We are apt to forget that the process we use to resolve complex policy issues can be as important as the outcome. Failing to recognize this may keep us from reaching an optimal solution. But I have recently witnessed an approach to addressing the issues of manufactured housing that included careful process consideration and that, in addition to enhancing the success of the manufactured-housing initiative, could also serve as a model for dealing with other complex policy issues. The following description of the elements of that process is not exhaustive, but it highlights the central tenets that were discussed at a meeting the Community Development department at Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, Pittsburgh branch recently hosted. Its participants focused on ways to improve the health, financial security, and environmental conditions of lower-income residents of manufactured homes.
One key component of success is diversity of representation. In partnership with regional and national organizations, we convened 40 attendees from varying stakeholder groups throughout the southwest PA region, including housing professionals, social service agency workers, and manufactured-housing industry representatives, to name a few. Although such a diversity of backgrounds and professional experience can lead to a longer introductory discussion, it reduces instances of backtracking to include other stakeholder groups. It also allows attendees to listen to viewpoints that they may not have previously considered and to benefit from the expertise of others.
Good data is another critical element of a productive discussion. This is important, not only to bring stakeholder groups up to speed on the issues, but also to help shape the actions that must be taken to address those issues. The planning group sent attendees background materials before the meeting; the group began the meeting with a review of the data and research on the topic. This was of critical importance, because manufactured housing issues may be overlooked by people working in more densely populated communities. However, knowing that manufactured housing represents a significant proportion of housing stock—especially in rural areas and where older housing stock poses health and safety issues—was important as the group moved forward.
Last, it is essential that participating stakeholders make organic connections with one another on the basis of interests and capacity. In one exchange during the meeting, participants discussed initiating a regional demonstration project that would use manufactured housing as infill development in urban areas. This idea had not been discussed before the meeting; it grew organically out of the discussion. Such opportunities to build on each other’s insights can lead to better policy and more effective action.
This regional initiative, although still in its very early stages, is off to a good start. This has a lot to do with the process that was used to convene the stakeholder group. In thinking about ways to address the complex issues we face, we might do well to step back and carefully consider the manner and process by which we approach such issues; after all, as Yogi Berra once remarked, we can observe a lot just by watching.