Consider editing a major planning document with 5 federal agencies, 3 agencies each in 6 states, 15 non-profit organizations, three to four layers each. That equals ninety commenters and thousands of comments over multiple drafts. That’s any author’s nightmare! Comments come in late. Multiple commenters from a single agency contradict one another. A new high-level commenter suddenly demands a host of changes without any context, history, or understanding of why you are where you are. This is the reality for many planners, coordinators, and technical writers in multi-stakeholder processes. How in the world do you manage wide-ranging opinions on topics from common usage to fundamental substance, from multiple commenters, and get a product out and done?
Given our experience engaging with talented (and overworked and sometimes frustrated) convenors and coordinators working on issues from oceans planning to government transparency, we at CBI wanted to offer some good practices for such a challenging task. How do you ensure transparency and create legitimacy? How do you provide reasonable procedures for coordination and bring the process to a decisive end? How can you be thorough and collaborative without collapsing under complexity and confusion? In short, what to do?
Establish norms and expectations A coordinator*’s job, first and foremost, is to help establish norms and expectations for the process. The basic expectations and norms should include roles and responsibilities, the process or procedures for how comments are collected and considered, schedules and milestones, and how decisions will be made. It’s best if the group builds norms and expectations together rather than if they are imposed from above or the side. Then, when the coordinator has to “bring the hammer down,” she can remind the offending party of the process the group jointly established. Lastly, whatever the norms, expectations, and process established, the participants will likely need reminders all along the way, and sometimes not just via email, but in direct conversation, be that face-to-face or over the phone. Yes, picking up the phone can help!
Ensure transparency There’s nothing worse than your comments being ignored or the final product seemingly almost unrelated to earlier drafts. The coordinator’s job is to ensure transparency in multiple ways. First, the process should be transparent: this is how and when decisions will be made, and by whom. Second, comments need to be transparent to all who are participating. This involves providing mechanisms so that every commenter can see the comments of others and not wonder who said what. Third, the disposition of those comments needs to be transparent.
In a fast-moving, complex environment, it may be too much to ask for a detailed responsive summary often provided by federal agencies in federal rulemaking. But, a coordinator can deploy any number of techniques. A coordinator can provide a concise summary of key comments or comment themes and how she addressed them. A coordinator can provide a section-by-section redline document (which may or may not include all the comments, depending on how many and how messy it makes the document). A coordinator can take key issues and build a comment matrix of original text, comments, changes, and reasons why comments were not accepted.
Lastly, a coordinator may need to reconcile the comments through group process and meetings so she can rely on the participants themselves to reconcile differences and not hope she gets it “right enough.” Technologies like Google Docs, WebEx, Zoom, and others allow you to share your screen and even share the document for joint, simultaneous editing.
Centralize tracking The mechanics of keeping track of multiple commenters, comments, and versions of the document can be daunting. But here, logistical and technical expertise can be very helpful. The coordinator needs to establish a tool or tools to track the changing nature of the document. First, providing a procedure for version control and a nomenclature is essential. Second, utilizing Google Docs, DropBox, or other on-line tools can keep versions, comments, and responses all in one place and accessible to those who need them. Third, ensuring there is one or only a few coordinators, who can be the contact person as well as keep the whole in her head as she is buffeted by contradictory comments, needs, and expectations from all directions, is very important.
Provide comment guidance To help guide the process, a coordinator should provide clarity on what to comment on. It’s one thing to say, here’s the document and comment away. It’s another thing to say: 1) please focus on the introduction, key findings, and draft recommendations; 2) don’t focus on style or visuals at this time; and, 3) leave copy editing for later drafts. Of course, some participants will not be able to help themselves. They’ll fix commas, semi-colons, and provide lots of visual ideas. But most will appreciate the direction. They are busy people too with too many things to do.