Rules of Engagement

The very nature of public policy and natural resource management involves conflict, and often the parties involved in such disagreements are not only distrustful of one another, they can be distrustful of any “third party” mediator or facilitator that is brought in as an “impartial” agent to help find solutions and outcomes to the dispute.   In addition, when an agency or governmental entity is the sponsor of a third party neutral, other participants in the dispute can be suspicious that the agency may have undue influence over the facilitator or mediator.

Obviously one way to avoid one party in a dispute having undue influence over a facilitator or mediator is to have all parties share in the payment of his or her services.  However, this is often not possible due to financial constraints of the parties involved.   Consequently other means of assuring the integrity of the facilitator’s involvement in public policy collaborative processes have evolved in the field of Appropriate/Alternative Dispute Resolution, and in order to clarify Watershed Initiative, LLC’s position on these issues, the following discussion of our “Rules of Engagement” has  been developed. 

The following overview identifies our approach for collaborative processes for which we are contracted.  These Rules of Engagement, while general in nature, define our underlying assumptions and operating principles for the relationships we maintain with all parties involved in a collaborative process, and they reflect our values and modus operandi while providing support to groups engaged in ADR processes.   

These Rules are posted here in order to provide information to all participants and interested parties, and to clarify the relationships that we maintain with multiple interests involved in collaborative public policy and natural resource management disputes. 

Transparency in Communications and Consultancy

We believe that in addition to maintaining neutrality in collaborative processes, it is also important for the facilitator or mediator to maintain transparency in dealing with all parties involved in a dispute or outcomes-based process.   This includes a willingness to share the terms and specifics of our contracts, as well as the nature of our dealings with all participants involved in a collaborative process.

We do honor the confidentiality of participants involved in a collaborative process who want to discuss their views or share information individually through private caucuses, either in person or via phone conferences.   Those conversations can be necessary at times during the formation of alternative solutions to a dispute, or to more fully explore the motivations and reasons for behaviors and positions that become manifest during a facilitated negotiation.  WI’s professionals keep these caucuses in strict confidence.  

At the same time, we encourage parties to consider the benefits of communicating directly with one another during the course of public policy negotiations in order to clarify their goals, understand the goals and needs of the other participants, and begin to find solutions that are acceptable to all of the participants.  Finding the balance between private caucuses and open communications between parties during facilitated negotiations is part of the service we provide to our clients.

Who we define as the client:

We define the “client” as the collaborative process itself.  So, the “table,” or forum, in which all the parties that have a stake in the outcome and are actively engaged in finding collaborative solutions in a facilitated negotiation, is our client.  

While an agency, a municipal government, or an academic institution may be the sponsor of a collaborative process, and often provides funding for our services, we have no interest in becoming an agent for that sponsor’s individual agenda or goals.  Therefore, our allegiance is to the integrity of the collaborative process, not the individual goals of the sponsor that is paying for our services as a third-party neutral.

Assumption of “Good Faith” in Negotiations

We assume that all parties involved in a facilitated negotiation for which we are contracted will engage in “good faith” to find agreement to their disputes.  While we know that this is not true in all cases, our expectation regarding that premise guides our involvement with the disputants and with the process.   Should we have reason to doubt the “good faith” of a participant(s), we will seek opportunities to engage with that party in a discussion of their goals and purposes for participating in the process, and clarify their intent and the outcomes and premises upon which we base our involvement in the process.   

Meeting Agreements and Other Process Tools are negotiated at the beginning of all processes

We work with groups very early to establish “Ground Rules” or “Meeting Agreements” that will help all who are involved in the negotiations or group process act in ways that maximize the group’s effectiveness, and minimize distractions, tangential conversations, and inappropriate or ineffective behaviors.  These Ground Rules articulate the role of the facilitator, the communications modus operandii between participants, and the process tools that will be used by the facilitator (e.g. Agenda, Parking Lot, Time Management, etc.).   And they may also address specific concerns that group members have based on previous interactions with one another.

Decision-Making Methodology

At some point, decisions will have to be made by the group.  Decisions occur at multiple levels, from the the day-to-day decisions about how often or when to meet, when to take breaks, etc., to the major decisions about a proposed solution or outcome that the disputants are considering as a way to manage, or resolve, their dispute.

We work with groups to identify what the best decision-making method may be for them, and we help educate them about the trade-offs involved with each decision-making option they are considering (the effects of using simple majority voting, for instance, or the time involved in reaching consensus on an issue).  Once the group has agreed on its decision-making process, the facilitator is charged with using that process for all decisions the group makes (and groups can agree to use different decision-making processes for different situations—from the lowest level decision to the major decisions that affect the outcome of the dispute).

For more information on these and other issues regarding transparency and the ethics of third party involvement in disputes see: 

[1] Best Practices for Government Agencies Guidelines for Using Collaborative Agreement-Seeking Processes.   Report and Recommendations of the SPIDR Environment/Public Disputes Sector Critical Issues Committeem 1997

[2]  Collaborative Values and Principles:  Guidance for Choosing Technological Tools. 2010 RESOLVE Inc.