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Voluntary participation is an essential dimension of mediation, consensus-building and the many other forms of collaborative public policy – at least in theory. But even with so basic a part of the concept of collaboration as its voluntary nature, the realities of practice can depart sharply from the ideal.
Julia Wondollek, co-author of Making Collaboration Work, has taken a close look at this issue in her recent article at Conflict Resolution Quarterly, A Crack in the Foundation? Revisiting ECR’s [Environmental Conflict Resolution's] Voluntary Tenet. She traces the evolution of practice from its early days in the mid 1970s, when the emphasis was primarily on mediation, to the present expansion of the field to include many other forms of collaborative work. She argues that as these changes occurred, the principle of voluntarism often slipped to the background.
Practitioners know how true this is, and anyone trying to understand collaborative practice needs to look carefully at the experience Wondollek summarizes. When the public policy field consisted primarily of dispute resolution practice, voluntary participation was an essential part of the type of case deemed most appropriate for the use of mediation. It’s useful to review that ideal while recognizing that it applies these days to a relatively small percentage of cases that use consensus building techniques.
The Model of Voluntary Environmental Conflict Resolution
In the classic environmental mediation scenario, parties have been engaged in disputing activities, usually litigation, for some time and decide on their own to try mediation. Litigation costs have been mounting, a record of judicial outcomes has produced mixed results, the decision in this case seems unpredictable – and perhaps the parties agree that it’s time to get a costly problem out of the way and move on.
The parties agree to mediate entirely for their own motives and in hope of achieving a better or at least more timely resolution than litigation can provide. Ideally, they also agree on a cost-sharing formula and a joint process for selecting a mediator.
The issues in dispute have been refined and narrowed over time, and the parties necessary to agreement are all at the table. Consensus is the only decision rule possible because resolution requires agreement among all the parties in order to achieve finality and end the litigation.
That model provided an ideal of practice, but mediators and facilitators gradually took on many assignments that required a much different approach than that of classic mediation. The basic methods of building consensus were applied in settings like planning, visioning, dialogue on policy formulation and collaborative approaches to public participation. Public agencies and influential leaders frequently convened these processes, many of which dealt with broad policy questions rather than the more narrowly defined issues associated with mediation and dispute resolution.
The Spectrum of Choice
As Wondolleck describes it, there is a spectrum of participation choices, one that embraces more than the simple opposition of voluntary vs. mandatory. Although she devotes a lot of her paper to the contrast between voluntary and mandatory participation, the most common situations fall in between. This is the range she describes – and I’ve elaborated on some of the scenarios based on my own experience. Read more »