Summary of "Constituencies and Public Information"

Summary of

Constituencies and Public Information

By Susan L. Carpenter and W.J.D. Kennedy

This Article Summary written by: Tanya Glaser, Conflict Research Consortium

Citation: Susan L. Carpenter and W.J.D. Kennedy, Constituencies and Public Information, (San Francisco: Jossey- Bass, 1988) pp. 46-51, 168-180.

Carpenter and Kennedy discuss the importance of building constituency support and informing the public to the successful management of public disputes. The authors use the case of the Water Roundtable to illustrate their findings.

The Water Roundtable negotiations were a set of complex, protracted, multiparty negotiations over water supplies for a major western city. Participants represented environmental interests, urban and suburban groups, business interests from both the eastern and western regions of the state, agricultural groups, and western local governments. Negotiations proceeded remarkably well, and a mutually acceptable agreement was reached and implemented.

Effective Constituencies

Constituents are those people "to whom representatives are responsible and whose support is required if agreements reached in negotiations are to be implemented."[p. 169] The authors describe several factors which affect constituency support for their representatives. These factors include the size of the group and the breadth of views within the group, method of decision making used within the group, how effectively group members communicate with each other, the influence of outside organizations, and the constituents' familiarity with the practices and principles of negotiation.

Carpenter and Kennedy give eight suggestions for building constituency support.

  1. Make sure that all the interests groups are represented, even it that means bringing more participants into the negotiations.
  2. Make sure that the groups and their representatives establish regular and effective means of communication.
  3. Make sure that the decision making process within the group is clear and acceptable. Respond promptly to disagreements within a group.
  4. Task groups are useful ways to include more constituents directly in the process.
  5. Constituents may need to be educated about the principles and process of negotiations. They may, for instance, be unfamiliar with the practice of step-by-step negotiations and with the principles of good faith negotiation.
  6. Pace the negotiation process to allow representatives adequate time to meet with and inform their constituents.
  7. Finally, the authors note that pacing and communication are particularly important during the end stages of negotiation, when the push to settle may drive the representative ahead of his or her constituents.

The Water Roundtable negotiations included representatives from the Environmental Alliance and the Western Water Advisory Council. Both groups had constituents with widely varying perspectives, but succeeded in uniting to support their respective representative. The Western Water Advisory Council met frequently. They used consensual decision making so that minority views were not excluded. They drew on outside experts to gain the needed understanding of technical issues. The Environmental Alliance was a coalition of seventeen environmental groups, some of which took very hardline stances and lacked experience with cooperative problem solving. The Alliance also used consensus decision making. Coalition representatives met frequently with the Alliance leaders to review progress. Progress within the Roundtable negotiations and the fear of litigation helped motivate constituent support.

Informing the Public

Carpenter and Kennedy note that "an uninformed public is likely to make up its own facts, and the misunderstandings become new, separate conflicts that make the original problem more difficult to solve."[p. 177] They discuss several ways to keep the public informed without undermining the privacy needed for successful negotiations. As noted above, it is important to include representatives of all interest groups in the negotiation process itself. Members of the public may be brought in as official observers, or may be appointed to subcommittees. Public meeting are informative, and offer opportunities for interested individuals to offer comments and suggestions to the participants. The negotiation organizers may also hold briefing sessions with interested groups. Direct mailings can also be effective.

The authors suggest three basic principles which should guide any dealings with the public. First, acknowledge the public's right to know, and the importance of their concerns. Second, work with existing situations and institutions to disseminate information, for example, by scheduling meetings to accommodate local publishing deadlines. Third, expect public skepticism and opposition. These are reasonable responses to being excluded from negotiations. However they may be overcome in time if thorough and accurate information is consistently supplied. The Water Roundtable negotiations were closed to the public, but involved a very active public information campaign. Press releases and conferences were held after each negotiation session. The Roundtable used mass mailings and held public meetings across the state. Interested organizations received informational presentations. Agency managers and technical experts participated in various task groups for the Roundtable. Task group participants then disseminated negotiation within their home organizations.