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Process as Innovation in the California Delta

Published:  December 17, 2012

By Eugene Kim

Eugene Kim is the co-founder of Groupaya. In this role he is leading a project to facilitate conversations with California Delta stakeholders around water issues on behalf of the Delta Conservancy.

Participants in Delta Dialogues, October 2012

Delta Dialogues participants at a farm, August 2012

Stakeholders in the Delta Dialogues, September 2012





“Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting over.” —Mark Twain

This past July, California Governor Jerry Brown held a news conference to announce draft recommendations for dealing with some of California’s bitterly contentious, decades-old water issues in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. In describing his plans for pushing the recommendations forward, Brown said, "I just want to get s**t done. And I want to get this thing done the best I can, alright?"

“Wow,” I thought when I first read those words. “This Friday’s meeting is going to be interesting.”

This past year, I (along with my Groupaya co-founder, Kristin Cobble, and my friend and mentor, Jeff Conklin of CogNexus Group) co-facilitated multiple conversations with Delta stakeholders around water issues on behalf of the Delta Conservancy. We called it the Delta Dialogues. On the surface, the goal of our nine-month process seemed absurdly simple: Build shared understanding with the people in the room around Delta water issues. But our goal was anything but.

The Delta provides water to 25 million people throughout California and spans three million acres of fertile land. It hosts 750 species of plants and wildlife, including more than 55 species of fish. It hosts half a million acres of farmland and is home to half a million people and 200,000 jobs. Most of the Delta is below sea level, protected by over a thousand miles of levees that need maintenance and upkeep.

The Delta is a fragile resource that is critical to the survival and livelihood of millions of people and species, many of whose interests conflict with each other. There is so much at stake, people naturally move with a sense of urgency to — as our governor so delicately puts it — “get s**t done.”

But despite this urgency, very little s**t has gotten done. The desire to move quickly has hampered, rather than facilitated progress, because the movement has not been based on a robust shared understanding and commitment across all the different stakeholders. As a result, the process of grappling with these challenges has been mired in lawsuits, mistrust, and misery for the past 30 years.

It’s a vicious cycle that seems particularly endemic to public policy, where:

  • Planners consult experts, while excluding (often unintentionally) affected stakeholders from the process.
  • The initial proposals ignite the ire of the excluded stakeholders, who have limited avenues for feedback other than protests and lawsuits.
  • Planners attempt to incorporate the feedback into a revised plan, but it does not appease the excluded stakeholders, who do not trust that they are being heard.
  • Planners exclude stakeholders again in subsequent processes, partially because they fear that the stakeholders will become angry and once again disrupt the process.
  • This feeds fire to the flame, the cycle continues, and even worsens.

What makes this cycle even more unfortunate is that the parties involved often are working passionately and tirelessly with the same goal: coming up with a plan that best meets the needs of everyone affected. It’s not a problem with intention, it’s a problem with literacy around designing and facilitating great, inclusive processes.

For problems that are particularly wicked (of which water issues are practically the definition), building trust through shared understanding is an absolute must. If you take the time to build that trust upfront, collaboration and cooperation happen fluidly. If you don’t take that time, you pay for it ten times over later, when your process starts breaking down.

So how do you build that trust in the first place? Or, even more challenging, how do you rebuild trust?

We had five principles in designing the Delta Dialogues:

  1. Get leaders across all stakeholder groups into a room together.
  2. Create a safe space for conversation.
  3. Focus on building shared understanding and trust by emphasizing listening, rather than debating.
  4. Don’t shy away from the difficult conversation.
  5. Tell the story of what happens in the room broadly and transparently.

Some of these principles seemed contradictory at times. For example, we wanted to have a journalist in the room, but participants initially objected, questioning whether or not a safe space would be possible that way. We worked out a set of ground rules that the participants agreed to, but it still required a tremendous amount of courage on their part to accept this, and we took their trust in us very seriously.

As a sidenote, having a journalist in the room was also hard for us as facilitators. We did not always do a stellar job, and our storyteller did not shy away from saying so. After our July meeting, where Jerry Brown’s announcement was a hot-button topic, our storyteller wrote, “The conversation felt disjointed at times. During the middle of the day, facilitators attempted to use the BDCP conversation to leap into a more difficult, specific conversation that would look at the details involved in creating a new method of governance for the Delta. This push occasioned puzzled looks from participants, and facilitators retreated.”

We completed our first phase of dialog this past October, and the Delta Conservancy is currently in the process of raising money for a second phase next year. We used a variety of metrics to try and understand how well we achieved our goals as well as our larger impact -- not an easy task. But the best metric of our success is from the mouths of our participants, who have all universally expressed the desire to continue this process. You can view their comments in the video at right.

Our storyteller is currently writing up the full story, warts and all, which we’ll publish in January. In the meantime, you can read the play-by-play of the process at the Delta Dialogues website. Please share your thoughts and questions there or in the comments section below. We’d love to engage in dialog with you!

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