What is mediator power and how does it operate in collaborative governance and public policy? I pose this question after reading the current issue of Conflict Resolution Quarterly (Vol. 26, No. 4). This collection of scholarly articles challenges basic concepts of mediation and calls for a searching reconsideration of its definition and practice.
The contributions differ greatly in methods and conclusions as to specifics, but I’d like to focus on one subject several of them explore: the power of the mediator to influence the outcome of a consensus building process.
The more radical criticisms in this collection claim that the practice of mediation sometimes turns the conventional concept of a mediator on its head. Instead of conforming to the ideal type of neutral servant of the parties, mediators may undermine stakeholder independence and facilitate outcomes primarily influenced by the most powerful interests in the room. Or they may follow more personal motives and use the tools at their disposal to direct and pressure parties into agreements that may not be in their best interests.
The essays raise key questions about the impact of mediators that do need attention, especially the clash between the theory and practice of mediation. With respect to the public policy field, however, the scenarios strike me as overstating the power of mediators and oversimplifying the considerable power of conveners and the parties themselves. (Rachel Goldberg’s essay is an exception, as it deals entirely with this field. I’ll explore her very helpful ideas in a separate post.)
In many cases, for example, it is the convener of a policy process who provides financial support, initially frames the issues, plays a major role in the selection of participants and organizes the process for selecting the mediator. The mediator’s influence comes more from a successful and adroit balancing of the power and interests of all the actors than from the possession of potentially coercive power. And that balancing would not be possible without the trust of the convener and stakeholders.
In my experience, then, trust of the parties, built up over time, is the most important source of mediator influence, but it is fragile and can be lost in a moment.
The participants in a collaborative policy project have usually experienced such a high level of conflict over the issues that they do not trust themselves to reach agreement without the help of independent guidance. They need someone without a hidden agenda or personal stake in the final decisions, someone who can be counted on to treat everyone fairly.
They expect and demand that the mediator will actively assist them in focusing on those areas where agreement may be possible, avoid detours into unresolvable past issues and check unproductive discussion. Being able to trust a mediator to do this is an important reason behind their participation. It’s a key sign that they can trust the process itself.
Without that trust, public policy mediators will not be effective. During a typical process, they have many opportunities to develop the relationships with stakeholders that are part of trust building. But the parties also need to see consistency in mediator performance and fairness throughout the meetings that are the heart of collaborative policy work.
Trust opens a door for mediator influence, but it does not create a power to coerce or control. What comes with trust is an openness on the part of stakeholders to mediator ideas for resolving especially difficult problems. They can accept these ideas as honest efforts to move the process forward that are free of hidden agendas. As soon as any participant senses that a mediator is, in fact, pushing an agenda or building pressure to force agreement more favorable to other parties, the trust is lost – not only in the mediator but very likely in the whole process.
The public policy mediator thus walks a fine line. One of my colleagues compares the situation to a high wire act without the net. The focus has to be on maintaining balance rather than on dominating the stakeholders.
I realize that the public policy field presents a very different situation for mediators than other types of practice. Two-party mediations in which individuals speak only for themselves and which take place in a very short timeframe give far more prominence to the mediator role than does the typical public policy process – with its large number of parties working over a long period of time in a highly dynamic political setting .
Hopefully, we’ll see more research and dialogue about the variations in the mediator role in each of the major fields of practice. The power and influence of the mediator should no longer be discussed as if research from one field of practice can be transferred to any of the other fields. The distinctive conditions in each one have to be considered carefully before reaching broad conclusions about the profession as a whole.