Just and Sustainable Neighborhoods:
Good Process Design and MGE’s
Community Energy Conversations
|Don Edwards is co-founder of Justice &
Sustainability Associates located in
Back in January 2015, we accepted MGE’s invitation to design and implement an engagement process that would help it become a “Utility of
the Future.” Not unlike an architect’s design for a building or home, the first step we took was to start at the end. Based on what we learned
from MGE executives and employees, external stakeholder organizations and our own research, we defined an outcome that we imagined
would be a reasonable endpoint for our work.
With that in mind, we then worked backwards to produce a roadmap that we would invite MGE’s customers and stakeholders to join us on.
And, that roadmap is what we call a “process design.”
A process design is really just a plan that we implement to reach an agreed upon end. If you want your new home to sleep six comfortably,
you tell your architect to design so many bedrooms and bathrooms and to place them on the same or different floors with windows facing a
certain direction. Our designs develop the same way.
In the case of the Community Energy Conversations Project, we imagined the following four phases:
Phase 1: Planning and Introduction
JSA, MGE, and key stakeholders would hold introductory meetings to gain an understanding of existing conditions. We took meetings with
individuals and organizations holding a variety of opinions about MGE. As impartials, though MGE was our paying client, we set a ground rule
with everyone we spoke to that what they told us was just for us and would not be shared with MGE or attributed. We also stated that we
would not, could not, and did not speak for MGE.
We also recommended steps MGE should take to create an information-rich planning environment so its customers would be introduced to
the changes MGE saw coming. We encouraged MGE to inform and educate its customers and constituents by producing a discussion guide
and other information that would be available in hard copy, online,and in many languages.
We encouraged MGE to ramp up its internal planning to determine what its future goals would be. In our view, it was necessary that MGE
propose stretch goals that would show evidence of its desire to continue to be “Madison’s Local Energy Company.”
Phase 2: Information Gathering and Community Engagement
JSA planned, conducted, documented, and evaluated numerous small group information and agenda-setting discussions organized according
to issue, sector and geography. All of the small group discussions were consistently facilitated by a local process professional using an
agreed-upon agenda and approach. We decided to restrict media access to the discussions in order to create an environment for open and
honest exchange of opinions. Further, we chose locations for the discussions across Madison and we conducted them in many languages.
Where it made sense, we introduced appropriate flexibility in order to attract participants who otherwise might not come out — e.g., food and
Additionally, our design included specific steps to engage a mix of Greater Madisonians. We randomly invited MGE’s customers to
participate. We partnered with stakeholder organizations and community leaders to engage them in bringing out their members and
constituents. And, we advised MGE staff how they might market the Phase 2 conversations as inclusively as possible.
Finally, we produced a graphic brochure that described our process so everyone would know exactly what we proposed that MGE should do
We imagined a Phase 3 that would include what we are now calling a Community Workshop and a Phase 4 that will launch a Community
Energy Partnership. I will talk more about the schedule for those phases in a future column.
JSA will soon release its report about what we learned from the Phase Two small group discussions to MGE and the public. And, we hope
everyone will continue to follow the Community Energy Conversations Project as its process unfolds.
And, consider incorporating process design into your community development and other planning. When people see themselves in the
engagement plan, they become constituents for the outcome and for progress.
Learn more about the work my colleagues and I have been doing for the past 16 years this year by visiting www.justicesustainability.com.
Mencer Donahue “Don” Edwards is a community development mediator and the Founder and CEO of Justice and Sustainability Associates, an
alternative dispute resolution and civic engagement firm based in Washington, DC.
By Don Edwards
This week, Madison Gas and Electric released its Energy 2030 Framework. In it, MGE
announced its intention to reach the following goals:
• Supply 30 percent of retail energy sales with renewable resources by 2030. As a
milestone goal, supply 25 percent of retail energy sales with renewable resources by 2025.
• Increase energy efficiency and conservation as an important energy resource by
working with customers to reduce per capita growth in energy use.
• Reduce CO2 emissions associated with meeting our customers’ energy needs 40
percent from 2005 levels by 2030.
Many voices will now be talking about MGE’s Framework. (By the way, a framework is not a
plan. What MGE has done is set a direction for the next fifteen years by stating high-level
goals and establishing context for the evolution of what will presumably be its 2030 Energy
Plan). I think that will be great for two reasons: 1) in a polarized civic culture like Madison,
getting people to talk with each versus at each other is a victory in itself; and 2) everybody
should be paying more attention to the production and delivery of energy for your home and
But, what I want to talk about is the 18-month process, my colleagues and I at Justice and
Sustainability Associates (JSA), designed back in January that we titled “Community Energy
Conversations.” That’s because while most people’s attention will be focused on MGE’s
framework and goals, we want to thank the participants in what we refer to as “Phase Two.”