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How Do Consensus Groups Make Choices?

From John Folk-Williams’s blog Cross Collaborate


As in any other field, public sector consensus building always gets to the critical moment when choices have to be made. In my experience, how a group accomplishes this reveals more about motives behind decisions than any other step in the process.

Several years ago, I worked with a large group to build consensus on a regional water plan. The stakeholders had agreed that they would need a well-designed process for identifying alternative scenarios and then narrowing them down to the one everyone could accept.

They rejected the idea of a formal decision support method, which usually has to be managed by a technical expert. Instead, they wanted a more transparent procedure that could be publicly documented and understandable without a lot of technical background.

Working with the engineering consultant, we came up with a fairly common approach. The group agreed on a set of ten criteria reflecting the key values the stakeholders as well as legal requirements. Each of the criteria was broken out into specific, measurable components.

These would be used to establish a numerical score, and each of the criteria weighted in related to the rest. An average of the weighted scores could then provide an overall rating number as a rough basis for comparing the alternatives. The scoring may have satisfied the group’s desire to document what they were doing, but it had relatively little impact on their actual choices.

Putting the alternatives together was tricky. Many participants were used to a typical environmental review process in which three alternatives are constructed in a fairly arbitrary way. Two of them lean so heavily to one side or another (e.g. environmental vs. economic interests) that they clearly won’t be acceptable. The third tries to strike a balance between the others and is invariably the one adopted. That approach is a way of channeling thinking into predetermined forms and stifling creativity.

For this water planning process to work, each alternative, while giving some extra weight to the values of a particular constituency, needed to be a viable basis for negotiating a final plan. To do that, the group drew on 100 water project and policy options to define six alternatives, each of which could achieve the plan’s goals.

Everything went according to plan, though there were naturally many difficult meetings to get common understanding and agreement about the options, criteria and alternatives. Each alternative was scored – although that too was tough to get through, especially when it came to the weighting of the criteria. After a lot of negotiating, the alternatives were whittled down to three.

All this followed the logic of meeting interests and satisfying state planning requirements. A well-documented and transparent process was unfolding, and negotiations seemed to be making progress. But I knew that the group hadn’t yet come to the moment of truth.

There’s nothing like the final commitment, complete with name on the dotted line, to put each negotiator under the gun with their own organizations. Although they may have been passively following the process to this point, now they look at every detail and put the whole package through a worst case analysis. Every interest group finds elements it likes and others that could put some of their goals at risk. Usually the decision to accept a complex agreement boils down to the level of risk the interest group is willing to live with.

The representative who is negotiating at the table is caught in the middle between the pressure of the folks back home to hold the line and the collaborative expectations of the other participants to find common ground.

The driving force behind the final negotiations was this constant pressure and the personal calculation of political risk. Feasibility had been the final criterion added to the evaluation process – and that had many dimensions, financial, engineering and political. But it was political feasibility that determined almost every choice in the increasingly frantic pace as the group closed in on a final decision.

While the interests of each group represented at the table might be crystal clear, the political influences of the moment can easily distort a constituency’s perception of what would best meet its needs. A technically sound water project option, in this case, appeared to meet the interests of three major groups that had been at odds for years over water supply. However, the fears of one community forced its representative to push the project completely off the table. Even to talk about it or support further study of the option would mean political suicide.

The project had been a lightening rod for conflict for so long, it was now a symbol of contending values. None of the key interests could let go of that conviction in spite of evidence that the technical concept could be made to work in a mutually advantageous way. A water district manager could lose his job for suggesting its adoption, a city council member could be voted out of office, an environmental leader could lose the confidence of her organization’s large membership.

The impact of such pressures and established ways of perceiving the issues is just one of the many ways in which the concept of interest-based negotiation needs to be adapted to complex realities. I haven’t yet found a single model that captures the intricate interplay of all the influences that affect the work of a collaborative group.

Awareness of these multiple forces and the willingness to adjust methods to respond to them is essential. The regional water planning committee reached consensus on a final plan, though this agreement may have looked as much like a political balancing act as the outcome of interest-based negotiations. Nevertheless, it worked.


John Folk-Williams

I’m John Folk-Williams, the publisher and editor of Cross Collaborate. Since the early 1980s, I’ve been a practitioner and writer in the field of public policy collaboration, interest-based negotiation, mediation and the involvement of citizens in the decisions that affect their lives. A site like this is itself a collaboration… MORE >

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