Systems and complexityTaking responsibility for complexity

Taking responsibility for complexity (section 3.3.7): Facilitation and mediation

This article is part of section 3.3 of a series of articles featuring the ODI Working Paper Taking responsibility for complexity: How implementation can achieve results in the face of complex problems.

The structure of collaborative efforts and of the process of synthesis becomes as important as the individual analyses1. Efforts to combine different sources of knowledge must tread carefully in order to give genuine space to different perspectives: the design of collaborative processes is not neutral, and could easily influence the weight given to different contributions. Each different type of knowledge works according to a different epistemology. For example, they are based on different approaches to inquiry (e.g. scientific observations vs. practical questions of costs and benefits), different standards for validation (e.g. methodological rigour and generalisation vs. representativeness and resonance for community stories) and different explanatory frameworks (e.g. causal and statistical analysis vs. lived experience and sense of identity). It is no mean feat to design a process that gives respect to different contributions: attention must go to the way participation is structured and different inputs and contributions are framed, as well as to the various standards and frameworks explicitly and implicitly governing the process. As such, policy-makers need to become much more adept at understanding and managing power in the knowledge–policy interface 2.

A number of areas of good practice in how to manage constructive deliberation are emerging from the various ongoing efforts. The following characteristics are important3:

  • Participation must be voluntary, including a broad range of stakeholders affected by the decision who must be committed to the process;
  • Discussions must be structured and led by skilled facilitators, and guided by explicit rules and procedures;
  • All participants have an opportunity to speak, with all contributions respected, and with speakers identifying their own and others’ values and judgements and balancing enquiry and advocacy;
  • In order to facilitate the learning process, participants must engage on the basis of communication and open discussion. As far as is possible, proceedings need to be transparent and accessible.

Most importantly, power should be shared in deliberative processes, and different actors should have a fair chance to influence the process and the outcome, especially in relation to decision-making, management, communication and conflict resolution. Critical reflection is important: participants need to come together to question their models of change, their underlying assumptions and the relevance of their goals, and it is important to question whether interpretations truly follow from available data and identify what is missing or uncertain.

The literature on participation has a good deal of guidance on how to redistribute power throughout a decision-making process. Action needs to be framed jointly by the stakeholders, giving all actors who will be affected by the procedural rules of the process a say in setting them. Once ground rules are established jointly agreed through some sort of formal give and take, they cannot be subject to unilateral change4. The goals and substance of a policy need to be negotiated between actors, with joint analysis and shared responsibilities for planning and decision-making through structures such as joint policy boards and planning committees5.

The institutional setup of such processes will be important. Experience shows that creating a new structure or entity is often more effective than situating processes within existing institutional arrangements. Brown6 argues that a crucial ingredient for success is establishing patterns of connection and collaboration that replace existing hierarchies. It is likely that these new arrangements will need to involve multiple lines of accountability in order to ensure they address the interests, concerns and perspectives of a variety of actors.

In particular, there need to be clear and fair mechanisms for resolving impasses and conflicts and trade-offs between different aspects in a consensual way. Research has shown that deliberative processes can sometimes focus usefully on just conflicts of interests, and can be a powerful tool for resolving them in a mutually beneficial way (see Box 13).

Box 13: Facilitating interest-based negotiation

Facilitated processes of interest-based negotiation can encourage rules which actors see as legitimate, fostering more meaningful participation and higher conformity with the rules; issues can be transformed as actors develop shared concepts and perceptions; perceived patterns of costs and benefits shift, and with this the deadlock.

Warner7 investigated how community-based NRM8 organisations such as agricultural cooperatives and village councils, or collaborative efforts between actors such as forest user groups and local government wildlife departments, have responded to external shocks and developments such as new irrigation technology, new legislation and increasing affluence among subsections of the local community. There are striking similarities between the processes Warner describes9 and emerging good practice for deliberative processes as discussed above10 – for example, features that foster social learning can move actors away from conflicts being seen as essentially ‘zero sum’ and involving adversarial bargaining, which can very frequently cause deadlock.

Experience with such a programme run by CARE International11 shows that external actors such as aid agencies can assist by providing training to local organisations in the relevant techniques (such as process design, trust building and consensual negotiation skills), or broker processes of interest-based negotiation. In Venezuela, a third party facilitated dialogue and negotiation between a gold mining company, international NGOs and local community groups in order to promote small-scale mining.

Next part (section 4): Conclusion.

See also these related series:

Article source: Jones, H. (2011). Taking responsibility for complexity: How implementation can achieve results in the face of complex problems. Overseas Development Institute (ODI) Working Paper 330. London: ODI. ( Republished under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 in accordance with the Terms and conditions of the ODI website.

References and notes:

  1. Haynes, P. (2003). Managing Complexity in the Public Services. Aylesbury: Open University Press.
  2. Jones, N., Datta, A., and Jones, H. (2009). Knowledge, Policy and Power: Six Dimensions of the Knowledge–Development Policy Interface. London: ODI.
  3. Brown, R. and Tyler, S. (2009). ‘Multi-stakeholder Deliberation’, in Swanson, D. and Bhadwal, S. (eds) (2009). Creating Adaptive Policies: A Guide for Policy Making in an Uncertain World. Winnipeg and Ottawa: IISD and IDRC.
  4. Arnstein, S. (1969). ‘A Ladder of Citizen Participation.’ Journal of the American Institute of Planners 35(4): 216-224.
  5. Cornwall, A. (2008). ‘Unpacking “Participation”: Models, Meanings and Practices.’ Community Development Journal 43(3): 269-283.
  6. Brown, V. (2007). ‘Collective Decision-making Bridging Public Health, Sustainability Governance, and Environmental Management.’ in Soskolne, C. (ed.) Sustaining Life on Earth: environmental and Human Health through Global Governance. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.
  7. Warner, M. (2001). ‘Complex Problems … Negotiated Solutions: The Practical Applications of Chaos and Complexity Theory to Community-based Natural Resource Management.’ Working Paper 146. London: ODI.
  8. Natural Resource Management.
  9. The study suggests complexity theory offers a framework for understanding how these organisations have responded to the development pressure faced, why they have resulted in more productive forms of cooperation in some situations and been overwhelmed in others and how organisations can be assisted to manage and adapt in the face of these increasing pressures.
  10. This involved negotiation that is voluntarily undertaken; involves prior (and continuous) trust and confidence building; is inclusive, by seeking to identify and involve all relevant stakeholders necessary to the task of organisational restructuring; is directed towards exploring the ‘underlying interests’ that lie beneath the surface of people’s immediate and often emotional ‘positions’ and ‘demands,’ since there are many more solutions to meeting an ‘interest’ than there are to a ‘position’; seeks out ‘common ground’ within these underlying interests and uses this a base for building consensus; employs joint problem solving to generate new and creative solutions; aims to increase the size of the ‘pie’ before it is divided up; encourages the formulation of integrative solutions that combine the needs and interests of a number of parties; fosters mutually acceptable, i.e. win-win, outcomes, rather than simply minimising trade-offs or reaching compromise; is seen as legitimate in the eyes of the various organisational memberships, with the decisions taken seen as transparent and accountable; and tests the solutions for financial, political, social and technical ‘feasibility’ and ‘desirability.’
  11. Warner, M. (2001) ‘Complex Problems … Negotiated Solutions: The Practical Applications of Chaos and Complexity Theory to Community-based Natural Resource Management.’ Working Paper 146. London: ODI.

Harry Jones

Author of the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) paper "Taking responsibility for complexity: How implementation can achieve results in the face of complex problems."

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