CAN'T WE ALL GET ALONG?

NOT WITHOUT "FACILITATORS," WHO ARE GETTING IN TOUCH WITH PLENTY OF TAXPAYER MONEY.

The way Denver city councilman Ted Hackworth sees it, there were lots of good, sound ways the parks and recreation department could have found to spend $73,500.

For instance, the financially strapped city department might have used the money to buy new equipment like basketballs and volleyball nets. Or it could have held the city's popular recreation centers open later in the evenings for the sake of people who work long hours. Or it could have helped keep the city's outdoor swimming pools filled until Denver's kids went back to school, rather than shutting them down in mid-August. "It's really stupid to have an outdoor pool," Hackworth says, "and use it only ten weeks a year."

With this particular $73,500, however, parks and rec did none of those things. Instead, earlier this year, it hired Maggie Sperling, a $75-an-hour consultant, to spend several months trying to divine the desires and recreation needs of the Denver citizenry. Her job: to organize and "facilitate" a series of meetings with residents at various sites across the city.

Sperling hired two other facilitators, Michael Marez and Joe Gonzales, to help out; they both charged $50 an hour for their services. She retained yet another consultant to survey the feelings and opinions of Denver public-school students. Then, when it was all over, she tabulated the results, which the city has now distilled into a report that sets down the department's "General Philosophy and Guiding Principles." A draft of the report, prepared last month, concluded among other things that "more people of all ages and abilities want access to organized athletics," that parents want instructors "to teach conflict resolution and build self-esteem" in their children and that "youths want a safe, convenient place to socialize with peers."

Administration officials defend the project, saying the information Sperling gathered will prove invaluable in organizing Denver's recreation programs well into the future. But Hackworth thinks it was a waste. Sperling's work, he says, required no special expertise and could easily have been accomplished by city staff. Besides, he points out, many of Sperling's meetings were marred by poor attendance. "Why did we hire her?" Hackworth says. "She was strictly writing down what the neighborhoods said to her. We could have gotten anyone to have done that--for a lot less money."

Like it or not, however, such facilitation contracts have become part of the way public agencies do business these days. Sometimes facilitators go by other names, calling themselves "mediators" or "community-relations consultants." But they can be found working alongside bureaucrats at every level of government. Though their primary function is to run meetings, they have transformed their profession into a quasi-science, complete with its own vocabulary of special terms. Facilitators talk of "capacity building," "partnering," "group memory" and "process ownership." They "plan to plan," conduct "stakeholder analyses" and perform "consensus checks." And they frequently do it at taxpayer expense--sometimes reaping as much as $1,000 for a single day's labor.

Sperling justifies her line of work, saying that facilitation is a skill that many in government lack. "You need people to run meetings who are really good at listening and really have an understanding of what people say," Sperling argues. "There are a lot of inarticulate bureaucrats around."

But Hackworth and others--including some city officials--are dubious about how much value facilitators deliver for the money--and question the sharp increase in their use over the last several years.

"Every time I turn around, someone's saying we need a facilitator," says Denver planning director Jennifer Moulton, who has hired her share of them during her tenure at city hall. "That seems to be everybody's answer these days to a difficult situation."

"For a while, everybody had to have an interior designer," points out Rae McDowell, who encounters facilitators from time to time as an activist in Denver's Cole neighborhood. "Facilitators have gotten to be the same way. I have to admit that sometimes they're the only answer, but not always. I think they're overused." Agrees Stan McIntyre, president of the United South East Denver neighborhood group: "We can't make a move in this city without getting a mediator from outside."

Facilitators claim the rapid growth of their profession is part of a national trend toward more open government. Back in the old days, they say, politicians tended to conduct their business in an autocratic fashion, with little input from members of the public. But citizens and neighborhood groups won't accept that anymore. "There was a time when it was okay for a group of elected officials to go into a back room and make a decision," says Michael Hughes of CDR Associates, a prominent facilitation company in Boulder. "Those days are over. The public is demanding to have a role in the process."

Demand for facilitators is also increasing because of deep skepticism about government in general, facilitators say. The public has become so cynical about its political leaders at every level that it no longer trusts them to run meetings or do "community outreach" fairly.

"People don't have the confidence in government the way they used to," says Tyler Norris of the National Civic League (NCL), a Denver-based nonprofit that does facilitation as part of a broader mission to promote effective government. "If an elected leader or a city staff person gets up and runs a meeting, it's perceived as a `government meeting,' not as a meeting of the community."

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