There still seems to be a big gap between the “deliberation crowd” and “the public dispute resolution crowd.” The deliberation folks (like the fine group called the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation) is betting that people will learn to be more tolerant of contrary views, and maybe even change their own views on controversial topics, by taking part is well-structured dialogues. The public dispute resolution people (including the public policy section of the Association for Conflict Resolution) are more worried about generating agreements than they are about changing anyone’s mind. While the two groups pursue slightly different objectives, and emphasize different methods, we need for them to combine forces if we are ever going to make progress on the vexing public disputes that have tied us up in knots.
The means and ends of deliberation
Imagine trying to bring together people who are passionately committed, one way or the other, on questions like gun control, abortion or climate change. What’s the best outcome you can imagine? In my view, we’d like them to listen more carefully to the views of their opponents and think hard about ways in which they might find common cause in spite of their disagreements. So, both sides could probably agree that steps should be taken to be reduce the number of children wounded or killed accidentally by gun accidents, or that poor women should have better access to pre-natal care, or that the elderly living in un-air conditioned public housing units might have access to cooling centers when the temperature goes about 95 degrees for days in a row. If groups with opposing views can find ways to work together to achieve an objective they share, the individuals involved tend to stop “demonizing” each other (i.e. thinking the worst about a category of people who they don’t even know). The kinds of dialogues that get people to listen, and maybe empathize even when they disagree, don’t take place at a public hearing or in front of a tv camera. People of good will need time to get to know each other and hear each other out. Facilitators in such situations know how to set and enforce pretty simple ground rules that promise everyone a safe environment. The ultimate goal is to reconcile the parties, not for one side to convert others to their view.
The means and ends of public dispute resolution
When public agencies have to make decisions -- like granting a casino license, allowing an historical building to be cleared away, or deciding whether or not to allow a new power plan to be built in a particular location – people with strongly held views want to participate. They don’t just want to be heard, they want to play a role in the decision. The best way to do this is to invite representatives of key stakeholder groups, chosen by those groups, to see if they can negotiate an agreement. If they can, their recommendations will usually be taken quite seriously by the officials who have to take action. In the public arena, many such problem-solving efforts need to be preceded by extensive joint fact finding (so the parties have a common pool of useful information). Mediators know how to help elected and appointed officials identify and convene all the relevant stakeholders, work with these groups to formulate shared ground rules and gather useful information, generate proposals that offers an outcome better for all sides than no agreement, and assist the parties in producing a signed agreement that officials can implement. The goal is to use informal problem-solving methods to supplement the usual administrative procedures and avoid costly and time-consuming litigation (that sets no useful precedent).
Why the two need to be more intimately connected
Getting concerned citizens together to achieve a better understanding of other peoples’ views is no small task. But, it isn’t enough. Our democratic commitments go beyond giving everyone two minutes at a microphone. The public wants a chance to participate in actual decision-making. How can we accomplish this when outspoken individuals with extreme views tend to dominate? We can supplement the basic mechanisms of representative democracy with informal problem-solving that seeks to generate consensus proposals. These will guarantee officials that if they accept what is recommended, almost everyone in the community will stand up and cheer. And, if you think that there is no way of bridging the gap between the “sides” in serious public controversies, you haven’t been paying attention. This is happening all over the world. The key is to involve the relevant groups, not a hodge-podge of outspoken individuals (or even a statistically valid sub-set of residents, who like a jury, who are supposed to think like their peers). The actual stakeholder groups will be needed to legitimize implementation of whatever agreements are reached; so, it is better to have them select representatives at the outset to sit around the table. The ongoing internal dialogue within each group is likely to generate support for a reasonable package if one is produced. Outspoken individuals with strongly held views are not accountable to anyone. Group representatives need to stay in touch with their stakeholders.
Experts on deliberation knows how to manage micro-conversations -- the give-and-take among the people at the table. Problem-solving is more effective if time is invested in building rapport among the participants. Generating empathy and understanding is a good thing, not a bad thing. However, it usually leads to clarity about why and how disagreements have emerged. Dispute resolvers know how to manage the maco-conversation and generate agreement, and not just clarity about the sources of disagreement. That is, they can make sure that officials with the formal authority to decide, convene the right parties in a way that ensures political legitimacy. They also know how to organize joint fact-finding. Reaching agreements that make people feel good, but don’t reflect the technical or scientific realities is dangerous. We need these two groups to team up.
What you can do to help
When public controversies arise in your community, don’t hesitate to suggest that public officials authorize a combination of dialogue and problem-solving. Remind them that won’t be giving up their final decision-making authority. Not only will they be able to take credit for improving the climate for productive public conversations, but they will be putting themselves in a position to take actions that will be applauded by all of their constituents.
When the question comes up about who should participate, tell them to ask a professional mediator to undertaken a stakeholder assessment that will help them map the conflict and ensure appropriate group representation. Allowing the most outspoken individuals a place at the table is counter-productive – they will just continue to sound off. All the relevant stakeholder groups must choose their own representatives, including proxies for hard to represent interests, and have a hand in devising problem-solving ground rules that everyone signs before the problem-solving discussions begin. For more details, see Susskind and Cruikshank, Breaking Robert’s Rules, Oxford University Press, 2006 including revised versions in Spanish, Portuguese, French, Russian, Italian, Chinese, Dutch and Japanese.