point the idea that truly working together creates better solutions to public problems, solutions that more people can live with.

We're talking about a politics of integration, rather than the politics of division that pits one side against another. Just look at difficult questions such as healthcare access, or energy independence. Are people working together toward solutions all can support, or are they battling for their ideology to win the day?

But imagine, for example, if your state faces a question about how best to protect coastal areas, while still keeping needed industrial access. There may be laws about it, but no rules about how to apply them. For decades no one's known quite what may or may not be done on the coast.

What if, as a citizen, you were invited to a meeting and found yourself, not in an impersonal hearing room but at a conference table where work gets done. Imagine around this table some citizens, some representatives from industry, union people, farmers, environmental groups, and others affected by what happens along the coastline. Imagine the state official who called you together says that, instead of the government creating a plan that only some could live with, it is instead up to you. As a group you're to hammer out a solution. That's collaborative governance, and it feels much different from simply "listening to the public."

Sound impossible? Something like this really happened in Delaware in the late '90s. The group was convened by the governor. And, it produced new rules that resolved a decades-old coastal dispute.

We call on legislators, governors, and local officials to realize that while we might be divided on some basic issues, we can develop a common agenda of action. We can begin to work in ways that connect people, rather than pit them against one another. We've done this ourselves.

In Oregon, we were faced with a plummeting coastal salmon population. The federal government had proposed listing the coho salmon as "threatened." The listing would not only affect commercial and sport fishing, but would also hit agricultural and timber industries whose upstream activities have affected salmon habitat. We had to develop a fair and effective salmon recovery plan - and to do so before the final listing decision was made. It was tempting to gather policy experts and start writing. But we knew we had one chance to get it right and come up with a plan that would work and have enough support to keep working. It would take many different voices.