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FIT Wellington: Advocacy or Consultancy

Dear John

It seems to me that one of the strategic parameters your light rail group has yet to consider is how the group wishes to position its contribution to the debate. There are essentially two options, which I would describe as an advocacy approach or a consultancy approach. In reality there is no clear line between the two, but there is likely to be a significant difference in the way the group’s contribution is viewed by other stakeholders, depending on which face you present in the debate.

ADVOCACY APPROACH (solutions focused)

The advocacy approach positions your group as a partisan lobby group within the debate, with a predetermined agenda which you lobby for to the best of your ability. From that point of view, you are one voice among the many, with as much chance of having something useful to contribute as anyone else. It is a process of ‘selling’ your preferred solution to the other stakeholders.

It implies that the process you are engaging in is essentially combative and competitive, and that you have no particular interest hearing other points of view.

This approach would have a stated objective such as “Wellington builds the light rail system we describe, in the place we say, in the way we say.”

CONSULTANCY APPROACH (outcomes focused)

The consultancy approach positions your group as an objective commentator, providing a reasoned process for critiquing and assessing the partisan contributions of the various solutions and processes presented by their respective advocates. From that point of view you position yourselves above or to one side of the solutions-based advocacy, taking on the role of a professional advisory panel rather than a group of partisan enthusiasts.

It implies that the process you are engaging in is essentially one of consensus-building, creating a shared understanding of the various costs and benefits to different stakeholder (customer /client) groups, and seeking an outcome that meets certain agreed criteria, rather than seeking to ‘sell’ a predetermined solution.

This approach would have a stated objective such as “Wellington builds a rapid transit system that maximises usage, minimises travel time and meets the agreed environmental and financial constraints.”

ASSESSMENT

There are advantages and disadvantages to each. The advocacy approach is easier to adopt, in that it requires less time and effort in considering alternative options, and it allows group members to give reign to their enthusiasm for their preferred solution. However, by positioning yourselves as ‘one of the crowd’ the trade off is that your contribution to the debate will be perceived by others as being on an equal footing with everyone else’s. You position yourselves as enthusiastic amateurs, regardless of any professional expertise your group may possess.

The consultancy approach is likely to be more demanding and time consuming, but it has the advantage of keeping the professional expertise of the group to the fore, thereby maximising your credibility as a voice worth listening to. It would involve demonstrating the quality of objective, informed and genuinely consultative professional analysis that you consider to have been missing from other contributions such as the Spine Study. This cannot be achieved by repeating in your approach the errors that you consider other analysts or commentators to have made.

DISCUSSION

For what it’s worth, I believe that your group has the capability to contribute to raising the standard of analysis and public debate on this issue, which no other interested party seems to have. I would very much like to see you take the high road as it were, and lead by example by taking a professional consultancy approach.

There is no shortage of people with an opinion. What there is a shortage of, so far as I can see, is a reason to believe any of them has an informed and objective viewpoint and the commitment to Wellington’s wider constituency to ensure that the debate is framed as it should be, and in a way that genuinely informs Wellingtonians about the options that exist and the relative merits of the arguments being made (or not being made) about them.

Arohanui,
Mary

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