Gridlock impossible at 'kitchen table'

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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.

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.

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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.

Negotiations were intense, as environmentalists, fishing interests, agricultural groups, and the timber industry squared off. I [Governor Kitzhaber] spent a lot of time going from meeting to meeting, making sure one group's concerns were really being heard by another. Sometimes, I met with people one on one. Over time, we reached a solution. We connected the salmon and clean water issues in a way that allowed for local variation. We promoted use of watershed councils around the state, giving them authority - but stipulating that solutions be acceptable to all, including private landowners. Instead of imposing a government-drafted plan, together we created a locally based solution that everyone could accept. It worked.

To rebuild the trust that leaders need in order to be effective, we need to step out of hearing rooms and into schools, universities, libraries, and even the town square. This collaborative governance requires leaders to do certain things:

• Identify and raise issues that can be resolved only through people working together;

• Create an opportunity and place for people to come together to address issues;

• Use clear, common-sense language to talk about possible solutions without predetermining the outcome;

• Conduct public negotiations that integrate contending interests; and

• Create agreements about what we're all willing to do and under what conditions, and then take action.

These aren't pie-in-the-sky ideas. All this has happened, in places from Montana to Ohio, from Texas to North Carolina. It just doesn't happen enough.

We're talking about agreements that might be hard-fought compromise during which conversations can be heated. They involve give and take. But agreement is not giving in. Agreement is what grown-ups do. Productive agreement means that all sides gain more than they lose.

In Wyoming, we faced seemingly endless unresolved issues when it came to land use - all working at cross-purposes on natural resource issues. My own background [Governor Geringer's] reflects a time when folks would get together to resolve an issue or agree on something by dropping by the house, leaning on the hood of a pickup truck for a chat, or going inside for coffee and a visit around the kitchen table. So, thinking back to my upbringing, I began the "Governor's Kitchen Table" process. Federal and state agency directors and their staffs came together to identify priority issues that needed to be addressed collaboratively.

I began every meeting, not with minutes of the last meeting, but by asking people to describe their backgrounds, what their careers had been like, and what they cared about. Participants discovered they had more in common than in conflict. They took an interest in one another almost immediately. The results of this simple invitation to actually work together, instead of each in their own agency office, were extraordinary. Just two examples: We were able to resolve a number of forest health issues and agreed on road improvements to and inside Yellowstone Park. Any one of these, by itself would be a significant achievement.

Other leaders, too, are beginning to call people together to work out difficult issues. But, given the nature of the new, complex problems we face, these efforts must snowball.

Leaders across America, will we rise to this challenge or will we lower our sights? If you agree that it's time to get to work, we'll meet you at the table.

James E. Geringer, a Republican, was governor of Wyoming from 1995 through 2003. John Kitzhaber, a Democrat, was governor of Oregon from 1995 through 2002. They cochair the Policy Consensus Initiative and the National Policy Consensus Center.

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