Keys to Negotiation 10–Some Collaboration Tips for Complex Problems


Susan K. Driver and Berton Lee Lamb

When, and with whom should you collaborate in complex, multi-party negotiations?  On the one hand, fairness demands including all stakeholders, but on the other hand, involving diverse stakeholders can dilute the process and leave weaker parties at the mercy of stronger ones.  Almost everyone has faced this question.  From our work in multi-party environmental negotiations involving state, local, tribal, and federal governments we have identified a few key tips for effective collaboration.  

Prepare!  Don’t just shoot from the hip.  Multi-party negotiations are especially complicated because of the number of parties, the highly technical nature of the issues,  and the economic, social, and political trade-offs.  Individual parties can envision how their particular interests will be affected, but do not understand the impacts on other stakeholders. The expert negotiator creates a broader perspective.

Preparation must include the following steps:  (1) identifying stakeholders; (2) ascertaining the interests of individual parties; (3) estimating areas of difference and overlap; (4) determining when and where to insert suggestions or bridges, and (5) deciding how to develop possible solutions.

How and when to obtain input.  Although citizen and interest group input is critical, there are often varying levels of understanding of the factual and scientific issues, which can lead to disputes about technical studies, methodologies, data collection, findings, and interpretation of data. One approach is to first convene a group of scientific experts to refine the questions and present those questions to the public for review and comment. Using that initial input from interested parties, the panel of scientists might then be engaged to craft a possible solution. The panel’s policy recommendations would then be subject to debate and collaborative negotiation with the various stakeholders.  Judith Layzer recommended this approach in her 2008 book, Natural Experiments: Ecosystem-based Management and the Environment

 Another approach to obtaining input, is called Joint Fact-Finding.  In JFF the stakeholders work together to first define the questions to be answered and then jointly identify and select the technical experts. Reaching an agreement on the questions to be addressed, the studies to be done, and the technical experts helps eliminate areas of disagreement.  The stakeholders in JFF can also be involved in each phase of the work, i.e. in developing and refining the technical studies and their methodology, monitoring the conduct of the technical studies, and reviewing draft and final reports interpreting the findings. “JFF helps participants agree on the information they need to collect and how gaps or disagreements among technical sources will be handled.  JFF allows stakeholders to build a shared understanding of technical and scientific issues and their implications for policy” The JFF approach is described in greater detail in Karl, Susskind & Wallace in their 2007 article entitled “A Dialogue, Not a Diatribe: Effective Integration of Science and Policy through Joint Fact Finding,” Environment.  We have used the JFF approach in water resources disputes.  These disputes are highly technical.  The JFF approach has been useful, but requires significant attention to supporting and maintaining the process on the part of all stakeholders.

Structuring a Multi-party Negotiation. An important consideration is how to structure the negotiation process when there is a large, diverse group of stakeholders. An initial decision is whether to engage in full collaboration among all interested stakeholders, iterative multi-party negotiations among stakeholders with similar interests, or simultaneous but separate negotiations with different stakeholders.  For example, it may make sense to start the negotiations with a core group who share similar interests and limit their negotiations to the topics they feel are most important until an agreement in principle is reached. Once that agreement in principle is in place, a second negotiation could begin with representatives of the core group and additional stakeholders such as the environmental groups.  This approach can facilitate the negotiations, but care must be taken to ensure that all stakeholders understand when and how they will have meaningful input to the discussions.  We have worked with cases in which important stakeholders feel left out.  Good and continuing communication about process can reduce this problem.

Another example is one in which the parties divide the problem among technical subgroups.  Each technical subgroup is given the charge to decide the questions to be answered and techniques for answering them.  They may be asked to recommend solutions based on the knowledge they have gained from examining their piece of the problem.  Their recommendations are then passed to a committee comprised of all the parties for final approval.  When we have worked within processes like this, we have found that it is important to make sure everyone understands the role of the technical subgroups, their relationship to the larger group, and how the final committee decision will be made.

Conventional wisdom is that more can be accomplished when there are fewer folks at the table.  But limiting the number of parties—especially at the outset—can result in conflict later on.  The considerations we have described here suggest a few of the possible approaches for structuring and managing a multi-party, multi-issue negotiation to ensure that all interested parties have a voice in the decision-making process. In their recent JPART article Kirk Emerson and her colleagues provide a systematic review of a collaborative governance regime that gives more detail about this approach to collaboration.

As we have worked with various approaches such as JFF and technical committees it has become evident that none of these work without the care and attention.  Whatever approach is decided upon, that decision should rest on robust preparation.


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