Seeking Consensus Through Controversy

Why do we always have to wait for the last hour before something gets done in Washington? No, I take that back, Congress exceeds the deadline by which to decide on important issues so they or The White House pass extensions on laws, such the Transportation Equity Act or the No Child Left Behind Act or even the budget so they by time before a decision has to be made. The stalemate on what to do about the debt ceiling is no exception and just the status quo. While the Democrats and Republicans have been talking there seems to be an impasse, where no one is agreeing with anybody, even on the most basic of issues. It seems that Washington, needs the support and guidance of a neutral third party to resolve these disputes and bring some closure to a number of long standing issues, most importantly today, the debt ceiling.

In public policy dispute resolution, for example, all the interested stakeholders come together with the help of a third party neutral who will assist the stakeholders in reaching consensus.  Public policy dispute resolution provides for a nonpartisan process for resolving public policy disputes, and has proven successful at all levels of government.  In fact, it is emerging as a more effective way of dealing with some of the most polarizing issues.  It leads to innovation, creative solutions and relationship enhancement.  But is that what Democrats and Republicans want?

The National Policy Consensus Center has found that legislators are becoming problem solvers, facilitators and conveners of issues vital to their state. Yet in Washington, D.C., Members of Congress fail each year to come to a consensus on health care, the budget, various re-authorizations and the debt ceiling.

Today, public policy disputes have the potential of polarizing communities with the affect of delaying important decisions on vital issues of public policy, often resulting in diluted policies or no action at all.  Facilitation or mediation helps in resolving some of the high-profile policy disputes and find resolution through controversy and clarity amidst chaos. To assist governments in resolving disputes by and between each other, the disputants need a trusted third party neutral, who is knowledgeable about the issues and the process, while being sensitive to the politics of the day.  A university provides elected leaders with an unbiased academic approach to public policy dispute resolution. Perhaps the President, the Speaker, Senate Majority Leader and their colleagues should turn to a University President or perhaps neutral world leader such as the Prime Minister of Canada or Tony Blair or perhaps co-mediators with former President’s George Bush and Bill Clinton, to help resolve the issues.

Policymakers can avoid making difficult decisions on controversial issues by creating a process by which public policy disputes can be resolved.  Through a facilitated consensual process, issues such as government shutdowns, delayed projects and other missed opportunities can be avoided and we can all move on to other issues to help our nation move forward.

Decisions that are reached collaboratively can result in high-quality outcomes that are easier to implement, receive fewer legal challenges, make better use of available resources, and better serve the public.

Collaboration is not appropriate for all decisions. It is not necessary or recommended to use a formal collaborative process for routine, simple, or urgent decisions. Collaborative processes are often effective when applied to complex policy questions that affect multiple, interdependent interests, where all the diverse parties affected have compelling reasons to engage with one another in a search for a joint policy or program outcome, and where sufficient time and resources are available to support the process.

However, the following conditions help to sustain collaborative processes:

  • Clear Role and Purpose
  • Transparency of Decision-Making
  • Interest-Based Decision-Making
  • Every Effort to Bring Affected Stakeholders into the Process
  • Stakeholders Represents Organized Constituencies
  • Upfront Exploration of Interests
  • Common Understanding of Problems and Joint Fact Finding
  • Policy and Technical Expertise
  • Respectful and Authentic Process
  • Transparency of Products

Washington did not have to wait this long. If the parties talked earlier and learned about the real issues underlying the bigger ones, than perhaps today, we would be talking football instead of debt ceilings. It is time we brought in neutrals to help resolve the bigger issues plaguing our nation.

For more information, please contact Fraser Trebilcock or Daniel Cherrin at

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