Getting to Collaboration: A Personal View

As a fairly young field, public policy collaboration has acquired an interesting assortment of names, which are sometimes used loosely and interchangeably. Depending on the context, the practice might be called mediation, consensus-building, conflict management, dispute or conflict resolution, collaboration or, most recently, collaborative governance. What practitioners do hasn’t changed all that much: they are the impartial facilitators in the room helping groups sort out their differences. No matter what it’s called, the common thread is the pursuit of agreement or consensus among the participants. So what do the different terms signify?

Primarily, they reflect the changing demands by public and private leaders to apply the consensus-seeking paradigm in more and more phases of public policy decision-making. As I think of it, these demands have been related to two broad areas: dealing with problems from the past that continue into the present and preparing for the future – conflict and vision.

The Conflict Dimension

  1. Resolving Present Conflict. About 30 years ago, the initial uses of mediation in the public policy field responded to the need to resolve difficult environmental disputes. The business. government and environmental groups typically involved had a long history of fighting each other and wanted effective resolution on specific issues. They were willing to try negotiating a solution with the help of a mediator. Early successes with this approach helped spread demand, and soon mediators were handling other types of public policy disputes.

  2. Consensus-Building in Policy Development.Some practitioners introduced variations on the consensus approach by looking “upstream” to building agreement on policy before it reached the conflict stage. Policy dialogue and negotiated rule-making became important methods in the earlier stages of public decision-making.

  3. Managing Conflict.While public agencies and practitioners were dealing with these areas of conflict, several began to address issues inside government. The idea was to build the capacity of public agencies in the use of consensus techniques and institutionalize their use as a regular option in decision-making. Conflict management also guided the agencies to involve stakeholders early in their policy processes to help limit or prevent conflict before it had a chance to reach a crisis point.

The Vision Dimension

  1. Consensus for the Future. As the field of resolving and managing conflict was developing, many public officials became uncomfortable with the language that focused on disputes and conflict. Rather than emphasize the negative, they wanted to use facilitation and consensus techniques for preparing plans that would define positive views of the future. Organizations and communities of all sizes and purposes had the need to agree on visions about where they wanted to be at some future point. They could then build their present plans as strategies for reaching the goals of that vision.

  2. Facilitation. To define future plans, public leaders wanted facilitators, not mediators. “Facilitator” did not have the connotation of conflict and the need to resolve it, and so the term became much more common than “mediator.” Facilitators with conflict management experience had special value because they could not only guide a group to agreement, they could also help resolve particular disagreements that might be encountered along the way.

  3. New Techniques. Facilitator/mediators, for lack of a better term, began to use techniques for these future-oriented processes that had been developed in the organizational development field. Strategic planning, Appreciative Inquiry, Future Search and many other methods were added to the repertory.

Collaboration. As the array of skills, tools and services available to practitioners became richer and more varied, the term “collaboration” came into use as a way of capturing the full variety of the field. It’s a convenient short-hand for a complex set of activities, but it really names what the participants, not the practitioners, do. The facilitator/mediators – left with that awkward title – guide the process of collaboration.

So that’s my personal view of how we got to call the field “collaboration.” Other practitioners and scholars will doubtless disagree about this quick and dirty survey, but this is how I make sense of it. Whatever names you’d like to use, the last 30 years have seen an interesting expansion of the uses of consensus-building methods. New demands have stretched the field and its practitioners to work constantly on new sets of problems.

This isn’t the end of the story by any means. In an upcoming post, I’ll have a look at the most recent way of defining the field as collaborative governance.

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