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From Confrontation to Cooperation: Citizen Engagement and Consensus Building in Public Policies

From Confrontation to Cooperation: Citizen Engagement and Consensus Building in Public Policies

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On both sides of the Atlantic, local jurisdictions have increasingly sought to engage the public through collaborative processes in the making and implementing of controversial policies. For European communities, where the processes of consensus-building and deliberative democracy are relatively new, the American experience provides some lessons.
On both sides of the Atlantic, local jurisdictions have increasingly sought to engage the public through collaborative processes in the making and implementing of controversial policies. For European communities, where the processes of consensus-building and deliberative democracy are relatively new, the American experience provides some lessons.

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Published by: German Marshall Fund of the United States on Aug 18, 2010
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Summary: On both sides of theAtlantic, local jurisdictions haveincreasingly sought to engage the public through collaborativeprocesses in the making andimplementing of controversial poli-cies. For European communities,where the processes of consensus-building and deliberative democracyare relatively new, the Americanexperience provides some lessons.As a CDP fellow, Iolanda Romanospent four months asking Americanmediators and facilitators how theyface the challenges of participa- tory processes, with a particularfocus on how their practices and
outcomes relate to and inuence
decision making processes inpublic policies. She also observeda number of public events thatutilized these practices. In thisbrief, she describes the result of  that effort and then puts forth anumber of recommendations forher fellow mediators as well as forpolicymakers seeking to effectivelyengage the public.
Comparative Domestic Policy Program
Policy Brie 
A ew years ago, in Italy’s Piedmont region,a collaborative process was held to choose alocation or a solid waste incinerator withinthe Province o Torino, a large region o more than ty municipalities.
Ater oneand a hal years o participatory processes,the process itsel was deemed a success, asthe entire 45-member advisory committeeunanimously agreed on the ranking o theproposed sites. A common, shared solutionwas at hand and it was ready or imple-mentation. However, in the meantime, thegovernmental agencies involved changedtheir decision-making process and theirpriorities on where to put the unpopularincinerator, and had instead adopted adierent scenario on where to build it. Thismeant that the ormer vice president o theProvince o Torino, who had pushed orand publicly supported the 18-month longparticipatory process, could no longer guar-antee the implementation o the commit-tee’s solution. Because o this change, hesuered a big drop in credibility which didlasting damaging to his reputation anddissolved his store o political capital.During my our-month long ellowship atthe German Marshall Fund, I ocused my research on how mediators ace the peculiarchallenges o participatory processes in theUnited States, particularly with regard tocontroversial policy issues.
In conductinginterviews with American mediators, Ihighlighted this case as an example, tryingto understand what might have been doneto avoid this ailure.The lessons gleaned rom this research canbe summarized by one o veteran mediatorLarry Susskind’s
adages: “the reasons orailure are always in the beginning o aprocess.” Most o the time, agreementsnegotiated through mediation aren’t imple-mented because not enough care was takenin designing the process, including selec-tion o participants and joint developmento the group’s mandate, to ensure that a
From Confrontation to Cooperation: Citizen Engagementand Consensus Building in Public Policies
Lessons from the U.S. for Italy and Europe
by Iolanda Romano
1744 R Street NWWashington, DC 20009T 1 202 683 2650F 1 202 265 1662E ino@gmus.org
April 15, 2010
Iolanda Romano Ph.D. is president and chief executive ofcer of Avventura Urbana, a company based in Torino, Italy that focuses
on public engagement and cross-sector collaborative processes on urban planning, environment, social policies, and related issues.As a fellow of the German Marshall Fund’s (GMF) Comparative Domestic Policy Program, Dr. Romano spent four months exploring 
how mediators and facilitators face the challenges of participatory processes in the United States, particularly on controversialissues, with a focus on how these practices and outcomes relate to and inuence decision-making processes in the public policyarena. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of GMF.
Luigi Bobbio and Avventura Urbana, “Non Riutarti di Scegliere,” (“Don’t Refuse to Choose”) Participative process to site the wasteincinerator and landll in the province of Torino.
I would like to thank all my interviewees, 50 very smart practitioners in the Washington, DC area, as well as in California, Colorado,and Massachusetts that have given me their precious time to help me understand how they face their challenges. A particular
 thanks to the person who has helped me most in shaping this research, who has turned out to be a key factor and a “lightening interlocutor,” Prof. John Forester, from Cornell University, Ithaca, NY.
Larry Susskind is the founder of the Consensus Building Institute and one of the most respected experts on consensus-building andmediation worldwide.
Comparative Domestic Policy Program
Policy Brie 
solution will be enacted by the public agencies. Unortunately, thereis not a simple and linear solution to this problem, but some o thelessons learned rom the American experience oer an enhancedtoolbox o techniques that could be adapted to the Italian contextand which, had they been employed, may have made a dierence inthe case cited above as well as other similar scenarios.
Collaborative processes: A possible defnition
There is no unanimous denition or the term “collaborativeprocess.” Instead, there is a broad range o processes which allunder various headings, but in general, these processes have incommon 1) a complex and oten controversial public issue; 2)a decision-making process organized in a way in which all theinterests aected by the decision are represented; and 3) a struc-ture designed to generate a commonly agreed-upon solution tothe problem through extended collaboration.The town hall meetings on health care reorm, held throughoutthe United States during the summer o 2009, provide a clearexample o what cannot be dened as a collaborative process.These meetings addressed a very complex issue o great impor-tance to many people. The meetings were structured in a way that encouraged argument and polarization instead o acili-tating civil and constructive dialogue, and generally limitedpeople’s participation to just a “one shot” event instead o engaging them in a process with a broader perspective over time.Collaborative process techniques generally range across a spec-trum: at one end, are processes aimed at creating a neutral spaceor better interaction on a dicult public issue, by using toolsthat allow deliberation among participants.
At the other endo the spectrum are those practices specically aimed at solvinga problem through a mediated approach. Here, collaborativeprocesses have the goal o building consensus among opposingparties in order to come to a common solution, by using analternative approach to dispute resolution than the traditionallitigation or lawsuit.
Lessons learned
Practitioners and policy makers in Italy (and indeed, in Europegenerally) use deliberative democracy in local policymakers inmuch the same way as their peers in the United States, with thesame goals and to tackle the same challenges. More and moregovernmental agencies at all levels eel that they can achieve betterpolicy results i policies are designed ater a consultative processdesigned to gain advice, input, and critical observations rom avariety o interest groups potentially aected by the decision.In most cases, the eorts undertaken are aimed at improving thedecision-making process, but most do not get to infuence theimplementation with their outcomes: no commitment is madeat the beginning o the consultative process as to how the resulto a dialogue might aect the policy makers’ nal decision and itsimplementation. Consequently, in both the United States and Italy,this lack o accountability vis-à-vis the policy creates rustrationamong both participants and practitioners.Despite these similarities between the countries, public consensusbuilding is an area in which Italy, which still lacks a culture o consensus building in governmental structures, has much to learnrom the United States. The American practice o public mediationrests on a strong theoretical background and a sound educationaland training system. Public mediation practices rely on a juridicaland legislative base which provides governmental bodies, likeederal, state, or municipal agencies, with the structural rameworkneeded to make the application o collaborative practices possibleand their outcomes binding. American governmental agencies usea variety o processes which oer a wide spectrum o applicationsand potential that would be unimaginable in Italy at the presenttime.The main challenges in designing an eective collaborative processare linked with three main conditions. First, design a process thatis truly representative and inclusive o all points o view. Second,design a collaborative work process within the group to managethe adversarial attitude o the people around the table and createand hold a space or open constructive dialogue. And third, designthe processes so that they produce sustainable outcomes.
Lesson #1: Set Good Conditions to Start With
The rst lesson is that there is no better way to address theproblem o achieving a sustainable outcome than ocusing onthe process design rom the outset. It is important to dene inadvance, as much as possible, all aspects and conditions o thecollaborative process in order to troubleshoot potential pitallsthat might arise both during and ater the process is completed.
The term “deliberation” means a decision-making process which develops through discussion.
To Achieve Sustainable Outcomes, Get Clarity o Intentions
While inclusion o as many perspectives as possible can be criticalto a successul collaborative process, the U.S. experience in media-tion has shown that a basic condition or success is “selecting thestakeholder participants on the basis o their willingness to nda solution to the problem.
On every policy issue, the stake-holders are going to array along a spectrum with a center, whichrepresents those with a “centripetal pull” toward the search orcommon ground, and the ringes, which represent those with a“centriugal pull” in all other directions, generally away rom acommon solution. The ringes tend to have very little interest indiscussion and don’t believe that a common solution is even aremote possibility. Where mediators can be eective is in creatinga “political center” on the issue at hand and to create the oppositecentripetal politics by choosing stakeholders who can “withstandthe pull rom the end o the spectrum.”
To Achieve Sustainable Outcomes, Build Support aroundthe Process Itsel 
As to what a mediator can do to reinorce the outcome’s long-term sustainability, mediation expert Frank Blechman
calls ora ocus on soliciting “eed-orward” (rather than “eedback”), inorder to build overall political support or the process. That is,mediators must conront head-on all “behind-the-scenes” conver-sations which accompany every process ocused on an importantpublic policy challenge, either at its very beginning or throughoutthe course o the process. In doing so, mediators must try to linkthese disparate views actively into the process, by creating a clearand direct connection between the participants in the deliberativeprocess and those who have a vested interest and an institutionalcommitment to the same issue.One typical tactic is the choice to allow a representative o theseinstitutions to have a seat in the stakeholders group, as mediatorSusan Podziba
did with the Chelsea (Massachusetts) Charterproject. When she ormed the advisory committee tasked withwriting a new city charter or Chelsea, a city o 40,000 north o Boston, ater years o corruption and receivership, she suggestedthat it should have three seats reserved or members o themunicipal council. A wise decision, as many o the attempts todisrupt the deliberative charter process during its course camerom within the city council itsel. And the response was that, aterevery attack, a group o ve committee members would attendmunicipal council sessions to deend the process, and it worked.
I You Want Sustainable Outcomes, Set Feasible Goals
In conducting a confict assessment, mediators generally ask thepeople who are deeply amiliar with the problem, or who havea stake in it, what specically the deliberative process shouldaddress. The scope o the process is something with which allimportant stakeholders must agree, but this is not an easy goal toreach, as an example cited by mediator Juliana Birkho 
illustrates.In this example, a Canadian province brought in Birkho to guidethem in developing a Forest Management Plan. In the early stageso the process, Birkho investigated the possibility or a consensusbuilding process, but quickly realized that it would not be possiblein the current climate. The most extreme environmentalistsreused to sit at the same table with the orestry company repre-sentatives. So she sought a more easible alternative, and ormeda smaller group which included the orestry company and thoseenvironmental groups which were willing to participate. They inturn ocused their attention on the conservation area maps whichdelineate the lands o-limits to orestry extraction, ollowingprovincial criteria, and discovered that there were large areas o preservation which contained species which were not particu-larly endangered, while the most endangered species were in very small sections o conservation areas. In essence, i their aim wasto conserve the environment over the long-term, they were notprotecting the right pieces o land. The group then began negotia-tions to make tradeos between the orestry company’s property and the conserved land, and developed new maps with a moretargeted and thus more eective conservation strategy.Perhaps most importantly, the deliberative process led to muchbetter relationships between stakeholders.
To Engage Stakeholders, Narrow the Defnition o the Problem
 In addressing value conficts, most mediators warn that it iscritical to be especially careul in raming the purpose or the
Comparative Domestic Policy Program
Policy Brie 
Quote from Peter Adler, President of the Keystone Center, a leading American organizationengaged in public mediation.
Frank Blechman, an experienced mediator in the Washington, DC area, formerly directed the
George Mason University Institute of Conict Analysis.
Susan Podziba is a mediator with signicant experience in regulatory negotiation in
Massachusetts and at the federal level.
Juliana Birkhoff is senior associate mediator at Resolve (www.resolv.org), an organization basedin Washington, DC engaged in environmental disputes across the United States.

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