RE: How do we Move Beyond Rhetoric

In the spirit of this commentary’s title I write to build upon Sarah Lyon-Hill’s discussion of the challenges associated with developing effective partnerships. Sarah proposed that the act of partnering has too often become a rhetorical exercise that does not facilitate its intended outcomes, including resource sharing or the development of creative solutions. To combat this orientation toward partnerships, she pointed to the need for a culture in which citizens feel responsible for both themselves and their community. I fully agree with Sarah’s thesis that as a society we need to reconceptualize our role in partnerships. In addition, I wish to argue that other forces are also undermining the potential effectiveness of partnerships. These include the use of tokenistic approaches to stakeholder involvement and the fact that collaborations necessitate a sharing of power. I will illustrate these concerns with examples from environmental management and tourism development.

Public input? Check!

As Sarah noted, there are many forms of partnership, including the democratic relationship between a government and its citizens. Citizen engagement, and indeed the involvement of all relevant stakeholders in public decision-making processes, serves as an example of a such a partnership as it necessitates a sharing of ideas and resources (such as time and energy) to facilitate an improved outcome for all engaged parties. Scholars have touted partnerships involving broad stakeholder involvement as a means of making more informed decisions and ensuring that all parties are aware of a decision’s potential impacts.

Congress and the President enacted the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), among other laws, to ensure that that the intended benefits of citizen involvement are in fact attained. Signed into law in 1970, NEPA requires that prior to Federal government actions that will result in environmental impacts a specific process to gauge their likely effects must occur (NEPA process). The process includes public review and comment on the proposed actions. By creating opportunities for stakeholders to voice their views this policy asks the public to serve as partners in the decision-making process. Although the NEPA consultation process guides actions related to environmental impacts, the necessity of partnering with stakeholders has been integrated into policies that influence other actions as well, such as tourism development. Often utilized as a form of community development, tourism is typically governed by state-level offices or public private partnerships. A common role for these entities is the creation of a state tourism plan, which guides product development and marketing decisions. From my experience in examining many state tourism plans, stakeholder input is a vital component of the tourism planning process.

The fact that policymakers and planners now consider public participation to be a crucial part of any decision-making process provides stakeholders with many opportunities to engage as partners, should Sarah’s proposed shift in citizens’ viewpoints occur. However, if stakeholder input is mandated through policy, decision-makers may develop the perspective that while they do not want to build partnerships, they must nonetheless do so. This perspective may help to enforce the rhetorical approach to partnerships with citizens as they are not seen as a valuable component of the decision-making process, but rather as one more item to check off the “to do” list dictated by policy. Should this mindset among decision-makers prevail, stakeholder input can become a token act, one in which potential partners are asked to give their time and energy to the process of collaboration only to have that input disregarded. As I have observed in the context of tourism planning, such actions by decision-makers leads to resentment among stakeholders who could have been partners in the planning and implementation processes. Those who provide input and are subsequently ignored feel disempowered and in some cases may even work against the actions they were asked to inform. These observations suggest it is crucial that both citizens and decision-makers change the way they consider partnerships, in order to move beyond the rhetorical (and artificial) employment of partnerships Sarah described.

More Partners, Less Power

Although the impacts of policy-mandated collaboration may be detrimental to the quality of partnerships, the inherent nature of these relationships may undermine their effectiveness. By nature, collaborations necessitate a sharing of power and control among those involved. As the number of partners grows, any single actor’s capacity to influence final decisions is diluted. This may not sit well with those giving up their power to dictate the final outcome of an action as partners request changes to fit their needs or desired outcomes. This may result in a tokenistic approach to stakeholder involvement as previously discussed, or it could lead to selective partnerships in which only those with similar objectives are involved as partners.

Tourism planning often illustrates this partnership challenge. As a form of economic development, tourism success is often measured by the amount of tax revenue it generates. Therefore planners often emphasize increasing tax revenue and may support any means necessary to do so. Consequently the strongest partnerships in the planning process are often found between decision-makers and tourism industry actors that generate the highest tax revenue. Put differently, public officials may place less emphasis on partnerships with those who evidence different motivations for tourism development or whose activities provide fewer tax revenues. Such actions may lead to frustration and resentment among less privileged stakeholders.

In her discussion, Sarah called on citizens to reconceptualize their responsibility as community members to improve partnership outcomes. This is certainly one step in gaining the full benefits of partnerships for all stakeholders, and the avenues for their participation may already be in place thanks to an inclusive orientation to actor involvement in many decision-making processes today. However, we must also address the fact that for a variety of reasons, not all partnerships are created equal. Public officials and stakeholders alike must take steps to ensure that when stakeholders do recognize the value of participating in partnerships, they are not given token consideration or ignored because their involvement is seen to reduce the standing of other partners. The onus of improving partnerships falls not only on elected leaders and citizens, but also on the stakeholders initiating partnerships as well.

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whitneyknollenbergWhitney Knollenberg is a Ph.D. student in the Hospitality and Tourism Management Department at Virginia Tech. She holds a B.S. in Parks, Recreation, and Tourism Management from Michigan State University and an M.S. in Sustainable Tourism from East Carolina University. Her research interests include tourism’s impact on communities, tourism planning, and the role of policy, power, and partnerships in tourism development.

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