Consensus Building

Frank Dukes

Director, Institute for Environmental Negotiation, University of Virginia

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

Q: Is that last project about addressing the skeptics of collaborative processes for environmental conflicts?

A: Well, skeptics, but also we're bringing in people who are supporters, who want better information, better knowledge. How can we be more effective at what we are doing?

Q: Are there skeptics on all sides,

or is it more the environmentalists who are the skeptics?

A: The environmentalists have had a more substantial and more thoroughly articulated set of concerns at some of the highest levels, including a number of organizations that have policies that they will not participate in collaborative processes, and they really criticize people who do. Two years ago we developed a manual, a guide, on collaboration.

It's actually called, Collaboration: A Guide for Environmental Advocates. It was done with a lot of involvement of various environmental organizations, and in partnership with the Wilderness Society, the National Audubon Society. We also had the support of a number of people from that community of environmental advocates, a couple researchers, and a couple people from the conflict resolution field, who helped make sure that what we were doing was useful, relevant, principled, and was going to be effective. Environmental advocates could say, "This is a really good guide for us as we proceed with collaboration, or as we decide that we're not going to continue with collaboration." The people within the conflict resolution community would see it as legitimate also. The research consortium and the guide project were tied together and are closely related.

Q: So broadly speaking, what are the environmentalist concerns and how do you address them?

A: They are a pretty substantial set of concerns. You can divide them two ways. One is at more of a philosophical level, and at the abstract that environmentalist spends the majority of their time working in collaboration. They're not spending time on their more traditional activities of organizing advocacy, legislation, and sometimes litigation that they had found to be effective, so their voices may be diluted if they start working on collaborative processes.

Then there's also, at the practical level, what happens in collaborative processes; there's deep concern that the environmental voice gets muted, or overwhelmed, compromises are too easy to reach, people become co-opted, and simply there are a number of bad processes. So despite all of this, it might not be the right place and the right time, you may not have sufficient resources to get the information you need, there may not be a facilitator, you may have an agency that dominates inappropriately, and they don't have a proper representation; there is a whole host of issues around bad processes basically.

Q: How do you address those then?

A: Well, in the guide, we addressed it by hear what are the concerns in the environmental community, and convening a couple of rather large groups with day long meetings with leaders in the environment about what are some of their concerns, strengths, and problems. Then we began developing an outline out of what needs to be included in the guide out of that, and having an advisory group that had some very strong critics of collaborative processes, as well as supporters, working with us on this so that it had legitimacy. It's fair to say that both the critics and the supporters both felt like this is a very strong document, and are willing to stand behind it.

In terms of addressing their concerns, their concerns are valid. It's not our place to judge whether or not any one situation is appropriate or not appropriate for a particular organization. What we want them to be doing is making their decisions of collaboration on the basis of good knowledge, and asking the right questions, as opposed to hearsay, or coercion. We want people to feel that if they are participating, they are participating from a well-informed position, and it's well informed not only about whether we should participate, but how we should participate more effectively. The lessons are the same whether it's an environmental community, business community, or agencies. There are some different perspectives that they have obviously. But is this effort worth the while? Do we know how much time it's going to take? Do we have a clear purpose? Do we have the right people involved in the issue? Do we know that we can get the types of information and the knowledge that we are going to need to make effective decisions? Is there proper support? Is the agency, if there's an agency, committed to this process or is it going to be a waste of time if we do something and then nothing happens? The questions are addressed in the guide, and they were addressed in the process of putting together the guide.