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Managing Public Disputes: A Practical Guide for Government, Business and Citizens’ Groups (Book Review)

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In this book Carpenter and Kennedy update their original work first published in 1988. The authors propose the concept that facilitation of public disputes, is not just for mediators. They indicate, that it is their opinion, that a Government or other individual involved in a Public Issue can manage the dispute through a facilitation system that involves all relevant interested parties. Many Public Disputes are a balancing act, between Government, Special Interest Groups, Residents and Business Interests. These different factions can represent upwards of 40 different specific entities, which should be included in the process of negotiating for a meaningful compromise solution that meets the primary needs of all affected segments. Further, the authors recommend that the “consensus” method of conducting the process should be utilized, which requires basically unanimous consent on the final determination, as well as the steps in between.

Carpenter and Kennedy start by describing the “spiral of unmanaged conflict.” They indicate that a conflict, which is not managed, tends to result in the elimination of the moderates, and the dominance of the extremists or militants on the issues. As the conflict escalates, the positions become increasingly polarized. This escalation ultimately results in the emergence of a sense of crisis. The authors clearly express the opinion that the solution to the “spiral” is the application of “rational process.” It is interesting that they consider this rather tricky and complicated management process to be one, which can be managed by a person, who may in fact be a party to the dispute. For the most part, they seem to be indicating that the “manager” of the process is usually a government agency representative. In addition, this process of managing the public opinion and getting a consensus decision on how the dispute or project will be handled is somewhat of a maverick activity. That is to say, much of the time, the government entity has the authority to impose a solution, without having to utilize such a process. However, the decision to utilize a process of this type allows for extreme satisfaction within the community and can produce a radically more beneficial overall solution to the original problem.

In illustrating their point, Carpenter and Kennedy utilize 7 case studies that are referred to throughout the book to assist in explaining their methods and techniques in approaching these issues and the way to effectively reach the consensus opinion as to how the issue should be addressed and resolved. While it appears in the beginning that the authors are being simplistic in their approach, that is, merely suggesting that an effective and well-constructed process will allow such complicated disputes to be resolved, this is not their true intent. Upon developing the basic ground work that describes their premise, they later move on to illustrate that the process is far from simple, and takes significant skill and acumen to manage effectively to a conclusion. In some cases, these discussions and meetings cover time periods of as much as 2 years, before a conclusive solution is proposed.

The authors lay out the basic principles of effective conflict management. They then present their position that “ground rules” are essential for the process to work and to be managed. The development of these ground rules can be an art in and of itself. The imposition of basic ground rules on the group is rarely the best method to manage the process. Rather, consensus on ground rules themselves is often the best method of establishing them. Additionally, there may be special problems, for example, should the sessions be open to the press. In some cases, this may be unavoidable, if “Sunshine Laws” require that the press or the public or both be allowed to be present at the proceedings.

In the second section of the book, Carpenter and Kennedy illustrate in more detail, the steps that should be considered in moving toward this resolution. Clearly, taking too radical an approach to progress may destroy the effort to reach a consensus decision on how the situation should be resolved. At the same time, the authors are careful to point out, that too slow a process may be frustrating and difficult for participants to sustain. Significant emphasis is placed on the methodology used to select the participants in the negotiating sessions. It is imperative, that the representative be able to deliver the constituency that they represent. If they do not have the confidence and trust of their constituency, then the effort may be futile, and different representatives to the negotiation may have to be considered.

The authors show that such conflicts should almost always start out with an education segment. The collection of relevant information and data to augment the education of the participants is crucial to success. The parties to the negotiation need to understand the data and know how to analyze it in order to reach an informed conclusion that is implementable. Once education is accomplished, the group must then move on to identification of needs, as well as proposal and development of options that may meet these needs. Each option should be carefully considered and the group must agree that the option selected is one that is workable and acceptable.

However, it is in the Third Section of the book that the true intricacies and complexities of accomplishing the task are clearly set out and illustrated. If a potential “manager” of such a process were to stop reading Carpenter and Kennedy’s book after Section Two, assuming that they would be able to manage such a process, they would miss the most meaningful segment of the entire work. In this third section, the authors astutely inform the reader, that the “manager” must never assume that because they are applying a rational and well-developed process that the solution and resolution of the situation will be easy or simple to manage. They quite properly warn the reader and prospective manager, not to assume that nothing will go wrong, because something “ALWAYS goes wrong.”

In this segment of their book, Carpenter and Kennedy explain that in many cases, a professional, “third party neutral” facilitator is often essential to the finalization of the process. And, in some cases, such a professional should be engaged throughout the entire process. They discuss the concepts of how to manage the process, how to involve constituencies, how to inform the public, how to work with the news media and how to utilize a professional “third party” in the process and when and why this use of a third party may be essential to completing the task. They remind the reader, that if the manager of the process is in fact, an involved party, therefore, a representative of a faction to the discussions, they may very well need a “neutral” facilitator to help them manage the diverse and often divergent needs and perspectives of the participants to the process.

The issues of Values, Trust and Power are explained. The authors take time to explain how these concepts affect the dynamic and interactions of members of the negotiating team. They illustrate through actual examples, how these concepts will be significant in the process and how the “manager” and/or the “third party neutral” can deal with such issues in a non-destructive manner. The point of the process is to come to an acceptable solution, a true BATNA, if you will, to reaching agreement on the methods to be utilized to solve the issue at hand.

Other topics covered by Carpenter and Kennedy in this segment of their book include such things as “bringing people to the table”, “educating new comers to the process”, “coping with differences in negotiating skills”, “keeping people at the table” and “handling intense emotions” all or some of which may emerge in the process. The “manager” and the “third party neutral” should be ready for these things to occur. They should have the requisite skills to deal with them. And they should do so decisive, and with aplomb. It is vital that these issues be dealt with and considered so that all representatives get the opportunity to make their needs known and recognized by the parties to the negotiation. There must be conscious effort to include all positions in developing the solution. If this is not properly done, it could be a formula for sabotage to the ultimate conclusion. It is important, that all representatives to the negotiation have their interests taken into account, or the constituency that they represent may be wholly dissatisfied with the result, and thus, may cause the solution to fail.

Finally, Carpenter and Kennedy tackle the difficult subjects of “breaking deadlocks” or impasse, when it occurs in the process. They recommend numerous techniques by which this can be done successfully. Again, with liberal use of their 7 case studies, they are able to clearly elucidate these methods and show how in specific cases the techniques were utilized successfully.

While the book is unique in proposing that such complicated situations can be handled with the use of a well-managed process, they do in fact give all the proper cautions to the reader, so that they are not surprised or unprepared to deal with these complexities when they come up in the negotiation. And, they remind the reader, that no matter how prepared they are, there will be things that will happen that they do not expect or anticipate. As in regular mediation, “anything can happen” and it is important that when the unexpected rears its head, the “manager” and/or the “third party neutral” is not put in a position of impotence, with regard to their ability to manage whatever format these events may take when they appear.

In conclusion, the book gives people interested in participating in the management of Public Disputes, a good education as to the dynamics and processes that can be utilized to effectively come to consensus agreement on solutions to complicated issues. The book is highly well thought out, and gives the reader a good starting basis to be able to try and manage diverse issues that are better resolved with total community involvement. By doing so, not only is the potential for a more effective, workable and better solution enhanced, but also the ultimate success of the implementation of that solution is significantly enhanced. For those who are considering facilitation of Public Issues, the book gives a well grounded explanation of the techniques and methods that can be utilized to allow such issues to be well resolved with appropriate acceptance by all relevant factions and groups affected by the issue. The book is truly an excellent starting point for readers, mediators and facilitators who may be interested in involvement with Public Issues.


Jon Linden

Jon Linden is a Mediator, Trainer and Business Consultant. He holds an BS in biology and an MBA, both from Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA. Jon spent 20 years in the Food Service Distribution business, where he was the COO and Sr. V-P of a Distribution Center of a major… MORE >

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