Why Certify Public Policy Mediators?

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In his keynote address at the 2009 conference of the Association for Conflict Resolution, Wallace Warfield discussed the difficulty of attempting to certify mediators when the role itself has become a moving target. Pinning down a set of qualifications and certifying competence based on a single definition of practice could have the effect of stifling innovation in a dynamic field.

Numerous models of practice have evolved, each redefining the practice and emphasizing different skill sets. There are evaluative and facilitative styles of approaching dispute settlement, problem-solving and transformative models, as well as methods for dealing with identity-based and cross-cultural conflict, to mention just a few.

Mediators in the public policy field have adapted the practice not only to new thinking within the profession but also to new demands from conveners, stakeholders and the wider public. From an initial focus on mediation of isolated disputes, practitioners moved to policy formation, rule-making, planning and the facilitation of collaborative approaches to complicated regional, even global problems.

While basic elements of the impartial mediator role persist through all these adaptations, the field has also embraced influences from many other sources. Public involvement, participatory planning, organizational development, change management, among many others, have provided techniques for reaching agreement and finding common direction among stakeholders on larger scales through innovative group processes, like Open Space Technology, Future Search and Appreciative Inquiry. Mediation and conflict resolution practitioners have also added new dimensions of understanding to these fields. There is a rich exchange going on among them that will continue to serve as a source of innovation in the field.

Many mediators may find such changes and influences completely irrelevant to their work, and that’s to be expected. The world of conflict and agreement-seeking looks very different to a mediator handling hundreds of court-referred cases a year, each demanding resolution in a single session, and a public policy mediator who might be managing a handful of projects, each involving dozens of parties, extensive public participation and lasting six months to a couple of years.

Yet a movement toward general certification covering all types of mediation persists. It has produced several attempts to define the essential skills of a mediator and a lot of debate over methods for evaluating and testing those skills. Each of these efforts has produced interesting lists identifying the most important knowledge, skills and abilities required for effectiveness in this demanding field.

One such effort of the 1990’s came out of a project jointly sponsored by the Hewlett Foundation and the National Institute for Dispute Resolution. Known as the Test Design Project, it produced Performance-Based Assessment: A Methodology for Use in Selecting, Training and Evaluating Mediators. The report proposed general measures of competence for mediators as well as a methodology for performance-based assessments as predictors of successful practice.

These are the qualities proposed by the report as those “likely to be needed most to perform the most common and essential tasks of a mediator”:

  • Investigation – Effectiveness in identifying and seeking out pertinent information.

  • Empathy – Conspicuous awareness and consideration of the needs of others.

  • Impartiality – Effectively maintaining a neutral stance between the parties and avoiding undisclosed conflicts of interest or bias.

  • Generating options – Pursuit of collaborative solutions and generation of ideas and proposals consistent with case facts and workable for opposing parties.

  • Generating agreements – Effectiveness in moving parties toward finality and in “closing” agreement.

  • Managing the interaction – Effectiveness in developing strategy, managing the process, and coping with conflicts between clients and representatives.

  • Substantive knowledge – Adequate competence in the issues and type of dispute to facilitate communication, help parties develop options, and alert parties to relevant legal information.

This list could be expanded to include skills in communication, cultural diversity, negotiation, process skills and many others. But it represents an effort to find the common denominator that can apply in all settings where conflict resolution is facilitated by a mediator. Its success in doing so, however, only underscores the limiting nature of a certification process intended to cover the entire field.

The underlying model for this set of competencies is one of the resolution of disputes. That might seem obvious enough for a field that’s been identified as “conflict resolution” or “alternative dispute resolution.” In fact, though, as often discussed in this blog, the public policy field has more diverse needs for the services of mediators and facilitators of consensus building processes. Those needs have reshaped public policy practice to such an extent that the resolution of disputes is no longer the only goal.

As Bernard Mayer points out in Staying with Conflict, people often need impartial help to engage with each other constructively over the long term in situations of conflict that cannot be resolved with finality through a single agreement. There may not be any dispute at all but rather a complex problem or condition that requires collaboration for management over time. This is especially true of the so-called wicked problems that likely transcend the authority of any single agency and can only be dealt with by collaborative efforts among multiple institutions, often combining the public, private and NGO sectors.

In recent years, this need has pushed far beyond dispute resolution into the field of collaborative governance. Public agencies are recognizing more and more that delivery of services and other public functions require collaborative networks of public, private and non-profit groups. Donald Kettl and other observers have been dubbed this the era of networked governance, and professional expertise is often needed to help produce agreements for collaborative action.

Under the policies of the Obama Administration, numerous constituencies around the country as well as internal activists within government agencies have been pushing to make the work of federal agencies more transparent to the public. Participatory and collaborative efforts are important components of this Open Government Initiative, and opportunities should expand greatly for practitioners skilled in consensus building.

These are long-term trends that will pull public policy mediators and facilitators into new forms of practice that we can’t now predict.

In the face of so much dynamism, general certification on the basis of a narrow conflict resolution model can only serve to limit the imagination of practitioners. It could also quickly become irrelevant as the demands of evolving needs force new adaptations. It’s true, of course, that a core of skills in working with groups to resolve differences and build consensus will always be essential. But these basic tools are constantly being added to. The needs for quality control of specific forms of mediation can be met within the context of programs requiring just those skills.

Certification programs to meet these more limited needs are already in existence and serve an important need for such specialized areas of practice as court-related ADR, farm debt and foreclosure, mortgage finance or consumer issues. The needs of many other fields for practitioners with specialized knowledge are met by competitive review of experience and track record without resort to standardized certification. States have generally chosen not to create general certification requirements but instead have authorized rosters of mediators who meet certain training criteria.

Requirements like these make sense, but trying to certify all practitioners under a universal set of qualifications would be counterproductive in the public policy field.

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