Collaborative Practitioners as Consultants

If you were to read up on the practice of consensus-building, you would quickly discover that the recommended model for paying the facilitator or mediator calls for joint contributions by all the parties. The sharing of costs is one way the participants can demonstrate their commitment, but it also helps reassure them that the practitioner’s accountability is to everyone around the table, not to a single agency that puts up all the funds.

Today, though, at least in the public policy field, such a balanced distribution of costs is usually the exception rather than the rule. More frequently, a single agency will contract with a firm to provide the needed services, often after a highly competitive selection process. This creates a consultant-client relationship between the two. That relationship is one of the most sensitive issues in collaboration practice today.

The Needs of Agencies and Practitioners

It’s understandable that this system of retaining collaborative professionals would become so pervasive. Often the participants in a process, especially community groups and local advocacy organizations that have modest funding, expect the sponsoring agency to provide funding as part of its responsibility to the public. The sponsor usually takes on the process of putting the project out to bid and sometimes choosing the successful firm through a panel that includes other stakeholders.

Collaborative practitioners, for their part, have a very real need to build a financially sustainable business. To do that, they try to cultivate long-term relationships with major public agencies, usually aiming for repeat business from their clients. Since this method of supporting a process and contracting for services meets many needs, it has grown in importance over time.

Convenient as it may be, the question still remains as to whether the client-consultant relationship, especially one developed through long-term projects or multiple contracts over time, in any way interfere with impartial management of the process? That questions needs to be asked of both the collaborative practitioners and the projects managers of the sponsoring agencies.

How Practitioners Manage the Problem

Collaborative professionals typically take several steps to protect against a group’s assumption that they might be serving the client’s interests more fully than their own.

  • Contract Provisions.Negotiating a contract and defining a scope of work give both client and consulting practitioner the opportunity to build in safeguards. These can include statements about professional ethics, provisions requiring equal treatment of all participants, confidentiality of interviews with stakeholders and other factors. These become requirements for meeting the terms of the contract that bind both the sponsor and the practitioner.

  • Transparency. Disclosure up front about how the facilitator or mediator is being paid is one of the most important methods. The practitioner makes clear to the participants in the process that there is nothing to hide and can ask if anyone has a question or concern about the arrangement.

  • Groundrules A collaborative group always needs to define groundrules guiding the process and these usually specify the role of the facilitator and establish a mechanism of accountability to the group. They also provide assurances about fair treatment and equal attention to the interests of all participants. The groundrules are enforced by the facilitator, whose judgment calls are closely observed.

  • Consistent Practice Besides these early steps,, practitioners also need to behave throughout the process in a way that is completely consistent with the principles of transparency, fairness and accountability they have committed to in the groundrules. It’s important to be honest with the group and admit that mistakes can happen.

These are some of the typical practices used to preserve integrity in the relationship between the facilitator and the collaborative group as a whole. An even more difficult set of problems, though, come up for the public agency in balancing its roles as convener, sponsor, project manager and the client of a practitioner firm.

In the next post in this series, I’ll explore the issues that can arise in that context and offer some thoughts on how to manage that relationship.

In the meantime, I hope you’ll share some of your observations and ideas on this issue – whether you’re a participant in a collaborative, a practitioner who has dealt with the problem or a manager who has contracted with collaboration specialists.

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