Facilitating Advisory Groups

Facilitating Advisory Groups: Labels and Social Contracts

When convening a group, two of the primary tasks of a facilitator are to clearly articulate the label that is applied to the group and to create an appropriate social contract between group members.  The terms “workgroup,” “taskforce,” “coalition” and “advisory group” are labels that are often used loosely and sometimes even used interchangeably. However, each of these labels carries a very different meaning and more importantly a different implied social contract.  My experience (both as a group participant and a facilitator) is that when a group of people are convened as an “advisory group” the front-end work around developing a social contract becomes critical.

Perhaps there are more sophisticated definitions for an advisory group but in general, as the name implies, an advisory group is a collective of participants who are invited because of expertise, representation of constituents, connections, and/or position for the purpose of helping to inform representative decisions.  In their highest use, advisory groups are convened because the increasing complexity of social problems demands broad critical thinking.  In their lowest use, advisory groups are convened to create the illusion of participation and provide political coverage for decisions that need to be made.  In between these two points on the continuum there are likely a number of different points of functioning for advisory groups.  One can readily see that, wherever an advisory group falls on the continuum, the success of the group will be dependent upon the clarity, expectations and social contract negotiated with the group.

Groups convene, partnerships are formed, and collaboration occurs largely because there is a compelling need that transcends the abilities of an individual or single organization.  Adapting from an excellent resource on evaluating collaboratives (see resources below), I would suggest that collaboration occurs in the social sector because: 1) social problems are complex, 2) there are intensive resource pressures, 3) the social net continues to fragment, 4) communities don’t respond well to endemic problems, and 5) change is pervasive, rapid and sweeping.  Implicit in these magnetic forces is the need to network and create shared solutions.

While I have written before that there is a compelling shift towards collaboration and networking, I believe that  there remain organizational challenges and barriers to collaboration.  The polar opposites that make collaboration difficult are such issues as 1) cultures of organizational superiority, 2) single-issue myopia, 3) differing mandates and procedures, and 4) competing/adversary relationships (especially around resources).

In this context, when an advisory group is convened, there is an unspoken orientation towards action and, at times, the internal undercurrent of the barriers that initially undermines trust in the process.  This mix of expectations and barriers is the driving reason to create a social contract for participation. So what does a social contract for an advisory group look like?

1.  Explicit Definition of Advisory:  First and foremost, a facilitator needs to help the parties define the “advisory purpose” of the group.  If there is a “disconnect” between the perceived role of the participants and the intention of the convener, the group progress will be hindered because of the conflicting expectations.  The facilitator needs to ensure that everyone is in agreement to what “advisory” means for the group process. Inherent in this definition is the concept of authority.  In other words, the group needs to be clear what authority is connected with the advice.  For example, if a government agency brings together an advisory group to help prioritize pressing community issues for funding, the participants need to be clear if their advice (in terms of prioritizing) has a direct link to decisions made about funding or if the advisory authority is limited and other constraints could possibly trump their recommendations. Failure to make this expectation clear has the potential to undermine the entire advisory process.

2.  Consideration of Transaction:  A second component of the social contract relates to the transactional or relational nature of the advisory group.  With limited resources, especially time, the convening of an advisory group needs to bring some benefit to the participants other than the potential of free coffee and pasties at the meeting.  This is especially true if the group authority is limited by external constraints.  Profile, status and relationships are often implicit (but not often explicit) transactions that can support an advisory function. However, following authority to influence direction, the transaction that is important to advisory group participation is bringing the “voice” of the community to the process.  Indeed, as the voice of the community is amplified by the collective participation of group members become a community organizing effort even if authority is lacking.  Advisory group participation builds relationships and can be the foundation for future action.

3.  Process Support:  A third characteristic of a social contract for advisory groups is to ensure the process is supported and resourced.  The facilitation of the group must include the supporting structure that is the basis for any meeting facilitation (clear agendas, decision-making process, and minutes).  Additional support includes clear communication during and between meetings and a clear beginning and end point with movement markers in between.

4.  Participant Expectations:  Finally the social contract must define participant expectations.  For an advisory group to be successful expectations that are important include: 1) being honest and open, 2) making contributions to the process, 3) focusing on issues and content, and 4) being a provocateur when needed. In addition, standard meeting ground rules such as respecting others, being on time and following through on agreements and action items need to be in place.

While not essential, the most successful advisory groups I have participated in, codify the social contract in a brief operating procedure.  In the resources below, I link to a handbook for community advisory groups that was developed to guide EPA advisory groups.  While very jargon laden, the document has some sample documents that can serve as models for advisory groups seeking to create a written social contract.

The point that I am trying to make is that unique group structures require unique facilitation approaches.  While coalitions derive power from collective action, advisory groups primarily inform and influence the actions of others.  This is not to judge the importance of one structure over the other but simply points to the unique facilitation needs of advisory groups. It is my belief that advisory groups are a critical component of the civic engagement process and their success is dependent upon the clarity of process and expectations.  Social sector organizations need collective wisdom and advisory groups are one pathway to that wisdom. Skilled facilitation that pays attention to the labels and social contract can help such groups succeed.

 

~Mark

Photo Credit shanegaughan

Resources

Taylor-Powell, E., Rossing, B., & Geran, J. (1998). Evaluating Collaboratives: Reaching the Potential. Madison: University of Wisconsin-System Board of Regents and University Wisconsin-Extension, Cooperative Extension (190 pages pdf).

Community Advisory Group (CAG) Handbook Department of Toxic Substances Control California Environmental Protection Agency

 

Mark Fulop
Mark founded Facilitation & Process in 2009 to help organizations and communities bridge the gap between where they are today and where they want to be tomorrow. He’s led dozens of Portland nonprofits, government agencies and philanthropic organizations through complex change initiatives including strategic planning, revenue planning, board development, collaboration, and facilitation.