The Death of Consensus?

July 10, 2012

Reflections on the past, present, and promise of our community of practice. 

At a recent conference on environmental conflict resolution, I participated in a panel that posed the simple but provocative question: is consensus dead? The biannual conference was sponsored by the U.S. Institute for Environmental Conflict Resolution, and colleagues Michael Harty, Peter Adler, John Stephens, and Will Hall joined me on the panel.

When we look at the broadest canvas — our national politics — it would indeed be hard to assert that collaboration, civility, compromise or consensus are anywhere to be found. From arcane rules of Senate procedure to the state of our health care system, no issue seems immune to epic fights between our two political parties. Where, once, towering figures of American practical and reasoned genius prevailed, it would appear that petty gods of Greek temperament now play out their passions, ignorance, and ambition. If not dead, consensus is surely badly wounded and hiding underground. What happened to the promise of consensus building?

For those working in conflict resolution, the beginnings of our community of practice promised great things: better relationships, increased trust among people and of institutions, fairer outcomes, more stable agreements, wiser decisions, and greater value. But have we delivered?

In considering this question, two broad themes emerged.

First, our practices have changed, advanced, and grown since the early years:

  • Now practitioners not only manage consensus-building processes, representative committees, and agreement-seeking processes, we have expanded the tasks and projects we undertake. We may connect stakeholders through new media and technology; or, we may design large, multi-tiered processes designed to engage thousands of stakeholders at different levels, enrich discussion, create options, and provide government decision-makers with a rich and better-informed set of choices.
  • Both agencies and practitioners have become wise to the limits of consensus building: we are now more aware of when to seek agreement among stakeholders and when to seek convergence; and when to narrow or expand the choices or options from which the agencies may decide.

Second, despite these advancements, we practitioners have still fallen short, particularly when it comes to addressing more systemic issues:

  • To some extent, as practitioners, we have shifted from idealist and advocate to service provider in the marketplace. We often deliver what the willing and able buyer wants: safety and basic process protections; shorter interventions; and aid to, rather than replacement of, existing processes.
  • While we have preserved our independence and neutrality in our work, we often accept how agencies and political administrations name problems and frame issues. If an agency wants us to facilitate a set of difficult public meetings on an energy issue, for instance, we do it. But do we challenge the agency on upfront assumptions about why they are initiating public involvement and what they hope to achieve — and on whether or not they are willing to engage the public in new and different ways?
  • In the face of difficult ‘downstream’ conflicts — ones that involve battered parties, entrenched positions, and exhausted possibilities — we have moved ‘upstream’ to do more facilitation, visioning, and option-generation, hoping to prevent or reduce future conflict. But by avoiding these difficult downstream cases, we may have sidestepped the most necessary work: high-level conflicts that hold the greatest opportunity for transformative change (and of course, for complete disaster!)

Is consensus-building really dead? Given the name of the institute I work for, not surprisingly, I say, it is not — but it certainly is a challenge to keep it alive and well. After reflecting on the recent panel and audience discussion, I have come to a few conclusions:

  • We are not, and were never, a well-defined field or profession, but rather a community of practice (I credit my colleague Jeff Edelstein with prompting this insight). We come from too many different professional backgrounds and practices to be able to name our work as a single field.
  • We continue to develop a rich and diverse set of tools in many different niches to aid in collaboration and we’ve expanded the toolbox for government in a number of ways. The challenge today is helping stakeholders and agencies pick the right tool for the right problem (as my colleague Matt McKinney is always reminding us).
  • On many site-based cases, we have been very successful. Most practitioners can name important cases where our assistance helped parties reach consensus, resolve difficult issues, rebuilt or gained trust and develop an approach for a more stable future.
  • Collaboration, partnership, and cross-sectoral action will only become more essential with shrinking government budgets, static or even dwindling institutions, and diverse and complex problems and needs. We have a lot to offer and a lot to learn in helping shape and implement new and varied partnerships, alliances, and innovative multi-party efforts.

We have not, however, substantially changed either government agency culture or American political culture when it comes to building consensus.

Our numerous collaborative tools are now deployed in pockets or subsets within agencies, across different geographies, and by individuals and offices. If our intent was for these processes to simply be supplemental and ad hoc, this is then not a failure or disappointment. If we intended something more, well…

…Then, we have and are disappointed. While our tools are varied and practiced, and we continue to adapt and innovate, we appear to only surf on deeper American political currents. There is no evidence to suggest, at least for the time being, that we have the tools, brilliance, knowledge, or execution to dig deep and actually help transform American political culture for the better.

Have we failed, or in the great American genius of practicality, have we adapted ourselves to the needs before us? Where is the next generation of new practitioners and thinkers who might again make bold claims and set out to conquer today’s dragons? Consensus is not dead, though perhaps a bit chastened. And, it is time to think about how we can invigorate the ideals that brought many of us to this work in the first place.
 

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