Helping Citizens Negotiate Together

October 27, 2011
Adam Z. Rose

When citizens are asked to serve on committees charged with addressing complex problems, what is really being asking of them? And how can we (mediators and public policy facilitators), help them?

Imagine a group of citizens concerned about a much-loved public beach.  They’ve been asked to come up with solutions to a range of thorny questions that boil down to who should be allowed to use which parts of the beach, who should pay for beach maintenance, who will get to park their cars in the near-by lot and what activities will be encouraged or prohibited.

Some of the participants grew up in the community and have used the beach all their lives. Others have arrived more recently.  Some use the beach for morning walks, others for volleyball and sandcastle competitions, still others to entertain their small children.  Some care deeply about the wildlife, while others are worried about water quality.

There is a lot being asked of these citizens. They are supposed to represent diverse interests and to articulate the many different concerns that these groups have. 

CBI has facilitated many such efforts to reach agreement about land use.  These include facilitating national park land use agreements, proposals to manage off-road driving so as to protect endangered species, and coastal zone planning more generally.  Based on these experiences, we’re worried that too much is being asked of citizen volunteers.  At the very least, we worry that not enough is being done to help them. 

To examine the problem, we need to be aware of the challenges that these volunteers face:

  1. Time. Negotiations take a lot of time, and citizens must carve out opportunities work on the project and to meet from their already busy work and personal schedules.  Participants are often asked to give up several nights a month, over many months, and sometimes even weekends, all while maintaining all their other activities as parents and employees.
  2. Working with Strangers.  People involved in multi-party negotiations are thrown together with people they don’t know and may not like.  Some may have bad personal histories, and by design, working groups are convened to ensure that people with significantly divergent values and opinions are included.  It’s a lot to ask someone to sit down with folks they hardly know or adamantly disagree with.
  3. Serving as a Capable Representative.  We ask committee members to represent not just what they want, but also what others who make up their “constituency” (even if they are not elected or formally appointed) want.  This means that if a “business” representative cares a lot about a particular commercial activity, he or she must nevertheless represent the interests of the larger business community.  We ask participants to determine the diverse needs of their constituents and reflect these accurately during on-going negotiations, despite the fact that some constituencies are unorganized or disagree internally. 
  4. Negotiating Effectively.  Participants are expected to be capable negotiators and to work towards agreement, despite the fact that many of them have never served in an official negotiating capacity before.  We ask them to be creative and to pursue mutual gains when, in fact, they may fear change and feel compelled to defend what might be taken away. As a result, some may fixate on trivial points, exhausting their fellow committee members who want to address a broader set of issues.  Others may be endlessly critical; unable to help their colleagues come up with creative solutions.  Or, participants may not be clear about what is acceptable to them and, at the last minute, undermine what others thought was already agreed upon. 
  5. Accepting Agency Constraints.  Negotiations take place in a legal or administrative context that imposes constraints of many kinds (i.e., we can only talk about particular issues, we have only three months to reach agreement, we don’t have enough money or sufficient capacity to manage something larger).  Often, citizens don’t understand these constraints. Just because expert scientists or agency lawyers tell them something, doesn’t mean they believe it.  How do they know that a so-called expert isn’t biased?

How can we as mediators and facilitators help unpaid citizens cope with these difficulties and more effectively meet the challenge before them?

  1. Planning and Staffing.  We have to help the parties set realistic expectations.  How much time will the process really take?  We need to help them develop detailed work plans that are implementable, even though the process may need adjustment along the way.  We have to suggest efficient processes (selecting, for example, three slightly longer meetings in two months rather than five meetings in five months).  We have to support committees by suggesting effective agendas, assisting participants in developing written drafts of ideas and agreements, and providing not only good summaries of previous meetings but also draft descriptions of possible ideas, interests, and options they have suggested.  We need to provide “moral” support, including food and drink, and when possible, expressing appreciation, and keeping meetings to the times allotted on the agenda!
  2. Tolerance. Tolerance is an essential ingredient in an effective democracy. As facilitators, we should model tolerance and insist on ground rules that encourage civil dialogue. It is our job to enforce these, even if that leads to tension in the group.  We have to provide opportunities for participants to get to know each other informally.  Participants should not just interact around a table talking about the difficult issues.  We can make more informal, casual interaction possible over a meal, or on a site visit when everyone walks the area together. It is harder to dismiss someone when you know something about his or her family, upbringing and hobbies.
  3. Representation.  We can help participants with the challenge of representing others by convening the right stakeholders in the first place. Usually this is done through a formal stakeholder assessment. We need to help participants to understand their roles and responsibilities and to clarify their mission. Sometimes, this means asking parties to commit in writing to represent a constituency, to explain to others the diversity of views within that group, and  to gather reactions from that constituency on a continuing basis.
  4. Negotiating Effectively.  Negotiating effectively is hard work, requiring patience, active listening, and creative thinking.  We must assist citizen participants with these core activities, providing tools to help them express their underlying interests and package complex solutions. While it is not our job to solve their problems or select outcomes (just the opposite, in fact), we can play a coaching role to help participants develop their own solutions.
  5. Scoping.  As facilitators, we often have to help sponsoring agencies articulate their objectives and the constraints they face for the participants.   While citizens may not realize we are doing all this background work, we still have to do it. Sometimes this includes facilitating internal meetings behind the scenes.

These are some of the things we do to help facilitate public dialogue.  We welcome your suggestions about other actions that would help citizen volunteers negotiate effectively together.

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