OKC Schools listening tour no threat to status quo

March 9, 2015

Trent England

On Thursday, I attended one of the Oklahoma City Public School District’s “Great Conversation” public meetings. There were about 100 people in attendance, including many school staff. The session was run by a consulting company, Performance Fact, hired by Superintendent Rob Neu shortly after he was hired to lead the district.

The meeting was billed as an opportunity to involve the community in crafting a plan for Oklahoma City’s schools. That premise is dubious.

Consultants hired to craft strategic plans often work behind the scenes with insiders to develop the actual plan, then approach “stakeholders” or the public to gather their views. This is sold as a way to involve the larger group in the planning process. On the contrary, it is often simply the first step in marketing the priorities of insiders.

Advertising firms use focus groups to find images and phrases that get a positive reaction from target audiences. Planning consultants use public meetings to do the same thing under the guise of inclusivity.

Is this what the “Great Conversation” sessions are really about? The District’s website shows that the planning process began with a “Core Planning Team” last November. Other insiders were involved in January and February. Public input was invited only after those stages were largely complete.

Attendees at the public meeting noted we were often told to choose between priorities or objectives that were just different ways of phrasing the same idea. This certainly made the meeting feel like a focus group, with consultants looking for the best ways to sell an already-developed product.

Attracting broad input and constructive criticism is always a challenge, especially in a large organization. Insiders have more to gain or lose from changes in structure or direction. The “Great Conversation” was highly scripted and conspicuously full of district employees. The Performance Fact consultants designed a process that at least felt more like a focus group than an opportunity to think critically about the status quo.