How We Got 350 Farmers to Help Us Shape the Future of WV’s Agriculture Economy

Okay, not all 350 of them were actually farmers, but they were all related to the agriculture economy in some way: managers of farmers markets and farm-to-school programs, backyard gardeners with big dreams, and folks who run processing and distribution businesses.

The WV Department of Agriculture and WVU Extension knew that for their strategic plan to be successful they needed to engage stakeholders across the state’s 14 conservation districts in defining the agriculture economy’s challenges and developing solutions. They also recognized that the timeline and budget constraints that would make that level of engagement a challenge presented an opportunity: agency staff were craving the chance to enhance their facilitation skills.

Over the years, Fourth Economy has refined our approach to “Build Sessions”. Borrowing from the human-centered design method, stakeholders brainstorm, prioritize, and build strategies to address the challenges identified through the process. In order to deploy Build Sessions across 14 community meetings in 2 weeks, Fourth Economy developed a facilitation training for 25 staff of various ag-serving agencies and institutions.

Held in September, the half-day training covered general facilitation best practices such as neutrality, consensus, active listening, summarizing, staying on task, and transforming conflict, as well as exercises to practice facilitating a Build Session. The trainings were a big success. After the training, one participant was so excited to try out her new skills that she actually moved her vacation to be able to facilitate one of the community meetings!

Across the state, meetings were held in churches, fire halls, and fairground buildings. Agency staff were amazed at the number and diversity of folks who showed up to participate in the process. The Build Sessions generated lots of conversation and great ideas, and ultimately fed directly into the creation of the strategy. Last month we met with the WV Agricultural Advisory Board to present the strategy and they commented that the sessions sparked a whole new level of collaboration among stakeholders across the state. To us, that is a testament to the power of a truly participatory process.

If you are looking to do something similar, here are our top three tips:

Help participants be prepared to generate good ideas.

Overall there were 10 topic areas that we were looking for stakeholders to help us develop strategies around, but we could only facilitate Build Sessions around 3 topics at each meeting. Therefore we had participants vote on what they wanted to discuss as part of their RSVP. Even if their topic wasn’t selected, they were coming to the meeting with a clearer idea of the specific topics at hand. For each topic area our team prepared a white paper detailing what we already knew about the issue. Each Build Session started by reviewing the white paper so that all participants were on the same page. Finally, we designed the facilitation materials to help prompt participants to think of different types of interventions.

It doesn’t matter how good you are a facilitating if you don’t capture people’s ideas.

Ensuring that you have adequate capacity to serve as a scribe and/or a process for participants to capture their ideas on paper is key. Especially if your facilitators are relatively inexperienced, you can’t expect them to also be taking notes. What’s more, you need an efficient process of compiling all of the notes from a session so that they can be easily translated into a strategy document

Don’t forget to share.

After the meetings, meeting notes were shared on a public website that we designed specifically for the planning process. Throughout the process we used the website to advertise opportunities to engage and share what we had learned. We also had great support from the communication and marketing departments of all of the agencies involved. This was critical to the transparency of the process, as well as to stimulating ongoing conversation and collaboration.  

The Four Keys to Effective Collaborations

The Fourth Economy team strongly believes in the power of partnerships in improving community and economic development outcomes. Through our work, we have managed numerous collaborations and identified four keys that lead to effective partnerships.

Patience, Participation, and Partnership

Effective collaboration can be difficult and often takes time. Therefore, it requires that all stakeholders have patience throughout the process of building partnerships and developing solutions. As partnership groups face challenging times, it is critical that they overcome these difficulties together and remain engaged in the effort. One difficulty that may arise is that as individuals and organizations collaborate to further a common purpose, they are typically guided by their own self-interest. These motivations are not always negative and can often support the success of collaborative groups when they are aligned with the goals of the larger partnership. In addition to acknowledging these self-interests, during initial conversations, these groups should identify outcomes and boundaries to focus their work. The group should allow for some flexibility in these areas as issues can change, but too much flexibility will impede the group’s ability to effect change and could cause stakeholders to leave the group. Continue reading “The Four Keys to Effective Collaborations”

The Challenge of Creating Actionable Plans

Burket-Blog-Web-05-2016As part of our work in our hometown of Pittsburgh, we have been digging into all of the plans that have been created over the past five years or so. So far, we’ve found around two-dozen plans, reports, or studies on all manner of community, workforce, and economic development topics. Of those, about five have well-articulated goals, actions, responsible parties, though the form and detail of those components varies from plan to plan. And even with detailed actions, the degree to which those plans are being implemented varies a great deal. Our experience in Pittsburgh is not unique – we see the same trend in the other places that we work. So why is it, that despite our best wishes and intentions, it is so hard to create actionable plans? Continue reading “The Challenge of Creating Actionable Plans”

How the Private Sector is Paying for Public Innovation

Evans-Blog-20160405City governments have experienced increasing financial strain over the past several decades – pension payments are coming due, infrastructure needs replacing, and the cost of providing social services is increasing. This leaves little room for local governments to get on the social finance innovation train that has been sweeping the private sector for the past few decades, where bright minds have been exploring social enterprise, low-profit limited liability companies, impact investment, and more. However, many have recognized the importance of bridging the gap between private sector innovation and government, leading to organizations across the sectors investing time and money devising ideas that may fill this void. Continue reading “How the Private Sector is Paying for Public Innovation”

Big Visions Get Big Dollars in Indiana

IndianaBlogImageOn Tuesday, the Indiana Economic Development Corporation (IEDC) announced $126 million in state matching funds to support three regions in pursuing their visions for growth. The Regional Cities Initiative was developed based on a study of regions that have experienced transformational growth, performed last year by Fourth Economy, and is being funded by a tax amnesty program. Tuesday’s announcement was the culmination of months of planning on the part of Indiana’s regions, and Fourth Economy was fortunate enough to facilitate and advise on the strategy for two of the winning regions in those efforts – Northeast Indiana (home to Fort Wayne) and Michiana (home to South Bend). Here are a few lessons learned from our work helping multi-county, cross-sector partnerships identify and prioritize quality-of-life investments meant to attract and retain population.
Continue reading “Big Visions Get Big Dollars in Indiana”

Regional Economic Development Goes Global

International-ArrivalsThe summer of 2015 has been an exciting one for Fourth Economy. In recent weeks, the team has been spreading the word of regional economic development beyond our typical footprint, meeting with international dignitaries from across the pond. Continue reading “Regional Economic Development Goes Global”

National EPA Water Technology Innovation Cluster Leaders Meeting Held in April

WEN-EPA-Water-ClusterOn April 27, Fourth Economy market opportunity client The Water Economy Network (WEN) collaborated with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to cohost the National EPA Water Technology Innovation Cluster Leaders Meeting, at Pittsburgh’s Omni William Penn Hotel.  Continue reading “National EPA Water Technology Innovation Cluster Leaders Meeting Held in April”

Fourth Economy Releases 2015 County-by-County Competitiveness Analysis for Pennsylvania

PA-County-Competitiveness-Analysis-FEC-IndexNew analysis highlights the economic competitiveness of counties across the Commonwealth.

HARRISBURG, PA – Fourth Economy Consulting today announced the release of the 2015 Pennsylvania County Competitive Analysis, an assessment of how counties across the Commonwealth are performing economically. At the core, the analysis is based on the company’s Fourth Economy Community Index, which examines both statistical and qualitative factors at the county-level across the U.S. within the economic factors of investment, talent, sustainability, place, and diversity. Continue reading “Fourth Economy Releases 2015 County-by-County Competitiveness Analysis for Pennsylvania”

Trends in Town-Gown Collaboration

Trending-Town-GownToday’s economy elevates the value of higher education institutions to the highest degree of public awareness ever demonstrated. Higher education institutions impact their community in a host of very obvious ways, such as:

  • Supporting the development of 21st century talent armed with skills to drive modern business;
  • Employing a range of professionals in a sector often recognized as the largest in many small communities;
  • and Initiating research and development initiatives supporting the advancement of technology and improved economic performance.

These examples speak to the common ways nearly every institution engages. Yet, what does it mean for a campus to be truly connected to its community? Continue reading “Trends in Town-Gown Collaboration”

Water Economy Network to Host National EPA Water Technology Innovation Cluster Leaders Meeting

Watter-EPAFourth Economy continues to be involved in developing and implementing cluster strategies that move beyond the data, focusing more on tangible marketing opportunities for regions across the country.  Once identified, regions can bring together common industry partners to solve challenges and help grow their respective markets – all of which helps to distinguish and add value to a particular region or community. Continue reading “Water Economy Network to Host National EPA Water Technology Innovation Cluster Leaders Meeting”