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Extension > Community > Civic Engagement > Engage citizens in decisions>Success stories and case studies

Success stories and case studies

Real stories of civic connections and how Extension can help

Connecting conservation funding and landowners

The challenge — How should organizations respond when new funding mandates make engaging citizens a must?

In 2003, funding for Conservation Districts through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) mandated great attention to the priorities of landowners. Soil and Water Conservation Districts have always been concerned about their stakeholders, but asking for more feedback brought out concerns. How could they include more people, especially those in less represented populations? What would happen when the floodgate of conflict was opened and ATV riders and bird sanctuary enthusiasts would face off, for example. How could they satisfy landowners with varying opinions about spending money on erosion control, water quality, wildlife habits, or other concerns?

The solution — Lee Ann Buck, Executive Director of the Minnesota Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts (SWCDs) called on Extension to provide one-day trainings in seven cities around Minnesota. Participants were local SWCD staff and regional staff of the Natural Resources Conservation Services. At trainings, fiscal officers described the new mandates of EQIP funding and Extension Educators taught participants about tools and techniques that create effective public participation. Training topics were designed for the Soil and Water Conservation Districts audience included:

The result — That year, Minnesota was fourth in the nation for receiving EQIP funding. The Executive Director attributed this to the authentic leadership that was provided among SWCD staff as they reached out to stakeholders and managed decisions and priorities.

Two Southern Minnesota communities accentuate the positive

The challenge — A Program Officer at the Southern Initiative Foundation granted $10,000 to two Southern Minnesota communities. He was unsure that the money was going to be spent on something everyone supported. Foundations are keenly aware that money creates controversy and brings out hidden agendas. Further, one of the communities was deeply divided about an important local issue and it was unclear if that community could set their conflict aside and think about the future.

The solution — The Program Officer asked Extension educators to work with him to design a public participation process that would build upon local leadership and prepare the community for success. Extension educators spent time with the program officer and then with leaders from the communities to decide what needed to happen before conducting the town meetings. They spent time helping leaders think about members of the community who needed to be involved and how to engage them. Extension then designed a careful community meeting process to be used in both communities. A major goal of the plan was to create an effective visioning process that would allow the communities to tease out a single vision from diverse sectors of the community. The leaders also considered logistics, divided roles and responsibilities of the leadership team, and how the media would get involved. After careful consideration of these factors, community meetings were held.

The result — Here is an adapted excerpt from the local newspaper following the visioning meeting in one community:

Can a community deeply divided over a contentious issue put hard feelings aside and discuss how to build upon the many strengths of their town?

In a word, yes.

About 125 people turned out for the Town Meeting on Tuesday night and spent two hours discussing their town.

Billed as an asset-driven "Community Conversation", the town's people were invited to help decide how to spend $10,000 in grant money from the Southern Minnesota Initiative Fund on a project that builds on the town's many strengths.

Operating on the premise that "the glass is half full, not half empty," the facilitator, Kim Boyce of the University of Minnesota Extension moved the two hour meeting along, soliciting the community's strengths from the audience. More than 50 assets were identified ranging from a good library and fire department to a town with interested people who regularly attend city council meetings.

Building on these strengths, the group proposed possible projects. By the end of the two hour meeting, research committees were identified that would report back at a second town meeting.

Some of the committee projects were:

From this list, one or two projects will be selected for the $10,000 grant.

Boyce…complimented the audience on being "respectful and considerate."… Boyce was optimistic that the initial town meeting will lead to the community uniting behind a future project. "Sometimes just having the conversation can inspire something to happen," Boyce said.

Later, this community's committees continued to meet to work on beautification, and to develop a film that featured the community and its many assets.

Watershed administrators

The challenge — Watershed administrators work with complex issues that have important consequences for a community's most precious commodity – water. Their stakeholders are as diverse as the breadth and depth of the community. They including landowners, citizens, public boards, engineers, conservationists, and business owners. Decisions about how water should be used affect each of these stakeholders, making it easy to see why Mark Twain said, "Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting over."

Water administrators themselves requested that their state association help them think about managing their public processes, and their state association turned to Extension for help.

The solution — Extension designed a one day training with watershed administrators particularly in mind. The why of public participation was the key training area. From there, the conversation turned to how to develop effective public engagement processes, how to identify and segment groups, how to have effective meetings, how to handle conflict, and how to make decisions within groups of stakeholders.

A particularly successful part of the training was an assessment of current processes. Armed with information from the training, administrators reconsidered how they handle conflict, ask the public for their opinions, and recognize the public's contribution to getting their work done.

The result — One woman, a citizen chair of a watershed, "This was really, really helpful. I didn't realize how many things I was NOT doing as chair that I should be doing and how many things I was doing that should be delegated to other people." The training helped her clarify her role as chair of the Watershed and redefine her role as an officer working to manage the public good.

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