Facilitating Community Problem Solving: 
Park & Recreation's Role As Mediators

To create community through people, parks and programs, park and recreation professionals must effectively facilitate community problem-solving. What does this actually mean? How is it done?

One definition of “to facilitate” is to bring out the wisdom of the group, often as it creates something new or solves a problem. This statement’s underlying assumption is that the group itself possesses wisdom. The facilitator’s role is to bring out, synthesize and orchestrate that wisdom. As Ingrid Bens says in her book Facilitating with Ease, “Rather than being a player, a facilitator’s job is to act more like a referee… instead of offering solutions, you offer a method with which members can develop their own answers.”

Parks and Recreation Professionals as Facilitators

Problems in a community may include such issues as increasing incidents of crime, the environment, poverty levels, lack of educational opportunities or health and wellness issues. Solving complex problems such as these are much easier when the root of each problem is attacked from multiple angles. In order to obtain the multiple angles, the best strategy is to bring in the varied perspectives of groups both near and far from the problem. These groups can and should include citizen groups, local public agencies, and private sector groups. Each of these groups has differing agendas that must be acknowledged and then melded to resolve the problem at hand.

The importance of bringing these differing groups together is seen in both the process and its results. The process allows each group to voice its concerns, as well as, bring in new ideas that another group might not have considered. The resulting decision of the group will have a higher chance of success if all the groups accept ownership of the solution. Lastly, the collaboration efforts help build trust and understanding among the groups which can have a positive affect on a community.

The key to bringing out the best results of these collaborations will be in skills of the facilitator. Facilitation is necessary to envision the future and to make it happen. Facilitation is the art and skill of helping communities create the future. Whether to facilitate a citizen group to create recommendations, develop policies, or gain consensus on a community issue, parks and recreation professionals need highly-honed facilitation skills.

Why is the role of P&R in problem solving important to creating community?

Park and recreation professionals can play an important role as facilitators in community problem solving. The diverse missions of parks and recreation, as identified in the VIP Action Plan “Creating Community in the 21st Century,” provide park and recreation professionals a unique opportunity as facilitators in community problem solving. Because park and recreation agencies are involved in the areas of promoting health and wellness, strengthening safety and security, increasing cultural unity, protecting environmental resources and fostering human development, they often work with a large variety of organizations. It’s park and recreation’s familiarity with these varied groups that makes park and recreation professionals the ideal candidates as facilitators

A community may identify teen violence as a serious problem. The police department has its own ideas of how to solve the problem, school districts have another, community groups have yet another. Although each plan may address a certain area of the problem: new or tougher laws, more police patrolling problem areas, or more places for teens to meet in a non-threatening environment. However, none of the plans may address the entire problem. This situation presents park and recreation professionals the opportunity to step in and bring the parties together. By playing facilitators, parks and recreation can bring an unbiased view to the discussion.

Facilitator vs. Content Expert

Knowing when to play the facilitator role, rather than the more traditional Content Expert role, is key. Leaders must know the difference between these roles.

The Importance of Clear Outcomes

Project outcomes are those problems that will have been solved as a result of the community’s process. The facilitator should clearly state and post the expected outcomes at the beginning of each project and reinforce them throughout all meetings. Examples might include: “By the end of our process, we will have decided how to allow the fields to recoup between seasons” or “By the end of this meeting, we will have determined what programs we will include in this summer’s schedule.”

Facilitation Tools

To effectively facilitate, leaders should always use the following tools:

  • Outcome-Based Agenda. Determine “what problems will be solved” by the end of the meeting. Place that statement at the top of the agenda and return regularly to it to keep the meeting on track. (Examples: “By the end of this meeting, we will have clarified our committee structure and roles.” “By the end of this meeting, we will have decided the play schedule for the next 6 months.”)
  • Decision-Making Rule. All participants must have clarity about how decisions will be made. These rules can vary from meeting to meeting. The important thing is that everyone knows how decisions are made. (You may choose to flip a coin for relatively unimportant decisions, use a consensus model, vote, or use a hybrid model such as “person in charge makes final decision based on the recommendations we develop.”)

No one is born possessing effective facilitation skills. They must be learned. But because great facilitation skills and community building are firmly linked to each other, park and recreation professionals must make a commitment to grow them.

For more tips and techniques to develop facilitation skills, see:

  • How to Make Meetings Work! M. Doyle, D. Straus (Berkley Books)
  • The Skilled Facilitator R. Schwarz, (Jossey-Bass Publishers)
  • Facilitating with Ease! I. Bens. (Participative Dynamics)

Guila Muir is principal of Guila Muir and Associates, a group specializing in improving professionals’ facilitation, training and presentation skills. You can reach Guila atinfo@guilamuir.com.