How Voluntary is Public Policy Consensus Building?

Image Credit: Ewe Degiampietro –

Voluntary participation is an essential dimension of mediation, consensus-building and the many other forms of collaborative public policy – at least in theory. But even with so basic a part of the concept of collaboration as its voluntary nature, the realities of practice can depart sharply from the ideal.

Julia Wondollek, co-author of Making Collaboration Work, has taken a close look at this issue in her recent article at Conflict Resolution Quarterly, A Crack in the Foundation? Revisiting ECR’s [Environmental Conflict Resolution’s] Voluntary Tenet. She traces the evolution of practice from its early days in the mid 1970s, when the emphasis was primarily on mediation, to the present expansion of the field to include many other forms of collaborative work. She argues that as these changes occurred, the principle of voluntarism often slipped to the background.

Practitioners know how true this is, and anyone trying to understand collaborative practice needs to look carefully at the experience Wondollek summarizes. When the public policy field consisted primarily of dispute resolution practice, voluntary participation was an essential part of the type of case deemed most appropriate for the use of mediation. It’s useful to review that ideal while recognizing that it applies these days to a relatively small percentage of cases that use consensus building techniques.

The Model of Voluntary Environmental Conflict Resolution

In the classic environmental mediation scenario, parties have been engaged in disputing activities, usually litigation, for some time and decide on their own to try mediation. Litigation costs have been mounting, a record of judicial outcomes has produced mixed results, the decision in this case seems unpredictable – and perhaps the parties agree that it’s time to get a costly problem out of the way and move on.

The parties agree to mediate entirely for their own motives and in hope of achieving a better or at least more timely resolution than litigation can provide. Ideally, they also agree on a cost-sharing formula and a joint process for selecting a mediator.

The issues in dispute have been refined and narrowed over time, and the parties necessary to agreement are all at the table. Consensus is the only decision rule possible because resolution requires agreement among all the parties in order to achieve finality and end the litigation.

That model provided an ideal of practice, but mediators and facilitators gradually took on many assignments that required a much different approach than that of classic mediation. The basic methods of building consensus were applied in settings like planning, visioning, dialogue on policy formulation and collaborative approaches to public participation. Public agencies and influential leaders frequently convened these processes, many of which dealt with broad policy questions rather than the more narrowly defined issues associated with mediation and dispute resolution.

The Spectrum of Choice

As Wondolleck describes it, there is a spectrum of participation choices, one that embraces more than the simple opposition of voluntary vs. mandatory. Although she devotes a lot of her paper to the contrast between voluntary and mandatory participation, the most common situations fall in between. This is the range she describes – and I’ve elaborated on some of the scenarios based on my own experience.

Willing Choice

As in the classic environmental conflict resolution scenario, the potential participants freely consider involvement in relation to their own interests and goals. They make an informed choice on the assumption that the process will be managed impartially and fairly for all.

Begrudged Choice

Often the choice about participation is influenced, or even determined, by numerous factors that every interested party must keep in mind. Participation becomes less a voluntary choice than a strategic necessity. Even if the group is not interested in collaboration, its participation may be essential for the group to preserve its own influence over the eventual policy decision. Consider these scenarios.

  • A public agency convenes a collaborative process, even if it’s already made up its mind on an issue, because the pressure of active interest groups demands it. Given the ability of groups to intervene to stall or kill a plan or project, attempts to exclude them only provoke active opposition. The agency may begrudge both the convening and participation and show little commitment to meaningful collaboration.

  • A powerful convener brings together all the major interest groups to reach a collaborative decision. Inevitably, all the groups will feel obliged to participate because they do not want to get on the wrong side of an influential political figure. They may also take part because they need the convener’s support on a different issue that is the true focus of their concern. The quality of participation under these circumstances will be uneven at best.

  • A collaborative process on any important issue can become a “must-do” for an interest group simply because it has to keep track of everything that could have an impact on its goals. Even if the group doesn’t believe in collaboration, its leaders may feel compelled to participate in order to protect the group’s interests.

Choice Directed by Someone Else

Agency leaders decide to participate for various reasons but leave participation to a staff member. Sometimes this person understands collaboration and has skills to participate effectively. Just as often, though, the agency may assign someone by rank or availability who has little understanding of the issue or interest in taking part. This also can happen in a non-governmental organization or business group, especially those with national or international scope. The participant may not have the enthusiasm or commitment of leadership.

No Choice

During ongoing litigation, the judge can order a mediation attempt and impose a strict timeline for reaching agreement. The participants have to make the effort, whether or not they have any commitment to negotiated resolution. Several factors work against a collaborative solution in this context. For one, the parties in public policy disputes likely have a history of conflict, and the filing of litigation has probably worsened the tension and ill-will among them. Further, they have already explicitly chosen litigation rather than negotiated resolution as their best strategic option, usually because past experience has convinced them that the different sides are too far apart to reach agreement. In these circumstances negotiation is likely to be adversarial rather than collaborative. The parties confront each other with competing proposals, revealing nothing about the interests and concerns they’re trying to satisfy. They may achieve settlement in this way, but collaboration will have had nothing to do with it.

Wondolleck’s concept of the spectrum of choice is an extremely useful way of thinking about the nature of participation. A completely free choice to participate ensures a match of interests and commitment to the collaborative process. In the great majority of cases, though, the choice to participate is heavily influenced by factors that may have little to do with the appeal of a collaborative solution or, at times, even the immediate policy question at the heart of the process. That reality can result in uneven quality of participation and seriously compromise the outcome.

But that’s not the whole story. Collaboration can be successful even if it begins under coercive conditions. Even the most reluctant members of a group can become ardent advocates of collaboration if the process proves to be managed fairly, responds to the needs of all the parties and produces useful results. Purely voluntary choice to enter the process may be less important than the actual experience of collaborative work.


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