Collaborative Governance Consensus Building

Implementing Consensus Agreements – 1


Reaching agreement is the emotional high point of a consensus-seeking process. It often follows a period of difficult and intense negotiations and may represent a major breakthrough in relationships among long-warring groups. However, implementation is the real test of the effectiveness and durability of any agreement, and there are many potential obstacles that can frustrate success. It’s important, then, to understand the specific problems that can prevent meaningful follow-through on a hard-won agreement.

In a paper originally prepared for a Midwest Political Science Association conference in 2006, William Leach reviewed the literature and offered his own conclusions about the factors that can frustrate implementation. He also suggested a set of significant design principles that can reduce the likelihood of their occurrence. (Disclosure: Bill has been a colleague of mine for several years at the Center for Collaborative Policy, CSU-Sacramento.)

I’d like to summarize his conclusions in this post and then offer some observations relating to the design principles in a follow-up later this week.

The paper differentiates among three major classes of stakeholders: 1) the signatories putting their names to the agreement, 2) the constituents they represent and 3) stakeholders who are unrepresented and lack a voice in the consensus process. Major problems can stem from the action or inaction of any of these three groups.

Sources of implementation failure:

    1. Noncompliance by unrepresented stakeholders who object to an agreement they were never party to. “No one asked us!”

    2. Noncompliance by constituents who fail to follow the lead of their representative. “We never authorized any agreement!”

    3. Honest differences of interpretation among signatories who disagree on the meaning of the agreement. “That’s not what we meant!”

    4. Defection by a signatory who feels that circumstances have changed and the agreement no longer supports their interests. “That was then; this is now.”

    5. Defection by a signatory who negotiates in poor faith and reneges strategically to trick the other parties into making unilateral concessions. “Gotcha!”

To guard against these possibilities, Leach suggests twenty specific design principles that can be used at various stages of the process. In this limited space, I’ll simply list each principle under the appropriate stage and defer commentary to the next post.


    1. Seek participation by representatives of all stakeholders. This is the central tenet of all collaborative policy-making.

    2. Seek breadth and continuity of representation within each participating organization. A cross-section of each organizational level needs to become part of the process since implementation usually depends at least as much on the program staff as on the policy-level leadership.

    3. Create a broad sense of ownership by involving all stakeholders in designing and managing the process. The stakeholders should develop and approve the ground rules and structure and also take responsibility for various ongoing administrative tasks. A strong sense of ownership usually develops from self-management of the group.

Deliberation and Negotiation

    4. Cultivate strong working relationships. Action following agreement usually depends on trusting relationships among the signatories and their organizations. That trust emerges gradually as stakeholders match each other in their willingness to accept responsibility and make significant commitments to implementation.

    5. Invest substantial effort in joint fact finding so that the agreement can be based on objective criteria and mutually accepted data. Data and technical information from sources accepted and trusted by all stakeholders are essential since these define both the nature of the issues and the methods available for dealing with them. They also make it possible to set out objective criteria, rather than arbitrary positions, for evaluating the effectiveness of each element in an agreement. Having this sound basis minimizes the risk that implementation could fail over disagreements on technical issues.

    6. Require signatories to regularly canvass their constituents and to obtain their ratification of the final draft agreement. Whenever negotiators at the table lose touch with the concerns of their constituents there is a much greater likelihood that the agreement will fail ratification when it is brought back to that group for review.

    7. Ensure that stakeholders view the process as fair and impartial. A previous post in this series discussed the issues that arise when a convener, in particular, tries to exert control over the process. The stakeholders must see that the effort is not being manipulated toward a predetermined outcome.

The Written Agreement

    8. Clearly and precisely state what each signatory will do and when.

    9. Establish dispute settlement mechanisms. Since differences in interpretation or changes in conditions that prevailed at the time of the agreement are almost inevitable, a clear process for handling disputes needs to be agreed on in the negotiated terms themselves. Otherwise, resolution of those problems may simply rekindle conflict.

    10. Record the “legislative history” within the agreement or appendices. Understanding how and why the various provisions were arrived at by participants can help reduce or eliminate disagreements over interpretation during implementation.

    11. Specify an explicit causal theory within the agreement. Stakeholders should indicate not only the fact of their approval but also why they find terms of the agreement acceptable.

    12. Stage the implementation process with interdependent contingencies at each stage so that all signatories must take clear steps in order to receive the benefits of others.

    13. Codify the agreement, in whole or in part, through regulations, permits, statutes, contracts, or court orders.

    14. Establish provisions for compliance monitoring and monitoring of external conditions.

    15. Establish criteria and mechanisms for renegotiating the agreement as conditions change. Including specific triggers that would signal the need to reopen discussions as well as procedures for doing so recognizes the likelihood that conditions may change and offers a clear structure for responding to those changes.

    16. Charter a new organization to oversee implementation. This is one of the most important principles since it focuses the coordination required to ensure efficient implementation. Such an organization can also provide an ongoing forum for discussion among stakeholders that provides early warning of disagreements.

    17. Require signatories to sign as individuals, not organizations. This step captures the reality that representatives at the table can rarely commit an agency to adoption of an agreement. By signing as individuals they accept responsibility for advocating ratification and doing all they can to seek compliance by the groups they represent.

After the Agreement

    18. Celebrate the agreement. Celebration concludes what can be an exhausting process on a positive note and also creates momentum leading to the ratification and implementation stages.

    19. Convene a collaborative process to oversee implementation. Any interaction among the participants during the implementation stage needs to be collaborative in order to sustain the trust developed during the consensus building process. A vehicle for continuing collaborative dialogue can go hand in hand with the operation of a new organization overseeing implementation.

    20. Evaluate the process and share lessons learned. This is an especially important step not only to measure outcomes of the process but also to reinforce longer-term institutional memory and understanding of the ratifying agencies.

These design principles represent state-of-the-art measures that can guide a consensus process beyond agreement to successful implementation. Many, however, are difficult to put in place for reasons that are often beyond the control of the stakeholders. These are the issues I’ll be discussing in the next post.


4 replies on “Implementing Consensus Agreements – 1”

Peter –

Thanks for your comment. I’m delighted to meet you and to discover your site. Your posts are quite helpful – I be dropping by often.

My best to you — John

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