Ways to consensus: developing shared values

If you read the earlier blog on the British Columbia Citizens Assembly (BCCA), you may recall that that the assembly recommended Single Transferable Vote (STV) rather than Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) as their preferred way of voting to replace First Past the Post. One reason for this is that the members of the assembly gave weight to the concerns of members from the rural north of the province, for whom local – geographic – representation was very important. There would be less of such representation under MMP, because some representatives are not connected to a constituency.stv_banner

What happened is that the rest of the members took on some of the values of those from the north. I’ve found several examples where this has happened.

This could of course be very unhealthy. It seems to me that less well-off people in American sometimes support tax reductions for the rich because they have been fed a rather peculiar version of the American Dream by those in power. That did not happen in any of the examples I found.

A clear case comes from the neighbourhood of Traxton in Chicago in the USA. At the local level, in each of Chicago’s 279 police beats, patrol officers and their sergeants meet regularly with residents to identify priorities and ways of tackling them, and to report back on how previous initiatives are going.

eastsideVSwestsideInitial meetings were very loosely run. As a result, the more articulate west-siders dominated proceedings and priorities, even though the east-side had much worse crime. This changed when a facilitator who had been trained in problem-solving techniques took over. Each part of the neighbourhood then learned about the other side and both sides agreed priorities together.

When local residents were educated about decision-making and empowered to question officials and experts, they were able to devise strategies which were more equitable and effective than previous approaches. For instance, one Chicago neighbourhood, Traxton, with rich and poor districts separated by railway tracks, agreed a set of priorities that concentrated on the needs of the poor area.

epa-eagle-fordSomething very similar happened in another part of the USA, in the city of Tacoma in Washington State. This related to arsenic pollution. In the early 1980s, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was trying to decide what if anything should be done about inorganic arsenic, a cancer-causing pollutant produced when arsenic-content ore is smelted into copper. The issue was especially pertinent in the area around Tacoma, Washington, where the American Smelting and Refining Company (Asarco) operated a copper smelter.

Best available pollution control equipment would reduce but not eliminate lung cancer cases from this pollution. The cost, however, would make the plant unviable. This would devastate the local economy. Asarco employed 570 workers with an annual payroll of $23 million, and the company purchased $12 million of goods from local suppliers.

William Ruckelhaus, head of the EPA, organised a series of public meetings during the summer of 1983. This led to social learning about the health risks of pollution and the enormous costs of eliminating them altogether. The focus changed from how best to control hazardous pollutants to how to diversify the local economy and attract industry with fewer hazards. The energies of the various parties shifted from “winning” to changing the way the problem was understood and finding workable solutions. As Rucklehaus described it,

“Even the residents of Vashon Island, who were directly exposed to the pollution and yet had no employment or financial stake in the smelter, began to ask whether there was a means of keeping the smelter going while reducing pollution levels. They saw the workers from the smelter – encountered them in flesh and blood – and began incorporating the workers’ perspective into their own solutions.”

Remember that phrase: “encountered them in flesh and blood”. Done well, that’s the key.