Collaborative Governance Consensus Building

Implementing Consensus Agreements – 2


As I summarized briefly in the last post, Bill Leach has identified 20 design principles for implementing consensus agreements. Of course, some are difficult to apply in practice, in part because of the great variety of local issues, conditions and competing interests. While many of the principles are established practice in consensus building, some represent new thinking about how to ensure consistent implementation over time.

I’ll focus in this post on the process design principle that deals with two critical concerns: 1) the need to include representatives from all levels of an implementing agency rather than only the top policy leadership and 2) the importance of addressing the problem of personnel changes over time. To quote from Leach’s presentation on the first point:


The implementation literature clearly demonstrates that commitment to a new policy is often needed at multiple levels of a bureaucracy. In fact, recent empirical evidence shows that low-level public officials can sometimes exert much stronger control over bureaucratic outputs than do legislators or high level political appointees [reference-1 below].

On the second point about maintaining continuity of organizational representation, despite changes of personnel, he writes:

… [I]ndividuals inevitably do switch assignments, change jobs, or retire. Successful implementation hinges on the new personnel emulating or exceeding their predecessors’ commitment to the process [reference-2]. Therefore, it is especially important to involve the understudies of senior personnel who may soon retire, so that the sense of ownership of the agreement will continue well after the senior signatories have moved on.


There is no question about the importance of securing full cooperation of all staff levels of an implementing agency. High policy officials come and go and elective leadership changes, yet the program and line staff are career civil servants whose jobs are protected from political changes. Under those conditions it’s possible for staff to resist a new policy or procedure and the behavioral and operational changes that it may demand. They can ride out the political appointee’s tenure until the next administration comes in.

This potential problem for effective implementation, however, may not be resolved by including even a broad cross-section of the bureaucracy in the consensus process. One problem is that there is always a sharp distinction in any agency between those responsible for on-the-ground operations and enforcement and those authorized to make policy decisions. Only the latter can commit an agency to the terms of an agreement and freely make proposals to a consensus group. Involving line staff is no guarantee that they will buy into the consensus process or its outcome for several reasons.

Lower-level staff attend meetings at the direction of superiors and often are reluctant to offer comments not strictly related to technical issues. They typically won’t venture an opinion that in any way contradicts the agency’s policy or that could be interpreted as suggesting a new direction or allocation of resources. Since they routinely keep their opinions to themselves, it’s possible that they could go all the way through the process without really buying into the agreement and its implementation requirements, despite the enthusiastic support of top leadership. If they disagree with its terms for any reason, they can help delay its implementation.

On the other hand, if they support its goals and provisions, they may find themselves lonely voices amid a crowd of skeptics in the rest of the organization. It certainly helps the process of educating staff if they hear about about an agreement’s impact from one of their own instead of only from agency leaders, but the task of securing internal compliance remains a daunting one.

The principle of including a cross-section of staff has the best chance of working if the agreement calls for implementation by a single program office or project staff in a relatively limited time frame. Where the number of personnel who need to be involved is small and comprise a team that has already been working together for some time, there is much greater likelihood that the influence of those team members who were involved in developing the agreement will be decisive.

Internal Agency Dynamics

However, if the implementation requires an agency-wide change in goals or procedures, there are further issues facing the consensus process team as they try to bring about buy-in from the entire staff. Any complex organization has its own internal politics. There are numerous centers of influence – often quite different from the official lines of authority indicated on an organizational chart. Many leaders, may rely on the authority of their positions and simply assume that staff will follow the directives for change that they issue. Leadership working in a more collaborative manner could approach these groups in the spirit of participatory planning by identifying and addressing staff concerns instead of assuming compliance. This approach would help broaden understanding and support for a negotiated agreement.

Another way of approaching the task would be to initiate an internal change management process, if warranted by the agreement’s requirements. Such an effort could take into account the complexity of the largely informal networks within an agency as well as its chartered hierarchical structure. This could also support the efforts of the handful of staff who were included in the consensus building process as they work with their peers. There are many types of facilitated change management approaches, but the most effective recognize that the whole system of the organization, representing every level of staff, needs to be involved.

A design principle for a consensus process could thus aim at securing a commitment from each implementing agency that it will undertake efforts at comprehensive internal education to obtain buy-in from all relevant program staff. Follow-through, of course, would be voluntary, but the entire consensus group would have been involved in identifying this potential problem and discussing ways of dealing with it. At present, there are many consensus agreements that have not recognized or dealt with this problem.


Given the inevitability of changes in leadership, continuity of commitment to implementation over time is just as important and just as difficult. One problem is that changes brought about by electoral politics can result in a comprehensive house-cleaning that would sweep away top leadership as well as staff being groomed as their successors. While lower level staff would continue, they might be working in agencies that are suddenly required to reflect drastically different policies, perhaps stemming from a change in the philosophy of government itself. At the national level, we’ve seen exactly this in the shifts from Clinton to Bush to Obama. Similar changes have taken place at all other levels of government.

I worked on one consensus effort that took a couple of years to produce a negotiated plan relating to long-term changes in land use policy. As time went on, there was concern to get the plan ratified by a key appointed board before the next election, when it seemed certain the entire membership of the board would be replaced. It really didn’t make much difference, though, if the board approved the plan prior to that political shift or not. Since long-term implementation was required, the next change of administration, whenever it occurred, would call commitment to the agreement into question.

Every consensus process has to be designed with such political dynamics in mind. Changes in agency personnel, in particular, can be shaped much more decisively by politics than by routine turnover or retirement. Political changes, though, are hard to predict and beyond the capacity of most consensus processes to address. Focusing on the impact of personnel changes through attention to efforts that agency leadership can address under current political conditions is one important strategy. That needs to be augmented by consideration of the uncertainty about larger policy shifts – and attendant personnel changes – that could undermine agreements. The answer may lie more in adjusting agreement terms to reflect a realistic political assessment and provide for contingencies when major changes occur.

Bill Leach has accurately captured the need for both buy-in across all staff levels and continuity of commitment of an agency charged with implementing terms of a consensus agreement. His presentation makes a significant contribution by drawing these issues together in a key principle of consensus building design, one that is often overlooked. However difficult the issues may be to deal with in practice, it is essential that they become standard considerations in structuring a collaborative public policy process.

References cited:

1. Kenneth J. Meier and Laurence J. O’Toole, 2006. Political Control versus Bureaucratic Values. Public Administration Review 66 (2): 177-192.
2. Julia M. Wondollek and Steven L. Yaffe. 1997. Sustaining the Success of Collaborative Partnerships. Ann Arbor: Ecosystems Management Initiative, University of Michigan.
Seth Tuler and Thomas Webler. 1999. Voices from the Forest. Society and Natural Resources 12 (5): 437-453.

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