Week 5 (September 30) -- Understanding and Responding to Public Opposition

Do you think that conflict is an absolutely necessary and/or unavoidable part of addressing any important public issue or achieving any important public goal? What does your answer (yes, no, or maybe) imply for the design and implementation of planning and participation processes?


Whether important or not, any public issue or goal is likely to create conflict. At times, I think this conflict is not only necessary but desirable as well. Unfortunately, it seems that conflict in the public arena is increasingly vitriolic and prone to demagoguery.

Public participation processes should be constructed to permit and accommodate conflict. It may make sense to have multiple types of public forums or means of public comment; while some people thrive on conflict, other people will be turned off by it.

I believe that conflict is more inherent than necessary in an ideal realm. We however do not live in a vacuum and so it would seems to me that conflict over an issue would inevitably elicit a more passionate response from a far wide range of people. In other words if something is strongly contested i think that a lot of understanding can be gained by each group, simply from the discussion that inevitably arises from a highly contested issue. In addition to this a hotly contested subject would likely bring more people to the table ensuring a more evenly distributed representation of group concerns(and demographic) over a particular issue.
I feel that anticipating and immediately addressing likely points of conflict would likely move groups into a more immediately productive discussion. Recognizing conflict and putting the problem(s) out on the table give groups more overall time for discussion of issues that are truly important. It could also bring about issues that weren't initially considered or anticipated which could potentially be far more important . The true challenge i feel is managing conflict to the point were it produces passionate discussion and not unsolvable contention or a complete walk away.

Because of the communal redistributive nature of public issues, I believe that conflict will always surround them, the magnitude of which is correlated with the intensity of the outcome of action on that issue.

First, if this conflict is inherent to the process of discussing and deciding upon public issues, the mediator of such processes should be prepared to handle such situations. It's not a responsibility that should be taken lightly.

Second, it seems to me that conflict is minimized and avoided at public meetings or in front of important public officials. This silence in the name of order may also be silencing a needed conversation and a potential solution. For example, perhaps in the case of public hearings, the format could be changed to allow the speakers to respond to each other a few times--a debate of sorts--witnessed by the deciding body. Through a vocalizing of conflict, a compromise may be more apparent.

I'm not suggesting a complete abandonment of decorum, but perhaps some airing of the conflict would improve public participation processes, if only by improving the satisfaction of the speakers...

Genuine conflict can be an excellent way to move a debate forward to to expand and illuminate new ways of thinking. It can lead to new solutions. Skilled facilitation is essential to these discussions being productive.

At the same time, I once had a supervisor (a former elected official) who believed that public meetings were never where conflict should be aired. He would never go into a meeting unless he knew exactly what the outcome would be. In those cases, all conflicts and discussion essentially happened behind the scenes and public meetings were purely for show.

Throughout the years, I have witnessed genuine conflict be addressed in a public setting as well as public meetings in which all decisions had been made already. On some occasions conflict was used as an excuse not to get anything accomplished.

I find the mutual gains approach advocated by Susskind and Field to be an interesting way to mitigate, though not eliminate conflict. What appeals to me is the relationship-centered nature of the approach. When conflicts arise in discussions of a public problem, it is important to realize that the parties in conflict will come into contact with one another again and again, on that issue and others. By acknowledging concerns and focusing on building relationships the inevitability of conflict remains, but the potential for practical solutions and progress is enhanced.

The Susskind article struck a similar chord with me. Susskind points out the issue of distrust from the public if they are ignored and become angry. A reduction in confidence in a business or government entity can result in participation efforts spiraling out of control. I have worked on projects which were meant to engage the public in participating on a project. One of our biggest concerns with the project is that we would encourage participation, but the public would not see their input get used.

It was a fear that by encouraging participation and then seeing efforts fail might discourage participation later because of the disillusionment of the group. Can conflicts that are really difficult to resolve result in more harm than good when trying to include many parties in the participation process? Is it ever okay to exclude? Maybe not as extreme as Danielle's former boss prefers, but...

Conflict is yes, for the most part, unavoidable. Important public issues and goals often come adversely because ones goals and objectives will strongly differ from another’s, even within short amounts of distance. We live in a society of diverse backgrounds, cultures, and beliefs so the possibility of pleasing everyone with conflict is likely unattainable, let alone without conflict.

Although it is often associated with negativity, conflict can have positive affects on an outcome. As professionals we must be the negotiators and counselors of these conflicts and pursue them from an understanding perspective. Problems that we encounter are complex and sophisticated on a level that many individuals may not understand. We are the professionals of multiple disciplines and synthesize the many layers of information that must go into planning. Participation from the public can often be conflicted because of something so simple as a lack of information or background on problems. We can minimize these conflicts by understanding this and being prepared in a manner where we our also educators.

Finally, conflicts are the result of intense emotions tied to things that people do or do not want to see change. We as individuals often have our own personal interests represented in one manner or another and cannot forget that we also need revision. Conflict can provide this for us and even take our process of resolution further.

I agree with the postings above that conflict is both necessary (may be encouraged) and unavoidable part of addressing public issue (whether or not an important issue). We're living in a diverse society, where different people with different background express different interests or thoughts. When come to achieving important public goal, conflict or initial disagreement is a health part or a stepping stone to accomplishing the goal.

When people are encouraged to express their thoughts, they are more likely to participate in an event or meeting, where their thoughts/ideas count. At the same time, it is important to have a good facilitator to manage the conflict, otherwise one can imagine how the conflict will turn out. Conflict is yes, and it is a way of coming up with creative solutions to achieve public goals.

I'd like to build on Adele's earlier comment that conflict appears to be minimized and even hushed at public meetings in the hopes of saving face of public officials and planning staff. I can see this short-term "solution" leading to only one outcome--entrenched feelings of public mistrust toward governing bodies. A citizenry with pent-up distrust and grievances will use any forum offered to them to air those grievances, including forums contained within a participation process for a project/plan completely unrelated to their original beefs with the governing body. This will hamper the process and make real public engagement impossible until the original conflict is sorted out.I think conflict can be healthy, when dealt with honestly and appropriately, and can lead to creative decisions within the planning process. Choosing to address conflict now can make for much smoother sailing later by building trust between parties and letting citizens know that their voices are heard and can actually make a difference.

I agree that conflict is a good thing to elicit response in any public participation process. I agree with Adele and Katie that hushing a conflict at a meeting can lead to further mistrust down the road. Conflict is an important part of any public process to solve an issue or achieve a goal.

By agreeing that conflict is a necessary part of the participation process, validation must be considered as a priority for the implementation and design of a participation process. I do not believe this always occurs. Public meetings may be held only as a requirement to solve conflict but the facilitator may not bring the necessary knowledge or even concern to be able to validate the public response. If this occurs conflict increases and mistrust or even outrage over the issue will occur. A planned response by the government officials or even and acknowledgement of the public concerns can go a long way in the facilitation of a public participation process. For a planner, it is important to deal with the uncertainty the public may feel about the issue, even if the public comments are only coming from the opposition of an issue. The “not in my backyard? (NIMBY) persons are the most likely to take part in the public participation process.

I think that conflict is inherent in anything that can affect even a small section of the public in a large way. In my experience working with affordable housing, there isn't a project proposed that is not met with some sort of opposition by someone. However, as Susskind and Field demonstrate in their article, there are definitely proactive ways to acknowledge conflict and create a beneficial dialog. While everyone may not be entirely pleased with all the outcomes, hopefully everyone will feel like they have been heard. I also agree that public participation processes are essential in helping ease concerns and reducing conflict. That is why this topic is so important to any of us who may eventually go into a role that interacts with the public - be it planner, developer, communications, etc.

My initial reaction to the question of conflict is an immediate yes. Currently, it seems that no matter how big or small the issue or plan in review, there will always be conflict when attempting to achieve any important public goal. After reading Susskind and Field's article, if conflict did not arise, I would possibly be surprised and puzzeled. The overall public, depending on the area, seems angry with the design and implementation of planning and participation processes due to being lied to and given misinformation.

While conflict can be a good or bad thing, I would wholeheartily agree with current posts that conflict is necessary and inherent. Planners and facilitators must act boldly and know that conflict will arise in order to decrease stallmant of a plan, i.e. $700 billion bailout and create solutions rather than angry constiuents, massive disagreement, and failure to adopt the plan at hand.

Knowing that conflict will arise and it is neccessary will possibly lead to a better design and implementation of planning and participation processes. Such planning and participation processes, such as city meetings, hearings, and open houses should be more open to the public and the facilitator or host should be knowledgeable about the subject matter, in addition to accurate information being distrubuted to describe the plan/issue previous to meeting.

Conflict, in my opinion, is necessary for well-rounded policy decisions to be made within the participation process. Conflict should not be avoided, rather encouraged as it can diversify an issue. If a group of people all have the same opinions about a policy, it may appear as though it is all-inclusive and there are no underlying issues. I would suggest in this instance, that the outcome policy would only benefit those that were present for the decision – which is not representative of the entire public. Further, when people have differing opinions, hopefully they will be open-minded to consider opposing viewpoints. Basic consideration of others’ views may help shape an issue and could cause participants to make value judgments and in the end, have a more inclusive policy.

I think that planners have a vital role in conflict management and they should prepare and expect it in discussions. This is where facilitation skills become important, as a method to engage the audience to become active, voice their opinions, and provide a venue for discussions.

I believe that the potential for conflict is inherent in all processes that are intended to address an important public issue or goal because of the varying values of stakeholders. In attempting to address a public issue, it is important to elicit information about stakeholder values and allow the potential conflicts to emerge. It is through the process of working through conflicts that stakeholders are able to become aware of conflicting values and will likely recognize the need for negotiation. Given the way in which conflict has the power to shape responses to an issue or goal, it is important for planners to take public opinion into consideration from the beginning of planning processes. In the Lawrence Susskind and Patrick Field article, the authors described the importance of being proactive about engaging the public because dealing with conflicts after a decision is made usually signifies an angry public that has lost trust in the officials or professionals acting on their behalf (Susskind, L. and P. Field. Dealing with an Angry Public: A Mutual Gains Approach to Resolving Disputes. 1996). As a planner, public support is needed in order for planning decisions to be implemented, and therefore, I agree with the authors that investing time and resources during the planning stages is more effective than investing resources toward decisions that were made in the past.

Conflict is absolutely vital.

There's no question about it. It's simply an undeniable and omni-present feature of the planning and policy-making landscape.

Conflict will always be there. So, the question is no longer whether conflict is a necessary component of planning and policy; rather, the question becomes "how do we best address and incorporate conflicts into the planning and policy-making process in a meaningful and equitable way?"

Issues are contentious. They arise from core values, which are highly individual but are also influenced by any number of cultural or social factors. Divergent viewpoints necessitate conflict. Domination and subjugation are ways of eliminating conflict - pretty undesirable ones I'd say. That's just the thing. There is no real way to eliminate conflict while maintaining equity of effect and preserving the power balance.

So conflict must be incorporated into the planning process. Some of the best small area plans, comp plans, and project outlines that I've seen arose from a number of individuals who had VERY different visions for a final product. However, by a process of hybridizing and combining ideas synergistically, we can arrive at the most equitable and satisfying end point (for all parties involved). The sum was greater than the individual parts - without highly conflicting ideas at the onset, this would have been otherwise impossible. The trick is getting all parties involved.

Individual actors are less powerful than institutional actors are less powerful than creatures of the state. This quickly becomes a participation problem. Negative notions of conflict and how it is dealt with at various levels of (non)government (as well as general apathy and cynicism) translate into some parties seceding from the planning and policy-making process. This is conflict-averse behavior. When important actors shy away from even coming to the table to discuss collaboration and participation, the system is broken and the plan is doomed to failure before even reaching the planning phases.

Conflict is inherent in our system. With a multitude of actors, there will always be discontent and some groups or individuals feeling that they received the short-end of the stick, so to speak. At the same time, no good plan or any policy can come to be without some conflict in the process. Listening to contrary views brings about new enlightenment to the decision-makers in crafting their policies.

The important thing is navigating between the different actors and making sure that the powerful do not always subjugate the other groups without responding in a constructive matter to the conflict. While I believe that representatives and so-called experts should be the ultimate decision-makers, at the same time, they cannot disregard conflicting opinions. Instead, they must listen to all views and ultimately decide on the best action for the largest "affected" population.

I don’t know if conflict is an absolute necessity it may not be applicable to every important public issue. There may be differences in opinion that can be resolved without conflict becoming an absolute prerequisite towards coming towards any form of agreement. There may be some instances where the stakeholders have very similar interests and few differences that can be worked out in a somewhat tacit manner and come to an agreement. This is not to say conflict is not a good thing or happens infrequently. In fact, conflict is most often a usual path in achieving public consensus for an important public issue or goal.

Conflict, can expose some of the communication problems and self-deception that goes along with public discussions. The stakeholders that are in conflict with one another may actually expose themselves to the blindness of their statements and actions during the process. Quite often people in the planning and discussion process can be defensive, narrow minded or even hostile during discussions. There is a strong tendency to blame others in the discussion process and not perceive of how they (the stakeholders) are contributing to a problem. This leads to poor communication and mistrust. The stakeholders fail because of their blindness to see the impact of their own opinions, wants and actions have in the beginning, on other stakeholder interests. If the meetings are recorded in some way, and a neutral moderator is present, the moderator can expose the behavior of certain stakeholders (via review of recordings) and help expose the communication barriers of individual stakeholders. They can discover by the analysis of their comments and behavior that their ideas and needs are not the only ones, and not necessarily logical towards the collective good.

Conflict and analysis of this conflict may lead to greater empathy towards stakeholders and their needs, so compromises that lead towards problem solving, can begin to take shape. Some level of conflict is usually necessary but not a requirement to expose the overall discussion process, and stakeholder interests.

I do believe conflict is unavoidable. Any a community or organization of any size, there is no doubt that there will be opposing view points at some scale.

Having some conflict can lead to healthy debate and conversation. These conversations can lead to a better understanding of an alternative view points. I believe conflict is not necessarily a negative aspect.

As Planners, if we do not embrace the conflict and allow conversation to happen, we are not truly engaging all stakeholders in the decision making process. This can lead to decisions that are not fully accepted by the community.

By allowing all stakeholders to engage in the conversation and work to some sort of consensus or compromise, it seems that trust in us as professionals, and in the organizations we represent, are enhanced.

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Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs