A New Way to Solve Community Problems

Every town and city consists of diverse groups, including young adults, the middle-aged and senior citizens; blue-collar workers, white-collar workers and the unemployed; singles, couples, families and one-parent households; liberals, conservatives and most points in between. Each of these groups has its own needs, values and interests, which may collide with other groups' needs, values and interests.

So, elected officials often enact measures that will appease the most vocal groups. Local governments thereby adopt many measures that leave the community's conflicts unresolved — likely to fester and erupt at a future date.

Fortunately, there is a more constructive way for any community to resolve its most contentious issues. This new approach draws on the many cases in which representatives outside of government have resolved divisive issues in ways that all parties endorsed. These success stories suggest how representatives inside government can find optimal solutions to intractable problems.

One of the most prominent successes occurred at the national level. In February 1996, after two decades of nationwide conflict over environmental policy, the CEOs of six top corporations, the heads of five major environmental groups and four members of President Bill Clinton’s cabinet agreed unanimously on a long-range plan that would resolve the major environmental questions of that time more efficiently and cost effectively than any government body had to date.1

Each member of this group, called the Council on Sustainable Development, then pitched the plan to his or her allies in the outside world. The CEOs won the support of every relevant industry association. The environmental members won the endorsement of nearly every environmental group. And the government officials secured the backing of other regulatory agencies.

Yet to date, Congress has been unable to reach equally good agreements on how to create a pristine environment at reasonable cost. Instead, America’s lawmakers continue to fight over environmental issues as heatedly as ever.

The same scenario has unfolded over other critical issues: Representatives from across the political spectrum have crafted fair, sensible solutions to issues as contentious as how to save Social Security2, how to reduce our consumption of foreign oil3, and how to reform the health care system4. Yet elected officials have repeatedly failed to resolve these very same issues.

At the local level, representatives for stakeholding groups have resolved many issues that politicians could not. For instance, in early 1995, Oregon state lawmakers could not resolve a dispute between two state agencies. The Department of Transportation wanted to make rural roads safer without meeting all the environmental statutes for that kind of work. Meanwhile, the Department of Land Conservation insisted that preserviong the Oregon countryside mattered as much as public safety. At an impasse, the two agencies decided to approach the groups with the biggest stake in the issue — including the state’s environmentalists, its farmers, major businesses, county engineers and planning directors. The agencies asked each group to pick a spokesperson. These representatives, meeting five times, were able to hammer out a proposal that all of them supported. Their respective groups endorsed the plan as well. Both state agencies gladly accepted the recommendations.

So did the state legislature. Oregon lawmakers liked the result so much that they passed a bill directing that other battles over land use be resolved by assembling a task force of stakeholders.

Even the U.S. Congress has acknowledged that political adversaries outside government can solve problems that officials inside government cannot. In the Negotiated Rulemaking Act of 1990, Congress allowed representatives for opposing interest groups to draft certain federal regulations. For instance, when a federal agency tackles a particularly controversial issue, the agency may fear that any proposal it comes up with will anger some interest groups enough to file lawsuits blocking the plan. To avoid that kind of fight, the agency can invite every relevant interest group to send a spokesperson to Washington. If those representatives can agree on a regulation, the agency can adopt it — confident that all the concerned parties will support the decision.

Long-standing opponents have used this procedure to negotiate regulations on nuclear wastes, food inspections, student loans, public housing and Medicare payments.5 In every case, all parties endorsed the outcome.

What is about these ideological adversaries outside government that has enabled them to resolve problems that politicians on the inside could not?

In most cases, each successful negotiator had a large group of people counting on him or her personally to advance a cause they all shared. Take the Council on Sustainable Development. Each environmental leader spoke for dozens of colleagues and thousands of contributors to their organizations, all intent on protecting the environment. Meanwhile, each corporate CEO spoke for thousands of executives in his industry, all intent on boosting their companies’ performance. Each advocate thereby felt unrelenting pressure to advance his or her own camp’s agenda.

To make real progress for his own camp, each spokesperson realized that he or she had to strike a deal with their long-standing opponents. Each representative was then ideally positioned to explain to all the people in his camp — in terms compelling to them — how that deal with their long-term enemies would advance their own cause.

In effect, what enables a representative to make an intelligent decision on a controversial issue is to know that he or she is representing people who share his outlook on that issue. He can then be confident that if he negotiates a wise agreement — one that will give all parties significant benefits at the least cost — that the people in his own camp will listen to him explain how that agreement is the most practical way to address their own concerns.

Fortunately, any community enmeshed in difficult conflicts can use this same approach. It can organize a body of representatives in which each one speaks for a group of community residents who share his or her outlook on the issues in question. And these representatives are more likely to devise an intelligent solution than any governmental body chosen by other methods.

To see how your community can apply this approach, click here.

To see how the whole country could use this approach to resolve any national issue, click here.


*1 Sustainable America: A New Consensus for Prosperity, Opportunity, and a Healthy Environment for the Future (U.S. Government Printing Office, 1996).

2 The 21st Century Retirement Security Plan: The National Commission on Retirement Policy Final Report (Washington: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 1999)

3 Ending the Energy Stalemate: A Bipartisan Strategy to Meet America's Energy Challenges and the website www.energycommission.org

4 A Vision for Consumer-Driven Health Care Reform (The Consensus Group, 1999) http://www.galen.org/fileuploads/vision.pdf

5 Negotiated Rulemaking Sourcebook by David Pritzker and Deborah Dalton (U.S. Government Printing Office, 1995).*