What is collaborative governance and what is the role of Oregon Consensus?

Collaborative governance is a method of public decision making in which government leaders involve stakeholders from many areas of society, including community members, businesses, other government agencies and non-profit organizations in making decisions that affect how people are governed or how public resources are used. “Stakeholders” includes groups and individuals who will be directly affected by a decision or who simply have insights to offer that may lead to decisions that are widely supported and lasting. Collaborative governance may involve these stakeholders in different ways. For example, people may contribute their ideas without participating directly in making the decision or they may be given authority to work with others to identify and agree on solutions and make recommendations to decision makers who are committed to supporting the group’s work.

Effective collaborative governance relies on the involvement of an impartial facilitator or mediator who helps stakeholders participate in collaborative governance in a committed, balanced way that takes all interests into account. That is where Oregon Consensus plays a part in collaborative governance. Our impartial facilitators and mediators help groups understand their role in the decision-making process. We help identify which stakeholders should be included in order to create lasting solutions, and we help assess whether the stakeholders are ready to commit to collaborating in good faith. We work with the stakeholders to design and conduct effective meetings and to create a final product to present to decision makers.

What do you mean by public policy?

Oregon Consensus focuses its efforts on public policy issues in Oregon. By public policy, we mean the actions that governing bodies take, in the public interest, to address society’s needs or problems. Public policy often shapes how tax money and other resources will be used, and it may directly affect individuals, local communities or the entire state. Public policy is often documented in laws and regulations or formal plans that policy makers publish. Policy makers may include legislators, government agencies, city councils, county supervisors, school boards, public universities, as well as citizens who serve on advisory boards or commissions, and more. Examples of public policy issues that Oregon Consensus has helped with include:

  • The Department of Environmental Quality needed to involve people in developing a plan to address air pollution in Portland.
  • State trail users in central Oregon wanted rule changes to make the area safe for skiers, dog owners, and snowmobilers.
  • Construction of a new railroad crossing threatened access to a local business and the affected parties needed to agree on the best approach.
  • Hispanic communities and advocates in Oregon met to identify and prioritize community needs to address with government in the future.
  • A local neighborhood association disagreed with a government land-use decision allowing a development near the neighborhood. The association appealed the decision to the Land Use Board of Appeals and Oregon Consensus mediated the disagreement.

See our projects pages for more examples of public policy issues we have worked on.

Is Oregon Consensus a government agency?

Not exactly. Government agencies generally have responsibility for creating and implementing public policy to accomplish a regulatory, enforcement or public service mission. Oregon Consensus does not perform those tasks; instead, we provide expertise to help government agencies and Oregonians work together effectively to develop and agree on public policy. We do not suggest what those public policies should be, and we do not take a position on what the collaborators decide. While we are not a government agency in the typical sense, we are part of a public university, which is funded in part by Oregon tax dollars. So, in this sense, we are a public body.

You do facilitation and mediation for state and local governments and their constituents. Do you also work with the federal government?

Yes. Many issues impacting Oregon are overseen by federal agencies. For example, much of Oregon’s public land is managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. Federal agencies sometimes ask Oregon Consensus to facilitate their collaboration with local governments and other interested Oregonians to address issues that impact Oregon specifically, or regional issues that impact Oregon and neighboring states.

When is collaboration appropriate?

Collaborative public policy decision making  is most effective when:

  • A pressing public issue is so important it motivates people to invest time, effort, and money to resolve it.
  • People have resources to invest in solving the problem.
  • No single group of stakeholders can get what they want on their own, and all stakeholders recognize that they need each others’ support to resolve the problem.

Issues that are complex and do not require an immediate solution are especially well suited for collaboration, but simpler or urgent issues can be resolved collaboratively in a short time as well.

How is the right facilitator or mediator matched to the project?

Oregon Consensus has experienced staff available to work with your group. We also have a network of skilled affiliated practitioners who work for us when additional staffing or expertise is needed. This network includes some of the most accomplished firms in the policy area, many of whom have worked with us often and with great success. We involve you and your group closely in the mediator selection process. We can issue a recruitment announcement to find a mediator in our network who has extensive expertise in your subject area. We are available to narrow the list of candidates and conduct interviews, and even recommend a final selection for your group, or we can coordinate your efforts to complete all or part of the selection process yourself. In any case, we work with you to find a mediator who is well-matched to your needs.

What do you mean by consensus?

Consensus building (also called agreement seeking) involves a range of collaborative decision-making processes. In these processes, a mediator helps people with diverse interests work together to find common ground and agree on solutions that all members of the group can support. Consensus building typically encourages dialogue. It clarifies areas of agreement and disagreement. It improves information used in the process. And it resolves controversial issues using structured, face-to-face interaction among stakeholders. Consensus does not mean all participants agree completely on every part of an issue. It means that they can support the decision completely even though they might wish the decision could be slightly different. The goal of consensus building is to gain early participation from people who are affected by an issue. It also aims to produce sound policies that a wide range of people can support. And it reduces the likelihood of later disagreements or legal challenges.

Do you provide legal advice?

No. We help people reach decisions collaboratively. Participation in any collaboration led by Oregon Consensus is voluntary, and group decisions are not binding. So, many participants feel no need for legal advice.  Collaborative solutions are usually based on consideration of much more than the legal aspects of an issue. These solutions arise when participants give serious consideration to the interests of others. There is nothing wrong with seeking advice from your own attorney regarding the public policy issue; however, it is important to remember that our role at Oregon Consensus is not to ensure an outcome that necessarily reflects the law, but rather to help people find a solution that reflects the group’s interests. In general, when agreed-on solutions reflect the group’s interests, the solutions effectively address the legal issues as well.

What are mediation and facilitation?

The terms mediation and facilitation are often used interchangeably, but there are slight differences. Facilitation is a collaborative approach in which a neutral third party, called a facilitator, helps a group of individuals have constructive discussions that can lead to agreement on an issue. Facilitators work with participants to make sure the discussion includes all affected parties. They also help parties set ground rules and agendas. They manage interactions and keep the group on track toward project goals. Facilitators may work with groups who have a dispute over an issue, or they may facilitate discussions for groups who have no conflict at all, just a desire to work together to find solutions. Facilitation may be used for projects that last days, weeks or months.

Mediation is conducted in much the same way as facilitation; however, it is generally used when the parties clearly disagree and need to resolve a dispute, particularly a legal dispute or an administrative appeal of a government decision. Mediation may be a slightly more formal process than facilitation, and is usually completed in a short time. As with facilitation, mediation uses a neutral third party (mediator) to help disputing parties move toward agreement.  The parties make their own decisions and the mediator has no authority to impose solutions or enforce agreements.

Oregon Consensus provides facilitation services for most of its projects. However, Oregon Consensus does use mediation to resolve appeals to the Land Use Board of Appeals.

How long does collaboration take?

The length of collaborative group work varies considerably based on the complexity of the public policy issue, the number of people involved in the meetings, and any outside deadlines the groups must meet. Often, agreement or other outcomes can be reached in two or three meetings (often just one meeting for Land Use Board of Appeals cases). However, collaboration on long-standing, controversial issues or projects that bring together many government agencies to try to develop a plan that impacts the whole state or multiple states can take months and many meetings. In any case, Oregon Consensus works with participants to design a process that meets their needs with the smallest possible investment of time and money.