Week 11 (November 11) - Mediation and Conflict Resolution

Susskind and Ozawa made two assertions in their famous 1984 article that are still controversial in some circles. The first was to emphasize the planner's role as a mediator. The second was to argue that planners needed to be directly involved in implementation. They conjoined both arguments, and planning and implementation, when they said, "[the] planner's claim to a unique competence is a specialized capacity to overcome the obstacles to implementing a community-wide consensus (13)." Do you agree with their claim about about planners' "unique competence"? What might be the elements of a specialized competence to overcome the obstacles to implementing a community-wide consensus?


While I agree that mediation is one of the many tools in a planner's toolbox, I don't agree that planners have a "unique competence" to overcome obstacles to building community-wide consensus.

It is true that planners have the skills to bring the technical knowledge and expertise to the table, but only the parties involved can make mediation work. Mediation must be embraced by the participants; otherwise, no amount of mediation will ensure consensus, as shown in the "unsettled cases" in Susskind, van der Wansem, and Ciccarelli's 2000 article.

Overcoming obstacles that the participants may have to a mediation process is key. And this may be where a planner has a "specialized competence": by having a working knowledge of the planning process and the project at hand itself, and having an ability to assess stakeholders' possible concerns with it, the planner has a key insight into how to facilitate a better, more efficient mediation process.

Credibility and authority play a large part in mediation, and I disagree with Susskind when he states in his 1984 article that "[p]lanners should not worry about their credibility or authority as mediators, rather, they should focus on how best to present themselves, handle confidences, and apply the skills of a mediator."

A non-planner mediator, like Congressman Worth in the Foothills case, who has the appropriate credibility and authority, can advance the mediation process in ways that a planner cannot. In those cases, a planner must assist the non-planner mediator with his or her "specialized competence" planning skills and let the non-planner take the lead role.

I understand that finding a relevant, credible mediator is often difficult in times of lean budgets, but forcing a planner to mediate a conflict where he or she may not have the credibility or authority to do it, may well doom the entire process.

I agree with Mark's comment: forcing a planner to be a mediator as well could be problematic for the planning process. The stakeholders would need to view and accept the planner as able to fulfill both roles, not just the planning roles. There is some amount of mediating in any planning process. As suggested by Putnam and Wondolleck, the planner can help the stakeholders reframe a situation, thereby leading to more agreement and more collaboration. However, for situations of deep "intractable" conflicts, the planner's basic mediation and reframing may not be enough to rectify the situation and allow the planning process to continue. There may be some cases and some planners where the planner can also mediate, but I don't think that it can be expected in all cases and of all planners.

Planners can be excellent mediators precisely because of their “unique competence.� Their “specialized capacity to overcome the obstacles to implementing a community-wide consensus� is necessary when fulfilling other roles besides mediation. Planners contain both technical and social skills necessary to reach consensus, and the controversial role as mediator may also be appropriate.

While it is true that only parties involved have the authority to resolve conflicts, planners as mediators can facilitate meetings and move all parties towards a consensus. It seems that other forms of conflict resolution are either too expensive or unsuccessful at reaching consensus. Litigation, for example, is extremely costly due to the nature of court proceedings. Neutral mediation processes may be a better first attempt at resolution, and if talks break down or a consensus is not reached, other processes should then be entertained.

I agree with both Mark and Cathy that credibility and authority of a planner must not be compromised in a mediation process. Credibility and authority are crucial to the success of technical and advocate planners as well. If we disregard these elements in a mediation process, the planner may well lose credibility and authority with other planning processes.

I agree with Mark; planners do not have a "unique competence" to overcome obstacles to building community-wide consensus. Putnam and Wondolleck highlight the complex nature of conflicts faced today that may be rooted in the issues, the social systems or the processes. Within this framework, a planner may not always be the most effective mediator due to many factors including his/ her lack of knowledge or experience with the particular issue. The case of the Foothills Water Treatment Project where the credibility and authority of Congressman Tim Wirth was critical in mediating the process is a great example.

The effectiveness of planners depends to a great extent on the type of problem being dealt with. Mediation is just one of the tools that planners require to successfully resolve problems. Susskind and Ozawa point out that community and environmental disputes are closest to the problems planners deal with and in such cases planners may need to play a role that is a blend of technical skills, communication, mobilization, mediation and advocacy rather than just one of them. Planners need to be more proactive; rather than mediating parties who agree to try and resolve an issue they should be equipped to convince people to resolve issues. Their role should be that of organizers or facilitators of building community-wide consensus. However, despite the fact that the competence to overcome obstacles to foster community-wide consensus is not unique to planners, it is a skill that every planner should work to enhance.

I feel that the main elements of a specialized competence to overcome the obstacles to implementing a community-wide consensus are accurate issue identification, stakeholder identification, organizing and facilitating interaction between the stakeholders, providing information to assist common goals formation, and creating long-term working relationships rather than ad-hoc solutions.

Susskind and Ozawa's assertion of the "unique competence" of the planner is compelling. Two areas of concern, neutrality and credibility, are addressed by asserting that objectivity is not realistic and that authority is conveyed by context. A good planning process begins with an environmental scan and an identification of stakeholders. If this foundation work is sound, it would seem that the planner's role as mediator or facilitator is appropriate. A planner is provided the opportunity to bring disparate groups/interests together in a way that can turn conflict or disagreement into a stronger consensus.

The planner as mediator acknowledges the bias and special interests (including his/her own) and strives for inclusivity and acknowledgement of all interests. Implementation presents many of the same issues and problems as the planning phase, so it make sense that the planner, should continue to facilitate the negotiation during this phase, too. I would argue that the planning phase continues throughout implementation and as such, the need for mediation is remains critical.

I agree that planners do have competence and expertise that may further agreement among divergent parties, but I do not foresee mediation as a successful strategy to foster agreement in the planning field. Alternative dispute resolution, and especially mediation, has had success in the legal field, but for reasons that do not adapt to planning.

First, alternative dispute resolution is generally court-ordered. Parties must submit to a mediator before they may try their case in front of a judge.

Second, mediation is non-binding. A mediator has no "stick" to force two sides to come together in agreement.

Third, mediation is costly. While it is true that mediation has had success in the legal system because as compared with attorney fees it is much cheaper, mediators still charge on average $200 - $300 an hour. Parties may be unwilling to pay this cost, especially if there is no threat of legal action or a judicial order.

Fourth, mediation also works well in the legal context because parties are still represented by their attorneys who hold a fiduciary relationship. If mediation is in the best interest of his/her client, an attorney will strive to reach an agreement out of fear of a malpractice action.

For the above reasons, I disagree with the authors' recommendation that planning schools teach mediation because I do not foresee it having the same market and positive results as compared with legal mediation. That said, mediation may still be a useful tool that some planners may choose to implement in conjunction with other participation processes.

I would agree with Susskind and Ozawa’s assertion to a certain extent. While planners should be involved in the implementation process, I agree also with Mark and Kirti. Successful mediations depend upon all those involved and outside factors can deter planners playing an active role. Planners carry technical, practical, and advocacy skills that allow him or her to play an effective role in consensus building, but not always an objectionable role. Planners as mediators, if given the appropriate training, are valuable assets to communities. Having planners play as mediators is not only cost-effective, but also can lead to successful implementation strategies rather than failed approaches. Susskind and Ozawa’s new conception of the planners’ role moves planners out of the restrictive technical role and advocacy role into a role that is adaptable to current issues and tasks, such as mandatory comprehensive plans and neighborhood revitalization projects that are owned by the community. Gone are the days of urban renewal projects. Communities demand for their voices to be heard and that projects reflect their views, rather than governments barging in and taking over.
A planner must carry certain attributes that show a high level of skill and competency for him or her to have authority within a particular setting in order to mediate. The above comments illustrate that emphasizing the planner’s role as a mediator who can implement a community-wide consensus is possibly dangerous.
Susskind and Ozawa’s assertion blends the technical and practical skills planners should have in their toolkit, in which planners are seen more than just advocates but also mediators. Mediation is a skill that is still not emphasized in a planner’s job description. After reading many job descriptions on applications, I have yet to come across the need to have mediation skills. While I know that it will come into play at some point as a planner, it is implied rather than emphasized.

I appreciated George's legal perspective on the subject of mediation. One of the broader points I took away from his entry was the idea that an effective mediator usually has authority. Planners have varying degrees of authority, which makes me wonder how effective they can be in times of conflict depending on different parties' perspectives.

In my work experience, i have seen fellow planners be treated like a person to whine to. There have been many controversial issues with the development of LRT, and often times it seems planners are viewed as neutral parties who give people free license to "vent," assuming the planners are on their side. I don't know how mediation is possible if the authority of the planner isn't particularly respected.

Although I'm skeptical of the great emphasis Susskind and Osawa put on the planner's role as mediator, I do think it's a skill that is undervalued when hiring planners. I have also witnessed planners in meetings with the public where there is no sense of neutrality and planners' tempers will rise in controversial settings. Seeing this first hand, I wonder if it isn't so harmful after all to put an overemphasis on mediation skills because it is easy to forget that just because planners may think they "know best" (because I think we all do once in awhile) we need to know how to conduct ourselves in this difficult role.

A mediator’s role is to ensure that all sides of an issue are heard throughout the entire course of a disagreement through to resolution. A planner is included in this process as they have the ability to use their knowledge of an issue to educate parties of alternative solutions. Further, the Susskind and Ozawa article (1984) mentioned that a mediator must gain the confidence of each party and attempt to consolidate issues based on common similarities in order to find a solution.

I would argue that planners continually undertake this task, when they advocate for those unable to speak for themselves and when a planner attempts to find a common voice at a public meeting when many are disagreeing. The roles a planner undertakes in these situations are many, as a facilitator, communicator of ideas, negotiator, and a diffuser. The role of mediator is not different from these very roles that often define a planner, to create opportunities for parties to meet, to ensure all ideas are heard at a table, to encourage the participation process and keep people discussing until a problem is solved.

Granted planners often have biases in favor of one outcome over another; the role of mediator is to allow the people to make the decision – not the planner. The planner should act as a listener and if solicited for advice – provide it, to give the solution – provide alternatives, to keep the power with the people. These methods can provide information, education, and keep costs down when trying to find the answer to a problem. This is what a planner should be doing.

Planners have a unique role in that they are responsible for leading projects on behalf of their employer or client and at the same time are responsible for building stakeholder consensus to ensure that the community voice is incorporated into plans. This is a difficult role with potential for a lack of alignment between values of individual stakeholders and community leaders or government to which the planner is responsible. Susskind and Ozawa raise an important issue about the lack of planner involvement through the implementation phases of plans. I agree with the authors in that involvement of a consistent leader (which in many cases will be the planner) through the implementation phases of a plan would be beneficial for ensuring project goals are realized. The main issue that I see relates to long-term projects that span beyond the career of an individual planner. In such cases, it is important for a planning department or firm to have an adequate succession plan as well as to define clear and consistent expectations to ensure that the planner can remain as a resource throughout implementation.

With regard to Susskind and Ozawa’s assertion that planners should act as mediators, the planner has the important role of bridging the communication gap between the ultimate decision-makers and stakeholders who will be directly or indirectly impacted by decisions that are made. In certain situations, I agree that planners need to act as mediators. Given that many planning-related issues are contentious because of the intersection of different values, I believe that it is important to supplement planners’ education with mediation techniques that can be used for consensus-building purposes. However, given that the planner also has many other roles, I do not believe that the profession should be centered on the premise that a planner is a mediator. Mediation should be another skill in a planner’s toolkit that can be used when necessary to augment the expertise and knowledge a planner uses to analyze existing conditions, assist in the creation of plan visions, and advocate for social change.

Susskind and Ozawa's assertion that planner's have unique competencies that allow them to mediate problems and implement their solutions is too broad to put into play. In certain situations, a planner may hold a neutral position, allowing them to work with both sides to arrive at a mutually beneficial solution. For example, a planner may be able to help negotiate arcane zoning requirements to come about a technically creative solution. However, in many other situations, planners have external motives during their public engagement processes. These forces can be positive or negative depending upon perspective and the situation. For example, if the city has a stated goal of providing more affordable housing opportunities in non-impacted communities but a neighborhood is resisting such a project, a planner may be able to help refine the proposal to be more inclusive of resident concerns, but he/she is doing this a biased fashion. Such a situation is unacceptable as mediators are expected to be issue neutral. It is indeed more realistic to assume that in many situations planners have their own agendas to carry out, making them ineffective mediators.

Though Suskind and Ozawa contend that planners can maintain their credibility by effectively mediating a situation even if their stake in it is well known, they also argue that the willingness of key parties to participate in negotiations is the key to establishing credibility as a mediator.

These two points seem to be in conflict, and point to the potential for a planner's role in a project to be called into question by engaging in mediation with key stakeholders who cannot come to consensus.

Planners already have demanding responsibilities and must answer to clients, public officials, supervisors, and stakeholders. Although Susskind and Ozawa argue that planners may have learned the skills that could make them valuable as mediators, it seems to me that taking on a role as mediator in a case where their role as planner has already been established would confound their relationships and make their jobs more difficult.

If planners are interested in mediation, they could act as mediators in cases where they are not in the planning role, and likewise could bring in uninvolved planners to mediate disputes in their projects.

A planner's first duty to the public is--quite simply--to plan. The preponderance of our training is also aimed at preparing us to develop reasoned, professional solutions to planning problems. Though many of these solutions may create controversy, that controversy does not diminish the professional standing of the planner or the basic merits of the proposed action. It seems to me that mediation of disputes can be a valuable tool for planners for the simple reason that many beneficial projects might be blocked otherwise. In general, however, planners tend to have little time or energy to spare from their basic planning duties to spend on mediating stakeholder disputes to achieve community wide consensus. Often, disputes created by actions proposed by planners within communities may actually be intractable, and the differences underlying them irreconcileable. All the mediation in the world will not lend a planner more credibility with opposing groups in such a case. At any rate, when an intensive mediation process is warranted, it might make more sense for a planner to be available to provide information and expert advice, with the process conducted by an actual, trained mediator.

Mediator is a power-neutral term. In fact, mediators should typically moderate the power plays between 2 parties, which is something that planners do (developers vs. city officials). However, planning goes beyond this. Mediation connotes occupying a certain middle-ground, when planners are really initiators, decision-makers, and implementers. I do believe that planners have a unique capacity to implement community-wide consensus (in whatever ideal world that exists). Again, prior to implementation, planners must be diligent in their day-to-day permitting and site evaluation work (for example). Planners have the ability to completely strike down (or at least heavily revise and impose new requirements on) a development proposal, as well as the ability to greenlight them. That goes beyond mediation—that IS power. I agree with Susskind and Ozawa in their second assertion that planners need to be more involved in the implementation phase(s). I think that all too often this is passed off to public works, regulatory services, problem properties, or just sits at the bottom of a stack of papers on a busy city council member’s desk. Or it may be passed off horizontally to a Met. Council etc. Having the ability to a) mediate the power playing field, b) make an informed and highly calculated decision, and c) ensure, enforce, and see that decision through more accurately summarizes the role of the planner.

Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs