Dispute System Design and the U.S. Forest System
By Nancy J. Manning
This Article Summary written by: Conflict Research Consortium Staff
Citation: Nancy J. Manring, "Dispute System Design and the U.S. Forest System," Negotiation Journal, vol. 9, no. 1 (January 1993), pp 13-21.
The elements of an effective dispute resolution system include an evaluation of existing dispute resolution procedures, skills development, motivation, resources, and an analysis of the internal and external organizational environments. The Forest Service has developed procedures for directing disputes into the dispute resolution process, and they offer dispute resolution training.
In this essay Manring examines the three remaining three elements. She describes how current organizational changes in the U.S. Forest Service are leading to a more effective dispute system, and how organizational changes can better motivate workers to use negotiation. Manring focuses on three particular organizational changes within the Forest Service: boundary- spanning, education, and reconciling differences.
Boundary-spanning by an organization refers to "the formal and informal mechanisms that develop to link with and obtain information from the external environment."[p. 15] In the case of the Forest Service, boundary-spanning is needed in order for the Forest Service to understand its sociopolitical situation, and so to accurately assess its BATNA (best alternative to a negotiated agreement). Current federal law mandates substantial public involvement in forest planning. Congressional and judicial intervention in forest management is more common. Understanding this context makes negotiation more attractive. Negotiation offers the Forest Service an opportunity to contain conflicts at lower levels within the Service, reduce the risk of judicial or Congressional intervention, and retain a greater degree of control over decision- making. One obstacle to boundary-spanning by an organization is the presence of a strong organizational culture or ideology. Such an ideology can distort members' perception of their situation. Fortunately, the process of negotiation itself helps to break down insular organizational culture. Direct interaction with individuals from outside the organization makes members confront differing interests and concerns, and broadens members' perspectives. Negotiation also presents an opportunity for the organization to convey its needs and interests.
Manring observes that "sharing of success stories is critical to dispel fears and generate wider commitment and support from organization members."[p. 17] The Forest Service faced strategic limitations on its ability to share knowledge of success stories within the Service. Negotiation had been very successful, by Forest Service standards. Negotiations had not resulted in any significant changes from the Service's original management plans. However, the Freedom of Information Act would have made any internal communications regarding these successes available to the general public. Manring found that "senior officials feared that written reports that emphasized how the Forest Service was winning' (this emphasis being necessary to overcome the reluctance of agency officials unfamiliar with negotiations) would jeopardize the win-win' image of dispute resolution and discourage appellants from participating in future negotiations."[p. 17] Manring suggests that successes may be better shared on an informal, verbal level. Another difficulty in educating members about the advantages of negotiation is that the best teacher seems to be experience. Members who have been involved in negotiation often found it to be a transformative experience. Manring suggests using members who have experienced negotiated dispute resolution as proponents within the organization. The Forest Service might also draw on the famous loyalty of its members to the organization's interests. The Forest Service leadership should stress that negotiating appeals is an effective way of retaining the agency's jurisdiction and decision-making power over forest management issues.
The costs and benefits of negotiation may differ between individuals within the organization, and between individuals and the organization as a whole. In the case of the Forest Service the costs of negotiation differed between the lower level staff and the central Washington officers. Shifting to a policy of negotiating appeals promised to benefit the central offices and the agency as a whole by reducing the appeals backlog and speeding the appeals process. The burden of performing the actual negotiations fell on lower level workers, however. While negotiation benefits the organization as a whole, negotiation imposes higher costs on some individuals within the organization. Hence those individuals may be less motivated to turn to negotiation. Manring recommends three organizational changes to alleviate this difference in the assessment of the costs of negotiation. First the organization should adjust the workloads of the negotiators to reflect the additional time and effort involved in negotiating appeals, thus reducing the cost to the involved individuals. Second the organization must modify its reward structure to reflect the new emphasis on negotiation. Rather than simply rewarding workers for meeting deadlines or reaching targets, workers should be rewarded for exhibiting good conflict management skills. Third, the organizational culture must change to reflect the new emphasis on problem-solving and negotiation.