National Civic Review
Volume 86, Number 1, Spring 1997

Searching for Healthy Communities: Can Search Conferences Help Our Communities Get Healthy and Stay That Way?

By Monte Roulier

Few who are familiar with the tiny community of Crestone, Colorado, would have believed that 148 of its fiercely independent residents would agree to give up an entire weekend to participate in a planning session about their collective future. And fewer still would have predicted that this extremely diverse and fractious community of ranchers, retirees, artists, independent consultants, counter-cultural healers, and devotees of autonomous religious communities could reach agreement in two days on a commonly desired future and key strategies to achieve it. Yet that is precisely what happened one January weekend in 1995. During those two days, ordinary citizens, government, and private sector and nonprofit leaders, many of whom had never before participated in a public decision-making process, worked through a strategic planning method called a "search conference" or "search."

The striking part of the Crestone experience is how the format of the event provided both the form and the flexibility to enable these individuals to self-manage an agreement about a desired future. For instance, community members wanted a "business and economy that accommodated various life-styles" and a condition of "living sustainability," both in housing and in gardening and farming.

Much was accomplished during that weekend, and yet the search also gave participants the freedom to engage in esoteric conversations about spirituality and the nature of God, topics of pressing concern to them. It is noteworthy that the two residents who had been most suspicious and reluctant to participate at the beginning found themselves in front of their neighbors leading an action-planning session by the end of the search.

The real test of any planning process is action, that is, the real changes that occur in the community as a result of that process. In any healthy community or community visioning effort, the question of whether the community continues to work toward agreed-on goals or whether it falters along the way is of paramount importance. The Crestone group spent time creating a coordination and implementation structure that affirmed the responsibility of community members in realizing the agreed-on action steps. This structure took the form of six action teams that emerged from the Crestone search.

During the months that followed, the action teams made significant progress toward their goals. For example, one team obtained funds to hire a specialist to address new approaches related to zoning, infrastructure, and land use. Another group began to organize a farmer's market and a seed bank. A third team was developing a brochure to educate residents about living more sustainable. A natural resource map for the area was being completed, and a joint planning group had formed to consider a new location for the local post office.

Most important, the search conference helped create a critical mass of residents who were willing and able to take responsibility for their future. Although the residents did not call their planning exercise a healthy communities process, it had all the attributes of such an effort. To put it simply, Crestone was beginning to create a future as a measurably healthier community.

Whether or not communities working to improve the quality of life and health of their citizens use the terms healthy communities, the fact is that a growing number of efforts across the United States are attempting to involve the full diversity of communities-ordinary citizens, government, businesses, and nonprofit representatives-in long-term planning processes. The involvement of the whole community in planning increases the likelihood of community wide ownership of desired outcomes, a condition that is essential for implementation and central to the notion of healthy communities. An increasing number of communities are working collectively to forge visions, define problems, and implement solutions: a dramatically different approach from traditional ways of making community decisions and taking action.

Communities are learning that health and a higher quality of life cannot be created primarily by any level of government, or by a handful of institutional leaders. Healthier individuals and communities are produced through quality schools, through safe and clean environments, through meaningful employment, and through a sense of belonging. Everyone in the community, then, has a role to play in creating conditions that result in healthier people and healthier places to live. Many communities are learning that new leadership styles and behaviors are required to create and sustain new ways for the communities to collectively plan, make decisions, and take action. These new ways of building community are the essence of the healthy communities movement.

Creating healthier communities is an exciting, arduous, ongoing, and rewarding process. And while there are numerous success stories, there are all too many examples of uncompleted efforts and inconsequential results. In my view, the reasons for disappointing outcomes are more often related to the shortcomings of planning tools than to any lack of community will or commitment to common goals. Too often stakeholders in these communities become disillusioned with the process-too many meetings, too much processing and rehashing of old issues, and too much "jumping through hoops" for professional facilitators.

As a result of unsatisfactory, ineffective planning, many communities have devoted significant time and energy to producing fancy documents filled with recommendations for others not involved in the planning to implement, only to find that the implementers are not interested. Still others have generated plans that have evaporated because all actions were contingent on monumental fundraising efforts for which there was no follow-through, or because nobody had sufficient energy after the lengthy planning process to implement the desired outcomes. In fact, it is difficult to find a planning tool that actually brings life to the principles associated with the notion of healthy communities. The search conference is one approach that addresses many of the concerns associated with large-scale community planning-too much talking and not enough action.

The search conference is not simply the latest fad in community planning. It is a method that has been used around the world for more than thirty years in community planning, corporate strategic planning, and long-range planning on specific national and local issues. Fred Emery and Eric Trist introduced the first search conference in England in 1959. The search method now has a proven track record of success when it comes to galvanizing action, which is one reason why its popularity as a planning tool is growing in the United States. Private corporations that are interested in democratizing the workplace, such as Hewlett Packard and Kodak, have chosen the search because of its ability to achieve broad and egalitarian participation, thus increasing chances of employee commitment and sustained action. Native Americans and indigenous peoples around the world have also been attracted to the search as an effective, organic way to plan for their futures.

A search conference is a participatory planning method that enables people in an organization or community to identify their most desirable future and to generate strategies for implementation that emphasize the responsibility of participants. Searches allow people with divergent interests, histories, and values to discover common ground by focusing on what they share, rather than on where they differ.

This method is firmly rooted in principles of participatory democracy and is rich in theories of how groups effectively work and achieve results together. Searches are founded on the concept of open systems, which means that all systems (organizations and communities) have an open and direct relationship with their larger environment. By environment, I refer to all aspects of the global society, including the Internet, economic globalization, urbanization, population growth, and shifts in social values. A community that stands a serious chance of realizing its desired outcomes must develop an adaptive relationship with the larger environment. This means it must be aware of and understand the implications of forces at all levels-local, regional, national, and global. For instance, a community with a high number of welfare recipients must understand and anticipate the implications of federal and state welfare reform for its community. Searches are built on the premise that achieving a desired future is a coproduction of the system and the environment. The search conference is not an end in itself but rather a catalyst for an ongoing process of planning and implementation.

A distinguishing feature of the search conference is the short time frame of the event: usually two days and two nights. Experience and research show that working together for this period of time, isolated from the distractions of everyday life, is a key to building a sense of community among participants. Levels of trust increase as people experience an open learning environment, which allows them to appreciate the similarity of their concerns. The search is designed to produce effective communication, deepen interpersonal relationships, and increase the probability of mutual learning. The advantages of this intensive two-day investment in terms of focus and efficiency are obvious, particularly when contrasted with a planning process of ongoing monthly meetings of variable attendance, which often result in reviewing and rehashing the same issues over and over. The search builds the critical foundation of knowledge, trust, energy, and commitment necessary for sustained action in a powerful and viable way.

Search conferences create learning communities. The ability to learn is central to the search design because learning is essential for effective change, Participants learn about patterns of events and forces in their larger environment and community, as well as why their neighbors' views of the world might differ from their own. Merrelyn Emery, a primary promoter of and educator on searches, calls this process "puzzle learning."' It is as if the entire group is putting together a jigsaw puzzle, with each participant contributing knowledge and expertise on some piece of the overall puzzle. This notion is based on research showing that human beings have a natural ability to extract information from their environment and, as a result, can directly perceive meaning in it. In searches, the everyday wisdom of the average citizen supersedes expert knowledge.

Finding real common ground is a centerpiece of any search. The idea of searches is not that people give up their different interests but that they work together for solutions that will meet numerous separate interests. The developers of the methodology believe in taking a common-ground approach, which they call the "rationalization of conflict." Rather than attempting to establish unanimity and consensus on each issue, searches help people take a rational view of their very real differences. Rationalizing differences allows groups to distinguish between differences of a semantic versus a substantive nature. When there is substantial disagreement and it cannot be worked out through dialogue and negotiation, the item goes on the "disagreed list" and ceases to be part of the search. Experience has shown that groups who respect and clarify their conflicts are likely to experience less conflict. The search developers feel that the way in which consensus-based decision making is often practiced leads to a soft and thin veneer of agreement. Fuzzy agreements often haunt communities during implementation of strategy Search methodology assumes conflicts will always exist among people, but that they can begin to learn from their differences. Searches provide communities with an opportunity to discover and work on their areas of agreement, instead of expending energy in endless debate on where they disagree.

Searches are managed, not facilitated. Search managers play a major role in designing the sequence of events during the two days. They do not function as facilitators who guide conversation; instead, they merely formulate tasks for the group and then step out of the way. Only in extreme situations, when a group is really bogged down, does a search manager intervene. The search management philosophy is to help the group do the work it needs to do and to take responsibility for the effectiveness of the process and the desired results. Search practitioners maintain that an intrusive facilitator can become a crutch for the community, potentially undermining a groups ability to function on its own in the future. The impact of this approach should not be underestimated. It is common to see action teams become completely self-directed and managed as a result.

The typical search conference resembles an hour glass in its design. It begins by exploring the possibilities from the widest possible perspective, then narrows to focus on specific key strategies and actions, and widens again as the group diffuses and implements its plan. There is no recipe for doing a search; each depends on the objectives of the community. The sequence of tasks depicted in Figure 1, however, is a fairly standard search structure based on the hour-glass shape.

The principles underlying search conferences have a strong affinity with those of the healthy communities movement. Searches address two outcomes of critical importance to any healthy community effort: mobilizing people to take responsibility for the future of their community and building the skills and capacities for real systems change.

Searches assume that people are purposeful, ideal seeking, and capable of rising to a level of thinking and acting for the greater community good. The method taps into people's inherent desire to learn and to create their own futures. Successful healthy community efforts also place great value on the creative potential of everyone, regardless of their educational attainment or position in the community. Successful healthy community efforts build on their greatest single asset: people. There must be opportunities for the entire community to participate in working toward tangible results. The search method is a proven strategy for exactly that: engaging people to take responsibility for their future. It is an exercise in self-governance.

Getting at real systems change is perhaps the greatest challenge of building a healthier community. Real systems change can be equated with a fundamental change in the way a community makes decisions, views its future, involves its people, learns collectively, sees and cultivates its leaders, and acts. Healthy communities must have a critical mass of individuals with the skills and capacities needed to enact these values and principles. It is not uncommon for a healthy community initiative to launch projects but fail to make progress toward improving the way a community plans and solves problems together. While a search conference alone will not achieve systems change, it will help to develop the individual and collective skills for the learning and decision making necessary to bring about a systems change. It will paint a comprehensive picture of how the community is doing, where it is likely heading, and how it is impacted by the larger environment-a perspective necessary for undertaking systemwide change. Searches provide a foundation for cultivating communitywide capacity to create and sustain a healthier community.

With respect to the Crestone experience, the contrast of the attitudes and behaviors of those residents at the end of their search with the attitudes and behaviors of participants of many other community-based planning processes is striking. By the end of their search, Crestone residents were looking to their fellow citizens for answers, not to the outside experts or facilitators. The search helped the citizens of Crestone realize that they had much in common to work on, and that they did not need to focus on their disagreements. They are already using new skills for listening, learning, and deciding together. The search experience raised the level of confidence in their community's ability to lake action. They were clear that if the significant changes they agreed on were to be realized, only they could do it. An energy of excitement and realism was generated. Clearly, there will be lots of work for everyone to do in the future. The search was a critical link in an ongoing process of developing a healthier Crestone.

The search is not a magical answer or the only effective community-based planning process. It is not the right method for every community. Searches will not work for communities that, for whatever reason, cannot get the full community to participate for two days and two nights. Plenty of searches come up short, but it is usually the result of poor preparation (not getting adequate diversity in community perspective in the room) or unqualified search managers (those who do not understand the theory of searches).

Healthy communities do not just happen by chance or through fortunate circumstances. Creating healthy communities takes effective planning, buy-in, and commitment from the whole community. The search conference format, combined with principles for healthy communities, blends harmoniously and works synergistically to create systemwide change in communities. Search methodology and the healthy communities principles appear to be an effective combination for meeting the significant challenges faced by communities today.


1. Emery, M. The Search Conference: State of the Art. Canberra: Australian National University, Center for Continuing Education, 1994.

Monte Roulier, as senior community adviser/or the National Civic League, designs, develops, and facilitates community-based strategic planning processes in the United States and abroad.

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