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Three Pieces of Advice

Mara Elana Burstein is a Consultant at the University of Utah’s Environmental Dispute Resolution (EDR) Program and also serves on the board of directors for the Los Angeles Sustainability Collaborative. Below is an article she wrote and that has been featured in the University of Utah’s EDR blog.


“Starting complex negotiations without an assessment is like performing surgery without any diagnostic tests.” This is one of the jewels of knowledge in Howard S. Bellman and Susan L. Podziba’s article titled,Public Policy Mediation: Best Practices for a Sustainable World. This excellent read covers not only best practices but also, critical challenges, reasons to be optimistic moving forward, and the benefits of public policy mediation.


Public policy mediation is as a “…method for securing actionable agreements among a broad range of interested parties who participate as negotiators, often on behalf of constituencies. It creates a forum for deliberative negotiations among government, representative stakeholders, and the general public.” This type of mediation has been used by all levels of government to develop plans, charters, settlements, etc. that reflect complex decision-making. Here is a summary of best practices and practical strategies for developing policy that values, and is enhanced by, stakeholder participation.


  1. Conduct preliminary assessments prior to convening negotiations.


Avoiding a thorough assessment can inhibit success. “The assessment phase, during which policy mediators interview relevant parties to understand and help organize the issues, learn the history of past efforts to address the situation, and identify the dynamics likely to affect negotiations, is critical.” This step can sometimes protect government officials and other stakeholders from predictable failure. Additionally, these initial interviews can help mediators educate participants on and build confidence in the process, as well as identify stakeholders and key issues.


  1. Develop and use participant-determined procedural ground rules.


The second step is to establish ground rules to clarify expectations and potentially preempt procedural conflicts throughout the process. The group should specify their definition of consensus, negotiator’s and mediators’ roles and responsibilities, the extent of commitment required by parties through final agreements, as well as how to approach the media. Establishing ground rules can help groups reach consensus with perceived opponents before the more complex and important negotiations begin.


  1. Maintain mediator independence.


Typically, government officials hire consultants to accommodate their needs. However, mediators “provide a forum for an exchange of ideas and for complex negotiations to solve a festering problem,” and therefore, do not just serve one party. Additionally, because the government usually covers the cost of mediators, stakeholders commonly presume that they are biased. “Mediators often must expend a great deal of effort to overcome such assumptions… and build confidence in the fairness of the process.”

In conclusion, policy mediation conducted using these best practices “can yield plans, regulations, policies, and constitutions that reflect the wisdom and unique characteristics of those who will be governed by them.”

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