Issue Management

from James Kent Associates …

The Discovery Process

Discover the “Inside Point of View”

The key to implementing successful change is to understand the social and cultural structure within a community of place. The “inside point of view” becomes clear by entering everyday routines, making observations, and engaging in conversation with community members. This is called “The Discovery Process”. Since 1967 our company has worked with communities, corporations, and governments to implement “The Discovery Process”.

Gathering Places

At the heart of every community are gathering places where people naturally congregate to talk about current events. These places provide a structure for local network systems to thrive.

Informal Networking

The objective of the Discovery Process is to get a real-time understanding of what is happening.

  • What are the current activities?
  • What are the social and economic trends?
  • What are the social networks by which people organize themselves?
  • Who are the well regarded caretakers, communicators, and storytellers?

Creating Citizen Ownership

By entering a community through this network process we come to understand the core issues that are of concern to the people. Issues affect proposed projects, management decisions, and policy formation. By identifying these issues we can take appropriate actions early in the process that optimizes resource efficiency. This creates an environment amenable to preventing and resolving conflicts in a culturally sensitive manner.

Fostering Mutual Benefit

Issues that have been identified in their emerging stage can be integrated with management concerns to create “cultural alignment” in which mutual benefit for all parties is possible. Without this grounding in the informal system of community, projects can get bogged down or ambushed, often at the last minute, or held hostage by extreme interests. Even if the project is approved, the results are often disastrous to the local culture of the community. We take these factors into account early in the process and create an environment amenable to preventing and resolving conflicts in a culturally sensitive way.

Issue Management

Issue Management is a method of minimizing surprise and disruption by creating a predictable, natural process of communication and action. It is a process of identifying issues in a community and organization and responding to them in a way that addresses the health and integrity of both the community and the proponent of change.

Issue Resolution Affects Project Outcome

Every project produces change that generates citizen issues which affect project outcome. Issues are subjects of widespread public interest and discussion that an individual, network or group has decided to act upon to protect and maintain control of their environment.

We have learned over the years that citizen issues have stages of development – emerging, existing, and disruptive. As issues progress through the various stages, their effects on individuals, communities, and organizations intensify.

The Life Cycle of an Issue

Emerging Issues are a curiosity phase. They are born when people become uncertain about the effect of proposed changes on their ability to protect and control their environment.

Existing Issues – If management does not “hear” the emerging issue, or if the decision is made to procrastinate, delay or ignore the response, an emerging issue will escalate into an Existing Issue. Existing Issues are a demand phase and are still resolvable through facilitation.

Disruptive Issues generate such ill will that local methods to solve them are not effective. They are handled by another level of society, usually the courts or legislatures.

As issues progress through the various stages, their effects on individuals, communities and organizations intensify.

People Own Issues

Some issues are identified through formal systems of communication such as public forums. We also tap into the informal system of communication to uncover issues at the grassroots level. In responding to these issues we create a moderate middle ground where citizen involvement becomes part of the issue-solving process. Through this process we diminish the wind in the sails of the extreme voices.

It is imperative to identify the owners of issues and maintain their identity throughout the issue management process. Only when the owners of the issues are known can the process stay grounded and the issue effectively responded to.

Themes and Issues

Issue Management distinguishes between themes and issues. Issues are actionable and grounded in resolutions. Themes are wide-spread perceptions or attitudes that are too general or abstract to act upon.

An example of a theme: “I am against growth”. With further investigation, the real issue underlying the theme is uncovered: “I am against growth because the parks are over-crowded and my kids have no place to play”.

If the public discourse gets captured by themes, sound bites begin to dominate and the value of action gets lost – the project will spin its wheels without traction or forward movement. Controversy is a by-product of themes and low morale and depleted energy is a by-product of controversy. The best way to create positive change in a controversial setting is to focus on emerging ISSUES and watch the themes disappear.

Resolve Emerging Issues to Avoid Disruption

Issues identified in the “emerging” stage, discovered through the informal system of communication, can be resolved at the local level with the least amount of time and resources.

Unresolved emerging issues become “existing” issues. Because these issues were not identified and resolved at the emerging, local level, they are often appropriated by formal bodies, such as environmental or industry groups, which use them to bolster support for a political, economic or ideological agenda.

“Disruptive” issues are beyond the control of local systems to resolve and are aggregated to higher levels of authority, such as legislatures or the courts.

Case Study

Windfarms Limited in 1980 sought approval, through the federal impact statement process and County and State permitting, for the construction of twenty wind turbines near Kahuku Point, on the northeast coast of Oahu, Hawaii. At a project cost of $350 million, it involved the proponent, the general contractor, the local public utility company, the turbine assembly company, the large landowner and the public.

The development situation on Oahu in recent years had been characterized as chaotic and uncertain. Projects had been receiving greater scrutiny than ever before and controversy seemed to be the norm for any project review. Into this context, the proponent brought an attitude that design from a technical point of view only and public contact through the formal review process would be sufficient. Moreover, the proponent felt that since wind is a clean energy source, it would be acceptable to everyone.

These attitudes were not sensitive to local conditions. The local communities of Kahuku, Laie, Hauula, Kahana, Punaluu, and Kaawa, which would be affected by the decision, were highly diverse in background and interests. In addition, past projects in the area had created unresolved negative issues that were being carried informally and with hostility in the communities.

Early on, the proponents, unarmed with an issue-driven assessment process, were caught off guard by demands from the people concerning impacts that they, the Windfarm’s developers, didn’t create. The people had carried their negative experience with another developer into this experience with the “new kid on the block.” The developers were faced with the crisis of how to deal with “issue loading.”

By shifting to an issue-driven assessment process that included a commitment to work with the informal community networks in resolving issues as they emerged, management was able to separate their project from past projects and, therefore, focus on their impacts. For instance, a planned early announcement of the impending impact assessment (project start-up) would have angered traditional informal community leaders, and the announcement was postponed until these contacts were made. This was a critical strategic decision since a negative start would have been difficult to overcome given the emotions of the people.

It was important to gain control of issue management at the local level since outsiders often try to push their hostility for a project into local networks. For instance, some island environmentalists told local residents that low hums and vibrations of the wind machines would be intrusive health-wise and would foul up their TVs. Good information about this issue in the local network setting defused the issue. The proposed flashing aircraft warning lights on the wind towers caused consternation in the community-“Our mountains look like Christmas trees already!” This was resolved by shielding the lights from ground view.

One early controversy was created by the use of out-of-area high school students to fly meteorological kites. Kite flying is a traditional and highly-honored sport among Hawaiians, who were outraged when their expertise was bypassed.

Finally and most seriously, the plans of the proponent to transport assembled towers by highway would not have been acceptable to the communities, and they wisely worked out a barging-by-water solution.

Other issues and impacts were addressed through mitigation agreements contained in the permit. These included:

  • the hiring of local labor who agreed, as a condition of the assessment process, to join the union;
  • an agreement that local residents would operate and maintain the visitor’s center; and
  • an agreement, in principle, to support secondary business development and the transfer of lease lands to fee simple.

Kahuku Wind Farms was the first development approved in eight years on Oahu with full citizen support.

Indicators of Issue Intensity

Emerging Issues
Explicit Feelings
Numerous Options
Phone Calls
No Response
Local Involvement
Informal Discussions
Grassroots Awareness
Legitimate Questions
Uncertainty, Doubt
Increased Anxiety
Project Threat

Existing Issues
Intensified Feelings
Outside Involvement
Leadership Involvement
Media Coverage
Personal Time Loss
Increased Project Costs
Hardening of Positions
Options Narrowed
Ownership of Issues
Polarization of Issues
Coalition Building
Appeals to Higher Authority
Legal Involvement
Stalled Projects

Disruptive Issues
Feelings of Failure
Feelings of Crises
Emergence of Hardliners
Polarization of People
Loss of Cooperation
Loss of Creativity
Involvement of High-Level Managers
Coalitions Formed
Outside Intervention
Legal Intervention
Loss of Options
Legal Costs
Loss of Power
Media Campaigns
Civil Disobedience
Reallocation of Resources
Loss of Credibility
Imposed Sanctions
Project Postponed or Canceled


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