The Public Policy Institute of California recently released a report on water management in California. The good news is that they paid a lot of attention to the benefits of employing consensus building techniques to resolve water disputes. The bad news is that they really have no idea how consensus building works. (http://www.ppic.org/main/publication.asp?i=944).
They do acknowledge that there are numerous well-documented efforts to resolve contentious water policy and water resource allocation disputes and that these have produced innovative solutions that met the interests of parties involved. In almost all of these cases, I would add, scientific and not just political concerns were taken into account, and the effort to reach agreement improved long-term relationships making it easier for government and stakeholders to deal with each other in the future. That much the PPIC report got right.
Then, they went on to conjure up prospective difficulties, quoting various “analysts” who believe that consensus building is actually a bad thing because it allows entrenched interests to block needed reforms, leaves out marginal groups, and allows government officials to evade responsibility. Anyone with any direct consensus building experience knows that none of these things is possible in a properly managed process.
Think about it. How can entrenched interests use a collaborative process to block reforms when all relevant parties must be at the table and decisions must be made by near-unanimity? Or, how can a consensus building process exclude marginal groups or fail to take account of the broader public interest when the process is run by a professional neutral committed to ensuring that the interests of all such groups are served? Also, a well-managed consensus building process always begins with a Stakeholder Assessment prepared by a professional neutral. Best practice requires that representatives of all relevant groups identified in an Assessment be invited to the table.
The idea that a consensus-building process could diffuse accountability or permit governmental entities to evade difficult decisions is really off-the-wall. Collaborative processes aim to produce proposals, not decisions. It is always up to elected or appointed bodies (that convene consensus building efforts) to decide what to do with the proposals produced by the participants. Indeed, those with formal statutory authority can’t delegate to ad hoc groups the responsibility for making public policy decisions or allocating public resources. Consensus building is a supplement to, not a replacement for democratic decision-making. So, whatever accountability was in place is still there when a consensus building processes is added to the mix.
Finally, like other inexperienced commentators, the PPIC folks talk about unequal power and how consensus building can only work when parties have relatively equal power. But just think of all the instances in which people sitting around a table end up agreeing to a good idea, regardless of who proposed it. If someone can come up with a way to meet everyone’s interests, their political standing vis a vis the rest of the group isn’t important. In addition, coalitions form when there are a lot of parties involved in a complex dispute resolution effort. A less politically powerful group may become part of a winning coalition regardless of their power "away from the table."The idea of “equal power” being key to consensus building comes from irrelevant “cold war” thinking when all disputes were framed in zero-sum terms when they didn’t need to be. There is hardly a single water conflict, at any scale, that can’t be reframed in a way that would allow all sides to realize joint gains.
So, get with it, PPIC. Your report is filled with incorrect assumptions. And, you’ve overlooked a substantial portion of the published research on the subject of consensus building.