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Public managers need skills for collaboration and negotiation, report says

June 8, 2009

Public managers increasingly make decisions and address problems as part of networks of agencies and organizations. As a result, they need to develop skills that are essential to collaborative problem-solving, says a new report co-authored by an Indiana University professor.

"The new public manager must acquire negotiation, communication and listening skills in order to function in a networked world," said Lisa Blomgren Bingham, the Keller-Runden Professor of Public Service at the IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs.

"The skills are not hard to acquire -- the literature is well established. What we've done is try to make it easily accessible," said Bingham, co-author of the report with Rosemary O'Leary, distinguished professor of public administration at Syracuse University.

Their 40-page monograph, A Manager's Guide to Resolving Conflicts in Collaborative Networks, was published by the IBM Center for the Business of Government and released this week. It can be downloaded from the IBM Center's Web site at http://www.businessofgovernment.org/main/publications/grant_reports/details/index.asp?GID=302.

Bingham -- who in 2007 was one of 34 fellows inducted into the National Academy of Public Administration -- said public management has grown more complex in recent decades, with more decisions made in networks of organizations.

Government agencies increasingly contract tasks to third parties, and "systems level" issues involve multiple players. Watershed management, for example, brings together federal and state agencies, cities and towns in the watershed, and stakeholder groups from recreation, agriculture and industry. Top-down, hierarchical decision-making may have worked in a bureaucracy, but it's not effective in networks.

Also, some conflict is inevitable in networks, Bingham and O'Leary write, and if not managed, can spiral out of control. "The earlier a network conflict is managed, the better," they write. "Thus, collaborative managers need to be conflict managers and conflict resolvers."

They advocate managing conflict through "interest-based negotiation," which focuses on satisfying as many needs as possible for all involved groups. And they provide guidelines for preparing to negotiate, for solving problems collaboratively and for using communication skills such as reflective or active listening and the use of "I-statements."

The report also addresses involving citizens in public decisions, often a challenge when networks are involved. It points to models such as the AmericaSpeaks "Listening to the City" process, used to engage New Yorkers on how to redevelop Ground Zero after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, and the Kettering Foundation National Issues Forum.