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Consensus Building Tools for New Challenges at the State and Local Levels

Source: The Policy Consensus Initiative (PCI)

The PCI builds and supports networks that provide states with leadership and
capacity to achieve more collaborative governance.

(December, 1997)

First, the Bad News

Elected officials are constantly being asked to do more with less. Increasingly, they must think smarter, act quickly and learn new and better ways of working together – with each other and with others – to focus limited time, energy and resources on a state or local government’s most pressing problems. Rapid social, cultural, political and environmental change is transforming communities and states, bringing to the forefront conflict among interests and individuals with diverse and sometimes divergent needs and concerns. The speed of this change makes it difficult for states and communities to develop and maintain a consensus on current priorities and on long term visions for their future.

The familiar and traditional syndrome in government of “decide, announce and defend” has increasingly led to the public’s resistance to top-down solutions, which further widens the gulf between elected and appointed officials and the various “publics” they serve. These problems, poorly managed or left unattended, quickly turn into powerful barriers to positive change and result in litigation and public dissatisfaction.

At the local level, the context for decision making, governance and leadership is a constantly changing and challenging proposition. Coalitions form and dissolve around specific issues and the composition and agenda of groups change as local government officials are called upon to address deficiencies in housing, public safety, transportation, recreation, social services, economic development, and quality of life issues. All this is dealt with against a backdrop of uncertain sources of funding; increasing responsibilities for problem solving without adequate resources; polarized interest groups; and a public that is feeling frustrated, distrustful, overtaxed and alienated from governmental decision making.

At the state level, legislatures are often not well suited for the development of consensus needed to Implement new public policies. Agencies and appointed officials work with, and sometimes against, stake-holder groups in making tough decisions. Overlapping jurisdictions and lack of clear roles make intergovernmental cooperation and coordination difficult – and intergovernmental dispute resolution a necessity. Some states are dealing with an increasingly sour public mood by attempting regulatory reform and streamlining efforts. Overall, these efforts seek to strike the proper balance among protection of the public’s interest in a healthy economy, a clean environment and quality communities. This is a process fraught with conflict and disputes.

Now, the Good News

In this difficult context can anything work to produce effective solutions? The good news is that there is a growing interest and a promising track record at the local, regional and state level, often guided by statewide offices of dispute resolution, in using collaborative approaches to public problem solving. These processes bring stakeholders and citizens together to develop consensus for needed actions on public problems; increase inter-agency and intergovernmental cooperation; and improve public and private sector coordination, collaboration and partnerships.

In nearly 20 states, publicly recognized and supported offices offering assistance in developing agreement on public solutions with public, private and non profit interests. These efforts utilize an array of consensus building tools to solve critical public problems including mediation, facilitated consensus building and public participation and other forms of collaborative problem solving. They have been deployed to deal with a variety of issues such as affordable housing, water management, emergency medical services provision, facility siting, community visions, budget priorities, environmental and land use issues, and public employment claims and grievances.

Expanding the Consensus Building Tool Kit

There are a variety of ways to build consensus on public issues and problems. More and more, to make progress in addressing key state, regional or community problems, it is necessary for elected and appointed leaders to bring groups of stakeholders and citizens together to both understand and to build consensus on the nature of the problem, and formulate and agree on options for its solution. The concept of building consensus and leadership for action on public problems has been advanced by the growing number of these statewide offices.

Consensus building on public issues features a spectrum of approaches that have been used separately or in combination. These have included facilitated policy development, mediated negotiations and productive public involvement. Facilitated large group processes have been used to create a dialogue among key stakeholders and build consensus around complex public policies, regulations or proposed legislation, ordinances or plans. Mediated negotiations using skilled neutrals to help parties negotiate mutually acceptable resolutions have been successfully used at a number of points in local, regional and state government decision making and in litigation processes. Facilitated public involvement has helped to effectively incorporate public concerns, needs and values into governmental decision making. It has been used by the public, private and non profit sectors to build consensus on future community visions, deal with the development of plans, and facilitate development proposals and the resolution of a wide range of public issues.

The potential advantages of consensus building approaches include:

  • Better decisions. As groups learn about each others’ views and needs, and develop common ground for action, they can create solutions that better reflect the concerns of other parties as well as their own.
  • Faster implementation. Parties are less likely to block implementation if they understand that a plan or policy reflects their input and has been crafted to meet their basic interests. Parties involved in consensus building often make commitments to participate in the implementation.
  • Bridge community differences. Consensus building processes allow communities and the affected interests to bridge differences and work together to find mutually acceptable solutions based on common interests.
  • Educate constituencies. Consensus building processes can educate constituents on the complex nature of the problems and issues and on others’ concerns that will need to be addressed in solutions.
  • Deal productively with shared power for decision-making. Consensus building processes bring a wide array of stakeholders to the table to seek mutually beneficial solutions as a response to the reality that power has become widely and thinly distributed with many interests able to block or veto the possibility of action.
  • Create new resources. There are fewer federal, state and local dollars available to deal with critical issues facing our society. Consensus building processes can engage a range of public, private and community institutions and leadership to bring a wider array of resources to bear on the problem.
  • Manage diversity and build common ground. Consensus building processes can help increasingly diverse communities improve inter-group relations, build trust and find common ground.
  • Intergovernmental collaboration. Consensus building can effectively Involve different governmental units and nongovernmental actors in building a collaborative agreement on issues that cut across jurisdictional lines.

Applications and Experience: the Florida Conflict Resolution Consortium

In 1987 the Florida Conflict Resolution Consortium was established by the Florida Legislature at Florida State University to assist public and private sector and citizen interests at the state, regional and local levels in building consensus without resort to litigation on the challenging problems precipitated by the state’s rapid growth in population during the 1970’s and 1980’s. Around that same time, the state’s Supreme Court initiated its program to institutionalize mediation in the judicial process and created the Florida Dispute Resolution Center. Together, these two offices have provided dispute resolution and consensus building assistance, education and evaluation in Florida’s administrative, political and judicial contexts.

Examples of the roles the Consortium has played include: recently designing and running the Governor’s Conference on Administrative Dispute Resolution for 250 participants from over 12 executive agencies interested in increasing their use of dispute resolution; assisting in the implementation of new dispute resolution legislation related to property rights; and designing a two-day program on dispute resolution for the annual meeting of the Florida Association of Counties.

Beyond education, the Consortium has been directly involved in facilitating and mediating large group processes to demonstrate the value of collaboration in building consensus around complex public policies, regulations, litigation and proposed legislation. These facilitated and mediated processes have been convened by local governments, regional agencies, the governor and executive agencies.

State offices focused on consensus building and dispute resolution play a vital role in assisting those interests and institutions in the state in utilizing a range of collaborative tools to address community, regional and statewide challenges and problems. These programs use and refine these innovative tools to provide cost-effective and quality outcomes on controversial but critical public issues. Two hundred years ago DeToqueville observed, “You can tell how many good ideas the Americans have had, because they have built an organization around each one.” Today state programs providing consensus building and dispute resolution services are organizations devoted to a good idea whose time has come.

Deciding whether to use consensus building

When to Consider Using…

  • An issue is complex
  • Many parties are involved
  • No one agency or jurisdiction has complete control over the solution to the problems or access to resources
  • The issues are negotiable and/or People are willing to participate

When Not To Use…

  • When a local government faces an emergency
  • When level of concern is not great
  • When a fundamental value or principle is the focus of problem
  • Legal clarification is needed; and/or
  • Community is so polarized that face-to-face discussions are not possible

Addressing concerns with consensus building

Abdication of power?
Public leaders retain their legal responsibility and final decision making authority in consensus processes

Does it undermine representative government?
Public consensus processes supplement democratic processes

What about accountability?
Implementation of consensus processes is controlled by elected leaders

Will it take too much time?
Difficult public issues require patience, time and participation in order to develop a plan of action that is supported and can be implemented

Do these processes thwart the will of the majority?
Consensus processes contribute to identifying the agreement of the majority after all views are shared and fairly heard


Robert Jones

Robert Jones is Director of the Florida Conflict Resolution Consortium, in Tallahassee, Florida. MORE >

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