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Building Consensus

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Elements of Consensus Building

The two examples described above provide just a flavor of how consensus building can make a difference. Given these examples, you might ask, "OK, this might make some sense, but how does it really work?"

The consensus building process typically includes five key steps: convening; clarifying responsibilities; deliberating; deciding; and implementing agreements.

1. Convening. A sponsoring or "convening" body (usually a government agency) typically initiates discussions about whether or not to have a consensus building dialogue. This is best done by commissioning a mediator or some other "professional neutral" to talk privately with the obvious stakeholders to see if they have sufficient reason to support such an effort. Such consultations usually lead to the preparation of a draft conflict assessment report, which maps the views and interests of all the stakeholders (without attributing any statements to specific individuals).

This assessment provides the means for both the mediator and the stakeholders to clarify whether it is worth trying to reach an agreement through open deliberations (see step 3 below). If there does appears to be sufficient interest in moving forward with the mediation, the conflict assessment report can then be used to generate a work plan, timetable, operating ground rules, budget, and an outline of the data or technical material that needs to be gathered.

One of the advantages of conducting a conflict assessment is to test the idea of consensus building with the participants before diving in. Assessments can also provide a "cooling off" period during which the parties can review their interests and more calmly weigh how to proceed. Assessments take no commitment from the parties beyond the willingness to be interviewed confidentially for an hour or so and to review the draft conflict assessment report.

2. Clarifying Responsibilities. Assuming the parties decide to proceed, they must agree on a mediator. This does not necessarily have to be the same person who conducted the conflict assessment. The mediator's responsibilities should be spelled out in a contract between the mediator and the parties. It is also necessary to agree on who will participate in the mediation sessions as representative for each of the parties.

Since the subsequent consensus building process usually takes place in a public forum, it is essential to agree on rules about the role of observers (i.e., individuals who are not stakeholder representatives) during the mediation process. Finally, the relationship between the consensus building process and any legally required decision making (e.g., a ruling of a zoning board or a court) must be clearly spelled out.

... article continues with a discussion of:
3. Deliberating
4. Deciding
5. Implementing Agreements

plus Q & A on:
1. How much does mediation cost?
2. Who pays for the mediation?
3. How do you find a mediator?
4. Does land use mediation work?
5. How can I learn more about mediation?

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