Traffic lights dot the landscape of Fairfax County, and now something similar will be used to gauge the mood of a citizen task force.
At its meeting on June 7, each member of the task force formed to study an area around the intersection of Hunter Mill and Sunset Hills roads was given a red, yellow and green index card. As the discussion progresses, the group’s facilitator, Patricia Stevens, will occasionally call for people to hold up their cards. The group will make recommendations about whether any or all of the land being studied should have a higher density. It will use this method for many discussions, rather than the more traditional Robert’s Rules system of a chair and people making motions.
“This is going to be a thing that we might use to gauge consensus,” said Stevens, who is a trained facilitator and also works for the Fairfax County Department of Systems Management for Human Services. The group will still use formal votes when making some decisions, Stevens said.
After a topic has been discussed, Stevens will call for a show of cards to give her a sense of whether or not the group is ready to move on. People who are in general agreement with the direction of the discussion will hold up a green card. People who might have some reservations, but are willing to go along would hold up a yellow card.
People who are opposed hold up a red card. Group members who hold up a red card will be obliged to defend their position, while those who hold up other colors will not.
By looking at what colors are being held up, Stevens will be able to see if the group has reached consensus on a topic. “It helps you see when you need to stop and have more discussion,” Stevens said.
Stevens said she has used this system for several years and during the meetings of a variety of different groups.
The system, while not the most common, could work, said two professors at George Mason University who study group dynamics and decision making.
Both said that the most important part of the equation will be the skill of the facilitator. “It takes a good facilitator either way,” said Professor Mark Addleson, director of the Organizational Development and Knowledge Management Program at George Mason University’s School of Public Policy.
When Stevens ask the group for a consensus, Addleson said that she needs to be conscious of framing the issues and the question in as neutral a fashion as possible.
Some people are hesitant to speak in public, so by asking only one group to defend its positions a facilitator could attempt to steer the conversation in a particular direction. Only asking those who show a red card to speak, “at least from my point of view would be problematic,” Addleson said.
“It sets up those who are shy against it,” said Tojo Thatchenkery of professor of organizational development at George Mason University’s School of Public Policy. He also expressed reservations about only asking one group to speak up.
The task force, however, must complete its work by December, so it does not really have enough time for every person to speak about every decision the group makes.
Stevens acknowledged that some people may focus on the drawbacks to this system, but stressed that manipulation would be unethical and that she would not engage in such behavior. “Any professional tool or profession can be used unethically,” she said.
In order to avoid even the appearance of such a situation, Stevens will ask the group, at the end of each meeting if they feel that she has conducted the meeting in as neutral a fashion as possible.
THATCHENKERY SAID that a red card may actually allow a person to express a dissenting view more easily than holding up their hand.
The hand is part of a person’s body and the individual has a greater ownership of it than of a card. “With the show of hands, it takes a little more guts,” Thatchenkery said.
Addleson agreed. “There isn’t as much ego invested in it,” he said. “They’re easier to read, sometimes, than hands.”
Both agree that the system will help to move discussion along, which is one of Stevens’ goals. The group studying the area will likely have wildly divergent opinions. Some members of the task force live in or very near the area being studied and will likely have strong opinions regarding the disposition of the area.
The cards can help prevent one person from bringing the proceeding to a halt by using parliamentary tricks. “It may be effective if the group is highly emotionally charged,” Thatchenkery said.
Addleson explained that this is where the skill of the moderator will come into play. It will be up to Stevens to determine if a person is simply being a contrarian or actually has new information to bring forward into the discussion. “I don’t think, in any of this, you can simply proceed by counting the cards,” he said.
Stevens said she will first try to achieve consensus on some of the core issues and try to get general agreement on some of the less controversial facets of the study. “You want to start out with the things that are not going to be as inflammatory,” she said.
Addleson said that achieving a truly unanimous decision is not likely to happen, nor is it necessarily desirable. “The issues they are dealing with are inevitably complex ones,” he said.
Stevens said that she is conscious of this role. “That’s the number one job, is to make everyone be heard,” she said.
In any case, Addleson said, the plan to discuss the issues with citizens in this sort of collaborative setting is generally preferable. In this fashion, it could happen that the group reaches a decision which is generally agreeable to most people, rather than angering some residents to the point where they feel they must litigate in order to receive a fair hearing. “The ones that don’t proceed this way, you end up with problems in the end,” he said.