Pursuing Consensus

Who saves us from ourselves?

Walt Kelly’s possum character in the 1971 Earth Day comic strip Pogo surveys the trash clogged Georgia Okefenokee Swamp and says, “…we have met the enemy and he is us.”

The same answer applies to the question of who is responsible for our failure to address this community’s fiscal and economic challenges.  We are all, to some degree, the enemy of change, by commission–taking advantage of government’s inefficiencies and dysfunction for our own benefit, or by omission–remaining silent and allowing others to perpetuate the status quo.

We can, however, become advocates of change. Collectively we can define what we as a community want and take steps to make that happen. At the most basic level we can ensure what we do advances the well being of both our community and ourselves.  Aggregate individual contributions and we fundamentally alter how we see ourselves and how outsiders perceive us.

Some challenges, however, require collective involvement. The scope of the problem is beyond what any single individual can address. Government and community leadership must bring us together to define on a macro level what we aspire to and how best we achieve those aspirations. And, on a micro level how do we address specific challenges confronting the community.

Government leadership should signal a willingness to consider new ideas and strategies that move beyond past practices, which have failed to produce meaningful outcomes.  Community groups then provide the venue for discussion, engagement and feedback. Town hall style meetings give voice to different perspectives and help coalesce the community around shared concerns, objectives, strategies and outcomes.

But how do we go about building consensus in a diverse community?

A fact specific Statement initiates the process.  It provides information on the problem that needs discussion and what is the likely outcome if there is a failure to take action.

It defines the objective that we seek to achieve and discusses various strategies that can help us achieve that objective.  Because each strategy we consider has different implications to groups within our community, it is important that these be explained.

As an example, assume the need is to raise additional revenues for government operations.
The Statement will inform why these funds are needed and how they will be used. The amount and use of existing government revenues will be discussed as well as how those revenues are now used to support specific community services and investments. The allocation of existing dollars between the actual delivery of service and administrative cost is an important piece of information that allows assessing the efficiency with which services are delivered. Because one alternative to raising new revenue is the elimination or reduction of existing spending, information should be presented on what reduced spending means to the quantity and quality of existing government services. Finally a discussion of who bears the burden of the new revenues is required, and what is the impact on residents, visitors, and businesses.

The trade-off between revenue sufficiency and adequacy of service delivery is readily observable in the reduced waste collection services throughout our communities.  Over the past ten years Waste Management has advocated for fees and charges to underwrite service cost.  The agency has failed in its effort to get community support for these initiatives. Reduced collection and disposal services now negatively impact the aesthetics of our communities.

Once complete the Statement should be widely distributed. The community can be engaged through radio and television talk programs, news articles and commentary, and small group meetings. Broad based community input is desirable as are expressions of alternative points of view. Different perspectives help bring about a resolution that reflects consensus rather than simply a majority perspective.

Consider a community wide discussion on addressing the financial difficulties of the Government Employee Retirement System.  Because in the final analysis, the community will bear the cost of the solution to the GERS problem, it is fully appropriate that the community be involved in discussing how that problem is resolved.

The System’s actuarial reports indicate that what is owed far exceeds existing assets. Without an infusion of additional funds, benefit payments will soon be unsustainable.

That default will not only affect retired employees but the broader community as well. If the Government does not make up the differential between what GERS can pay and what is owed, retired workers benefit payments will be cut. They will be unable to meet financial obligations and retirement expectations. If the government makes up that differential, taxes will rise and the existing level of government spending slashed to provide the required funds.

The community will also be affected. Business sales will be reduced. Retirees will neither be able to assist with family education and health care cost nor finance new business ventures or underwrite community services programs.

Retirees have few options for making up financial losses at this stage of their lives. For most, their productive working years are behind them.

There are alternatives for dealing with this challenge. All need to be considered.  Other governments have made tough choices that honor obligations to those who are retired, restructure commitments to those still actively employed, introduce portability of retirement benefits for those leaving government service, engage the employee more actively in saving for retirement, and reduce the cost of retirement benefits to the government and the community.

The Community needs to understand the implications of the above and be involved in defining the parameters of a solution to this challenge.  As previously suggested the correct starting point is a factual Statement on the problem, presenting all the relevant information essential to a meaningful discussion and the consideration of available alternative solutions.

The ensuing conversation and exchange of opinion builds consensus. The community better understands the priority of available alternatives, is more supportive of the final decision, and the process in reaching a decision is fully transparent. Government leadership also benefits. The public discussion of the problem and the solutions proposed provides political cover for the hard decisions that have to be made.

The same approach can be used to discuss the issue of economic development.
There is no one economic development model that addresses the need of the Virgin Islands. The communities differ and their perspective as to what constitutes appropriate economic development also differs.

A public discussion here again begins with a Statement that considers what the communities want, what are the competitive advantages, what are our available resources, what best aligns economic incentives and community benefits, and the availability and cost of business inputs such as transportation, water, and electricity. The Statement discusses available infrastructure and secondary and post secondary education and what contribution these make or fail to make to workforce preparedness to support business growth and expansion.  Government’s ability to proactively facilitate business formation and expansion is also considered.

The public discussion steps off from this statement of fact and allows an informed discussion of what the community can and will support.

Consensus building is not easy but it is essential. Communities are diverse organisms.  Building consensus is a time intensive process but is fundamental to our democratic principals.

In the process building consensus to bring about change we save ourselves and become the ally rather than the enemy of change.

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