About the new field of Public Dispute Resolution
There are all kinds of public disputes happening at every level of governance. At present, they are either worked out behind-the-scenes by top level political decision-makers, become the focus of long and costly litigation, or find their way on to the legislative agenda. While each of these approaches has its strengths and weaknesses, the typical outcome often seems unfair or unresponsive to the groups and individuals most involved. Often, a great deal of time and money is wasted. While the least objectionable result often emerges, this usually means that outcomes that would be better for everyone are left undiscovered. Finally, the best scientific and technical advice is brushed aside as the politicians maneuver for short-term electoral advantage.
The MIT-Harvard Public Disputes Program has been working for almost twenty years to test new and better ways of resolving public disputes. We are particularly interested in disputes at the local, state, and national levels concerning the allocation of scarce resources (like land or water), the setting of policy priorities (Shall we emphasize economic development vs. environmental protection?), and the formulation of health and safety standards (What is an acceptable level of risk?). We have been involved in more than fifty major experiments using mediation and other forms of "assisted negotiation" to produce fairer, more efficient, more stable, wiser resolution of public disputes. Each time we get involved, we try to document what happens and then, drawing on a growing data base, draw whatever lessons we can about when and how to use the new techniques of public dispute resolution.
We have also used the results of these experiments to train citizen activists, business leaders, and government officials in the techniques of public dispute resolution. Several times each year we offer two-day short courses. Since 1990, more than 5,000 people have participated. In addition, we have developed "teaching packages" that others can use. And, indeed, these materials are now being used around the world.
Every year we publish books and articles describing our work and sharing the results of our reflections on the practice of public dispute resolution. At this point, we feel that the basic theory of public dispute resolution is "ready for prime time." The results of many "real world" interventions bear out the underlying ideas. Everything we have written is referenced on this web page. And, we are in the process of making links via this web page to the 200 - 300 people who now provide public dispute resolution services for a living.