Public-Policy Conflict Resolution: The Nexus Between Culture and Process
by Wallace Warfield
Summary written by: Conflict Research Consortium Staff
Citation: Public-Policy Conflict Resolution: The Nexus Between Culture and Process," by Wallace Warfield, in Conflict Resolution Theory and Practice, Dennis J.D. Sandole and Hugo van der Merwe, eds., (Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 1993), pp. 176-193.
Warfield investigates the impact of organizational culture on public-policy disputes. He argues that difference in culture between policy-making organizations and stakeholder groups complicate policy conflicts. Awareness of this cultural element is necessary for a more adequate understanding of policy conflict.
Demographic and social changes in the last few decades have had significant impact on policy disputes. "Changing demographics, coupled with the awakening of new special interest groups, have transformed the landscape of policy conflict from one in which relatively homogeneous stakeholder groups operated in parochially defined issue arenas, to one which is increasingly heterogeneous, encroaching upon sacred policy cows."(p. 177)
The civil rights movement, President Johnson's Great Society initiatives, and anti-poverty programs all drew members of low-power cultural groups (women, racial, ethnic and sexual minorities) into the policy-making arena. Great Society programs were intended to maximize participation by previously excluded groups in the policy arena. By participating in these social movements, members of low-power cultural groups developed skills in policy development and implementation, in interest-based negotiation, and in coalition building. They also gained increased representation in policy-making organizations. However, Warfield observes, the programs were not as successful as had been hoped. Low-power cultural groups gained much more experience with protesting than with negotiating. Groups lacked the resources, including time, to negotiate durable, broad-based agreements. "Attempts at coalition building were fragile, and internal group dissention often undercut negotiating leverage."(p. 179)
Another limitation on low-power groups' effective participation was that alternative conflict resolution systems were relatively undeveloped, and so not available. The availability of joint problem-solving approaches and third-party neutrals could have improved many outcomes. Changes in education policy, for example, came mainly as a result of desegregation lawsuits. "Because the remedial orders were court-issued, they contained no consensual negotiating clauses that anticipated difficulties in implementation and governance, which is where court orders frequently broke down."(p. 179)
The Continuum of Community Relations model is helpful for understanding group roles in policy conflicts. Cooperative relations are characterized by trade-offs in resources, agreed upon processes, and mutual respect. Competitive relations over resource allocations and press the bounds of existing processes. Communities in a state of heightened tension engage in angry, boisterous exchanges with each other and the media. They challenge public processes and adopt positional, claming stances. Communities in conflict see public processes and the status quo as unfair. They may engage in demonstrations or lawsuits. When community relations are in crisis, groups attack the status quo, disrupt public order, and provoke incidents. They view public processes as illegitimate.
When cooperative relations predominate, public policy-making agencies use joint decision-making processes that are inclusive of stakeholders. When relations between government and citizens is competitive or worse, policy-making and implementing agencies show increasingly exclusive, executive decision-making. Exclusive decision-making further serves to heighten community tensions, and stakeholder demands for substantive and procedural changes. "In the competition through crisis stages of the continuum, government's trustee role, or at least, the interpretation of that role by the implementing agencies is seen as increasingly illegitimate. Correspondingly, stakeholder groups demand increasingly intrusive levels of involvement in decision making."(p. 183) Stakeholder groups may make both substantive demands for increased representation in policy-making or implementing organizations, and procedural demands for changes in processes.
Typically, organizational cultures have decision-making styles that are directly opposed to demands for openness and inclusiveness; "any organization has a closed universe of problems, choices, and solutions that are continually matched (or mismatched) to make decisions."(p. 183) Warfield argues that public agencies must change their decision-making styles toward more consensual forms. The goal is not just to produce more satisfying substantive agreements (policies), but also to create more cooperative policy and implementation processes, which in turn will improve community relations. Warfield stresses inclusion at the level of implementation. "While it is agreed that those vested with the authority to preserve the public trust cannot and should not redelegate this authority to stakeholder groups, it will mean that the way those decisions necessary to execute that policy are made will be more inclusive."(p. 183)
Warfield finds that "there is a positive correlation between the status of relationship between public officials and stakeholder, degree of stakeholder inclusiveness in policy formation, and negotiations posture."(p. 184) Cooperative relations correspond to inclusive decision-making and to more effective, consensual negotiating styles. Worsening relations correspond to more exclusive decision-making by officials, and to more positional, antagonistic negotiating styles. Positional negotiating is generally less effective than consensual styles. While lawsuits (a form of positional negotiation) have gained some degree of inclusion for low-power groups, such court orders are frequently challenged and tend to be weak on implementation and governance. External factors that can affect this basic correlation include changes in political administration, the degree of stakeholder interest, and how resistant an organization's culture is to change.
Models of negotiation which focus on rational bargaining over positions and interests can be misleading when applied to public policy conflicts. Low-power cultural groups approach policy conflicts through their cultural-historical frames of reference. They may interpret policy conflicts in terms of values and needs. "When conflict is perceived through the lens of cultural values, responses tend to be nonrational. Individuals or groups are guided by affective histories that largely determine reactions to conflict."(p. 186)
Warfield further notes, "For low-power cultural groups such as racial or ethnic minorities, women, and persons of alternative sexual preference, the history of how others have dealt with them and their group is as much a part of the context of a policy conflict that impacts their personhood as are the conflict specific issues."(p. 187) Responses that are confined to the level of interests may fail to address the low-power stakeholders' concerns, and so be rejected.
Similarly, models of mediation may be misapplied in the case of public policy conflicts. Mediation typically assumes parties of roughly equal power involved in rational, interest-based negotiations. In policy disputes interests may not be the main issues and the stakeholders are often low-power groups. The first task for a third party intervenor is to facilitate trust building. Trust building measures must allow low-party groups to take risks without losing face, and must also acknowledge the group identity and ethos of the policy making or implementing organization. Trust building is the first step in developing a joint vision of just relations between the conflicting parties.
Third party neutrality is neither possible nor necessary in conflicts of this type. "In public policy conflicts which have broad ramifications for social outcomes and a disequilibrium of power, pronouncements of neutrality would be suspect."(p. 189) The policy conflict intervenor is an activist, an advocate for social change and improved relations. The intervenor's task in prenegotiations is to act as interpreter between the positional or interest-based stance of policy officials and the historical, justice-based approach of low-power group. The intervenor also seeks to humanize both sides. One risk of this type of intervention is that the third party will be seen as too biased toward social change and will be dismissed by policy officials. Another risk is that the intervenor will slip into the role of negotiator, and lose needed credibility.