The Sage Grouse Story:III. Lessons Learned From Collaboration

Aspects of the sage grouse story are fairly commonly observed at a more local scale. This is one topic on which I hope Peter Williams will lend his wisdom.

What happens when you establish a task force, get it going, support it, and then change the ultimate decision? Is there a “trust envelope” that political decisions can exceed? Personally, I can see both sides. Elected officials have the authority to make decisions. So they can’t just hand over decision-making authority to another group. At the same time, why would people spend years working on something just to have some higher-level people change it or change the “must-haves”? What happens when key decision makers change positions (in this case it was Secretary Salazar, but it could be your local district ranger).

This Lessons Learned From the Greater Sage-Grouse Collaboration was well done (with great photos) and talks about some of the same themes we’ve discussed for smaller collaborative efforts.

Ironically, many of the limitations mentioned by respondents were also the same things that made the sage-grouse collaborative response so unique in the first place. Time was mentioned by most as the biggest limitation – the fact that there was a firm deadline for appreciable action, the number of hours required for meetings and planning, the time required to establish relationships and trust – all of these elements played in to the challenges faced during the collaborative efforts. In addition, the challenge of the scale and the variety of perspectives was seen as a limitation while also being essential for the collaboration to work.

Beyond these broad themes, other specific limitations mentioned include:
• Adequate technical capacity to provide services to landowners.
• Maintaining consistency across states with disparate challenges faced in different states; associated with this was expectations of “one size fits all” requirements when using federal funds for conservation projects.
• Maintaining agency staff continuity for work on the landscape and in planning negotiations.
• Regulatory process required through the National Environmental Policy Act (for implementation of restoration projects).
• Endangered Species Act interpretation that had typically focused on regulatory limitations, but lacked a way to measure voluntary conservation partnerships
• Politics (between states and federal agencies; between Washington DC leadership and field staff, etc.) and egos that impacted negotiations and undermined trust.
• Last minute changes and lack of transparency that undermined long-term negotiations because they were not part of the discussion throughout the process. As one person mentioned, 11th hour “gotta haves” will prevent durable long-term solutions in a collaborative process.
• Reverting to top down decision-making and not listening to comments and recommendations from the collaborative teams that had worked together to develop solutions

Two quotes from the Lessons Learned paper:

“I’ve learned to recognize that there is a wide spectrum of collaborative processes. What I’ve experienced and witnessed these past twenty-plus years is a process of creating deeper more meaningful communication by cultivating respectful listening, which leads to respect and trust among participants. It’s a deep human need to be listened to, valued and to feel a sense of purpose and belonging. Collaboration creates community in a larger context, it can bring people together and give them the opportunity to build the trust that is required to hone durable solutions for resource issues. It is an example for the broader world.”

–Robin Boies, Stewardship Alliance for Northeast Elko

“Maintain transparency and work on trust every day – that’s easy to say but it takes a lot of energy. Benefits are collaborative outcomes that are durable. Top down solutions are only good as long as you’re there to enforce them. Solutions that are collaborative and durable are supported by the communities that have to live with those outcomes long after decision makers are gone.”

–Tim Murphy, Bureau of Land Management Idaho State Director (retired

So decision makers who ask for collaborative efforts have a problem. How best can they negotiate ever-changing political currents, with ever-changing personnel at all levels, while maintaining trust? I’m hoping TWS readers will have examples of collaborative leaders and decision-makers successfully at doing this, and perhaps we could contact them and ask them their thoughts.

1 thought on “The Sage Grouse Story:III. Lessons Learned From Collaboration”

  1. This is a pretty thought-provoking discussion, especially as a series. And I definitely appreciate the invitation to offer some thoughts.

    First, let me encourage folks to read the report by Partners for Conservation. Fairly brief (~20 p.) with good photos, it also does a nice job getting at lessons learned, like the importance of building and maintaining trust and relationships (recognizing each reinforces the other), as well as the importance of a core set of skills when working with folks who have diverse perspectives. I read these as a pretty good checklist to keep in mind heading into any collaborative effort, perhaps especially a contentious one.

    Sharon, your question for decision-makers about dealing with ever-changing political currents goes to the heart of what can make a collaborative effort challenging. And it seems helpful to link political currents with inevitable personnel changes. Many folks over-look this basic, almost common truism about collaborative efforts:

    –Every collaborative effort occurs in a dynamic context, so assuming anything like opinions or “decision space” will be stable over the duration of a collaborative effort is risky (Note: Check out the other discussion on this blog of *wicked problems* because it gets at risk too).

    So, what to do about changing political currents? My first thought is to underscore the value of broadening the discussion somewhat to think about the main ways a collaborative effort might be derailed. Changing political currents isn’t the only way, not that anyone here is suggesting that.

    I tend to see three main ways the wheels fall off a collaborative effort: (1) the process gets rolled politically (political currents), (2) the process leads to a decision that is unworkable (feasibility), or (3) you lose in court, generally on a procedural violation (procedural integrity). If you’re wondering about science, I see it as embedded in all three, a cross-cutting issue instead of a separate one.

    The answer to our question, then, might come down to this: We need to design a process that acknowledges and addresses political currents, leads to a feasible decision, and is procedurally sound. That’s easier said than done, especially because few folks recognize the crucial importance of all three aspects—political currents, feasibility, and process—and far fewer know how to deal with those collaboratively.

    If there’s a related “lesson learned” I’d offer, it’s that I’ve found it invaluable to have a broad conversation early in the process about designing the effort. By broad, I mean a discussion that extends beyond a core planning team or other usual suspects.

    What I’m suggesting is asking folks how they want to work together, what might get in the way of working together, and what they see as the formal and informal parts of the process that are going to have to come together. And the discussion has to have both an internal aspect within the deciding agency and an external aspect with formal and informal partners, stakeholders, and those who have any sort of special legal standing, whether Tribes, tribal members, agencies with overlapping jurisdiction, whatever.

    Some might say that such a discussion will interfere with or even ignore formal decision authority. Done well—as a way to inform decisions and not a delegation of authority—the procedural integrity is maintained and even reinforced because the discussion is an opportunity to expose and correct misunderstandings early in the process.

    Getting back to Sharon’s question, inevitable personnel change is definitely a challenge such an early discussion has to address. Any well-designed process these days will recognize the challenge and include ways to reduce risks associated with it. Yet, from a risk management perspective, the risk isn’t *personnel change* because some is all but certain; the risk is being unprepared to deal with *consequences* of the change, whether an anticipated consequence or not.

    This brings up something we teach these days at the Partnership and Community Collaboration Academy and coach folks through when asked: *succession planning and transition management,* two related yet distinct parts of the same challenge. But that’s for another day.


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