Editor’s note: In the first installment of this two-part article, the author uses a case study to discuss the uses of ADR’s facilitation process in communicating about and resolving public sector disputes. 


A government agency wants to move a highly controversial and potentially dangerous laboratory from its present location to a pristine rural area near an up-scale suburb of a university-dominated town. Without consultation with the town council, the mayor writes a letter to the agency promoting the town as an ideal site.  The mayor is supported by the local university’s scientific faculty and research administration.  They do not anticipate the opposition of the local citizenry and other members of the university community, who oppose the project because the laboratory handles highly toxic pathogens.  In fact these groups are incensed.  A number of facilitated “town hall” meetings are organized to protest the possibility of locating the lab anywhere near the town.  These meetings reveal deep divisions between the university scientific establishment, local public officials, and citizens.  This situation calls for the application of Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) methods including group facilitation and mediation.

Public Sector Mediation

It is challenging enough to mediate a dispute among private parties willing to put aside their biases, listen to their opponents, and seriously consider the strengths and weaknesses of their respective positions. However, in the public sector, when government entities are parties and there is potentially public danger, public engagement mediators face additional challenges identified in this article.

One challenge arises out of the government decision-making structure. In the private sector, the ultimate authority to settle a dispute usually rests with the company's CEO. But in the public sector, no single individual is likely to have the final word.  There are often tiers of individuals, committees, and/or public bodies that have to weigh in on the decision. These cumbersome layers may be attributable to the separation of powers between the legislative branch and the "executive" public agencies. Whatever the reason, the complexity of the process slows decisions to a crawl. Moreover, the settlement generally does not become final without some ­­form of legislative review.

Another feature of public dispute resolution is transparency. In private sector disputes, decisions about the outcome generally are made behind closed doors. Government decisions, by contrast, generally are exposed to media and public scrutiny. Invariably, some confidentiality is sacrificed, and participants are therefore less assertive in their actions.

Description of the Dispute

Our story begins with a visit to my office by two citizens of Athens, GA - the home of the University of Georgia. They represented a number of people who were concerned about what they understood to be a unilateral decision, by the local mayor, the university’s research administration, the governor and the Georgia Consortium for Health and Agro-Security to respond to an RFP from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to provide a site for the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF).  DHS’ plan was to construct a modern, cutting-edge laboratory to study animal and human infectious diseases. Eighteen states, including Georgia, responded. 

Though the governor secured the endorsement of state and local officials including Athens’ mayor, rumors about the facility were rife. Alarmed citizens feared for their safety and that of their families. At first there was little to no positive press coverage to allay these fears. Soon, several items appeared in the local press that indicated the desire of the federal government to protect both animals and humans against the rapid spread of current and future infectious diseases like West Nile virus, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), and avian influenza that might jump from birds to humans. 

These news articles stated that the proposed laboratory would be a safe, secure and state-of-the-art facility designed and built to the highest level of biosafety (BSL-4). Scientists would be able to conduct research on a variety of other high-consequence foreign animal and zoonotic diseases such as Swine Fever, Rift Valley Fever, Hendra, Nipah and Japanese Encephalitis viruses, Contagious Bovine Pleuropneumonia, and Foot and Mouth Disease. As an after-thought these news articles stated that these state-of-the-art labs were designed not only to protect researchers from contamination, but also to keep the community safe by preventing microorganisms from entering the environment.

  Upon learning that the state had proposed a site on university property less than half a mile from several up-scale residential neighborhoods and a river that served the community, citizens became very concerned. By the time the DHS had announced in August 2006 a shortlist of 18 sites located in 11 states including Georgia, citizen apprehension had reached a new level of anxiety. These concerns were expressed in letters to the editors of the local press, on radio talk shows, and in local eateries and other public venues. 

In July 2007, DHS announced that Athens was on the short list of five finalists (including sites in Manhattan, Kansas; Flora, Mississippi; Plum Island, New York; Butner, North Carolina; and San Antonio, Texas.) A draft Environmental Impact Statement was issued in the spring of 2008. Although DHS and the Georgia Consortium purportedly provided structured opportunities for public input during the environmental review process, the citizens who had approached me were less than impressed.  They opined that the University and the local government were “in bed together” at the expense of the community. I was asked to facilitate a meeting by a community of activists who were alarmed at the speed with which this project was moving towards closure. 

The Community Meeting – the Process

In short order, a steering committee was formed, a site for the meeting located, and publicity generated.  The community meeting was scheduled for late spring, 2008. It was to take place in the public space of a local faith-based organization. I specifically asked for “round tables” to promote conversation and to minimize conflict.  I also asked that public officials be seated at the same table. I wanted there to be a free flow and exchange of ideas, opinions, and constructive suggestions. Finally, I requested two microphones. Together with the steering committee I structured an agenda and arranged to provide flip charts and other normal facilitation aids.

Perhaps it is appropriate to at this point to discuss facilitation as an aspect of dispute resolution.  Facilitators can help in a variety of circumstances, environments and stages of the decision-making process.  Unlike mediation, which generally involves a small number of individuals, group facilitation involves many individuals, using several methods or techniques to improve the flow of information. Though the terms “facilitator” and “mediator” are often used interchangeably, the former does not typically become as involved in substantive issues as does the latter. The facilitator focuses more on the process, helping the group work together more effectively in achieving its objectives. These might include solving problems, identifying opportunities, arriving at a decision, reaching consensus, or developing and implementing plans.

Outside facilitators are particularly helpful when a group is working on a new initiative or project and is “stuck,” or where there is considerable dissension or angst among group participants.  It is also a way to quickly elicit a variety of ideas, and engage or defuse an angry public.  In short, the facilitator serves as an impartial third party, helping the group plan, design and run effective and productive meetings.  The net result is that groups that use facilitators are generally satisfied with their decisions and are more committed to their implementation.

Facilitation has been evolving over the last fifty years.  Traditionally, a facilitator was equipped with two set of “tools.”  They were:

  • Human behavior tools so he or she could influence the contribution of various group members, i.e. encouraging some individuals to speak up and protecting others from attack,  or minimizing dominance by one or two participants; and,
  • Various tools for managing the time, i.e. the creation of an agenda, monitoring the group’s process in discussing agenda items, and helping the group reach consensus, make decisions, and set action plans.

Effective facilitators try to bring out a variety of opinions and ideas, at the same time ensuring that all participants feel they are valued contributors to the discussion.

Over the years,  a number facilitation techniques and modalities have emerged, from a defined set of decision-making steps each with its own methodology to an open systems approach where participants create and design their own session.  Typically, facilitators begin by clearly defining the role they will play and the strategies they will use.  In addition, they help set ground rules for how group members will interact with each other, how long and when group members will speak, and how the group will make decisions.  They help participants discuss issues so that the end result is an outcome that all can support.

Using flip charts, electronic boards, and/or web conferencing tools to capture ideas, decisions, or action plans generated by group participants as well as the flow of the discussion, the facilitator provides a “recorded” memory for the group.  When done correctly, multiple ideas are generated and subsets of solutions begin to emerge. These in turn lead to discussions within the larger group, and form the basis for the plan or decision which is eventually implemented.

Facilitators have been called “neutral servants,” responsible for making sure participants were using the most effective approaches to problem-solving and decision-making while reaching consensus efficiently.  This is still true.  Although the role of facilitators has grown dramatically in the past few years, the skill set of the facilitator remains constant.

In the context of a public dispute, facilitation is particularly useful when groups are discussing complex or controversial issues that entail long- term processes of deliberation and analysis, involve multiple stakeholders and/or require an outsider’s unbiased attention to structure processes that take into consideration power and interest differentials among stakeholders.  What’s more, in the long run, the use of a good facilitator saves time and money.

By Milton Lopez, PhD

Milton E. Lopes, Ph.D. is an experienced management consultant, educator, facilitator and mediator whose work is underpinned by both theoretical knowledge and real-world business experience. During his forty-five year career he has worked in community and economic development, industry, financial services, government and more recently as a Professor of Public Policy and Organization Theory. He is registered as a Neutral in the State of Georgia and certified in General and Civil Mediation and Domestic and Family Relations. He holds a Ph.D. in Public Policy and Administration and a MBA.