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Assessing the Issues



Process design – planning for planning – is a vitally important stage of the collaborative process.  Process design is the stage between deciding to have a process and beginning the process.  It includes the decisions of when, where, and how to meet, as well as who will be there.  If the design is flawed, the process, not the substantive issue, becomes a focus of debate.  Process design theory sets parameters for determining appropriate procedures.  Within those parameters, there is a great deal of latitude to tailor the process to your situation, politics, and needs.

Process design decisions must be part of the collaborative process.  If one significant stakeholder does not trust you, he probably will not trust your process.  However, if he is involved in designing the process, the product is shared and is more likely to be supported.

Since collaborative processes are new to many, the design stage can help you articulate how this process differs from conventional ways of making decisions.  Clearly describing the process and creating realistic expectations is one of the foundations of success.

Collaborative processes have a structural element and a temporal element, and both must be carefully designed.  In designing the structural element, you must consider who will be involved and the setting in which people will interact.  Designing the temporal element requires you to be well apprised of the issues that the group will be working on and to be cognizant of the information that will be needed by the group.

Process design begins with a detailed assessment of the physical, social, and political situation that the stakeholders are facing in their attempt to improve water quality in the watershed. The results of this situation assessment will help you design a collaborative planning process that involves the “right” stakeholders and addresses the “right” issues in a manner that is suitable for both.


The Situation Assessment

It is important to be thoroughly prepared prior to convening a collaborative decision-making process.  Preparation will increase the likelihood of successfully meeting your goals.  A situation assessment is an excellent preparation tool. 

A situation assessment is an analysis of the local situation that helps the convenor determine the best way to proceed and effectively deal with the issue. The situation assessment is centered on two basic parameters that will shape the collaborative process: the issues that are important to stakeholders; and the characteristics of those stakeholders and the organizations they represent. 

Ongoing assessment of the issues and other dynamics is essential to developing effective strategy and making wise choices in conflict situations.  The following guide offers a series of questions to help identify useful information regarding the issue.  The commentary is specifically focused on gathering and interpreting data from a situation assessment that will help in convening a process where participants can effectively engage in solving a problem.  Assessment is also useful for developing and clarifying parties’ interests in preparation for problem deliberation.  Broad participation in an analysis and assessment process by all the parties will help build a shared perspective on the problem and the steps necessary to move forward.  Indeed, joint analysis is often a key step in bringing parties to the table.

For further information on how to conduct an assessment, see Managing Public Disputes by Susan Carpenter and W.J.D. Kennedy, Jossey Bass Publishers, San Francisco, 1988, or Working Through Environmental Conflict: The Collaborative Learning Approach by Steven E. Daniels and Gregg B. Walker, Praeger, Westport CT, 2001.

Conducting a situation assessment before convening a collaborative process provides three major benefits:

  • The information gathering stage introduces possible stakeholders to the potential for a collaborative process as well as specifics about how such processes are conducted.
  • Participation in information gathering can help to build a shared perspective on the problem and the steps necessary to move forward.
  • The convenor can determine the feasibility of entering into a collaborative process and the issues that may be amenable to a resolution.

Conducting a thorough situation assessment helps to accomplish the following:

    • identifying stakeholders;
    • assessing the political climate;
    • identifying similar on-going efforts (avoiding duplication and encouraging partnerships);
    • determining educational needs;
    • building trust and recognition of the sponsoring agency and the facilitator;
    • identifying issues of importance;
    • identifying areas of conflict;
    • identifying relationships and dynamics between stakeholders;
    • generating interest in collaborative problem-solving and partnerships.

Some pitfalls of proceeding without an assessment include:

    • leaving out key participants;
    • not addressing appropriate issues;
    • framing the issues in ways that will keep stakeholders from the table;
    • proceeding without sufficient commitments; and
    • not having enough resources to complete the process.

The two sections that follow, Understanding the Issues and Understanding the Stakeholders, pose a series of questions whose answers provide the framework for a solid, well-conceived collaborative process.


Gaining a basic understanding of the issues can help the group get to the task of orienting toward a problem to be solved. Once the issues are clear, some determination can be made about how they can be approached.

Conditions for Controversy

In an ideal world, public participation would be rationally developed and participants would become involved to ensure that their interests are met.  In the real world another factor intervenes: controversy.   As an issue evolves into controversy, its resolution becomes more difficult to achieve.  A series of factors or conditions combine to create a climate for controversy.  Among the more important conditions are:

  • the issue affects the way people live, or affects them financially;
  • the issue involves local activists who gain support and information from organizations outside the community;
  • concern about the issues extends beyond the immediate community;
  • public officials and the concerned public lack close and continuous contact.
  • The situation represents high stakes for one or more people or organizations
  • the issue affects lives of different community members differently;
  • stakeholders are capable of taking some action regarding this event or circumstance.

History of the Situation

The issue’s history may be a guide to further action for individuals and organizations involved.

  • Is the issue newly emerging, or have stakeholders been grappling with it over time?
  • Have there been previous attempts to resolve the issue?  Have some stakeholders perceived they lost something in the outcome?
  • Do some stakeholders perceive a sense of past injustices over this issue or related issues?
  • Have external events influenced the situation?  How?  Will they affect the decision-making process or the outcomes?

What are the issues?

  • How does each stakeholder describe his own central issues?
  • Do the issues differ for those who have the authority for the decision and those who seek to influence the decision?
  • Is resolution of the issues likely to be precedent-setting?
  • Are there secondary issues that may have an impact on the process or the outcome?
  • Are the issues local or do they involve people, organizations and institutions at a larger geographical scale (regional, statewide, national, international)?
  • Can the issues be framed to address the concerns of all the parties?

Is the timing of the issue appropriate?

  • Is the community facing an emergency where quick action is required?  If so, a collaborative process may not be appropriate.
  • Is relevant information available?
  • Are deadlines too tight?

How does each stakeholder see the available options for each issue?

  • Have options been developed for each central issue?  For secondary issues?
  • Are the options well defined?
  • Have all the potential options been explored by all stakeholders?
  • Do any of the options seem to meet the needs of all of stakeholders?
  • Does any stakeholder feel that none of the options meet his needs?
  • If new options are generated, will extensive or expensive further study be required?

If all the potential options have been generated and none seems to meet the needs of the stakeholders, collaborative decision-making may be difficult.  If new options can be created that better meet their needs, collaborative decision-making processes may be appropriate. 

Are there any likely existing forums for resolving issues?

  • Are there any forums that have been used to resolve similar situations in the past?  Have they been perceived as productive?
  • Do some of the issues require a certain kind of forum (i.e., constitutional issues may require court involvement)?

The existence of several forums may allow some parties to go forum-shopping.  Sometimes the choice of forum is limited by the issues.

Are Formal Processes Typically Used for Resolving These Issues?

  • Can all the stakeholders use the formal process?
  • Is the formal process adjudicative, administrative, consensual or legislative?

The formal process often helps define the informal process.  Collaborative decision-making processes may only be able to produce advisory outcomes if formal legislative or judicial action is needed.  If all of the primary stakeholders cannot participate in the formal process, they may seek to sabotage the formal process or engage in alternatives.

Must External Parameters be Followed?

  • Are there any statutes or regulations that govern action in this situation? Is there any flexibility?
  • Have there been any similar situations whose outcome will influence what happens here?

The external context may limit your possibilities for alternative solutions.

What are the Data and Information Needs?

  • Do the stakeholders believe sufficient data are available?
  • Are the data and their analysis considered trustworthy by the parties?
  • Will each stakeholder feel comfortable working with a common body of data?

Developing a common understanding of the problem may require further data collection or additional analysis.  Each stakeholder must feel comfortable with the data.

Will the Outcome Set New Precedents or be Focused Solely on Principle?

When the settlement sets a precedent for the resolution of similar issues to follow, parties often have too much at stake to negotiate effectively.  The court system may the best venue for resolution of such an issue.  When the focus of an issue is on basic differences in values, room for accommodation does not exist.  Abortion is an example of such an issue.


Who are the Stakeholders?

Identifying the stakeholders is critical to the success of a consensus-building process.  Frequently, individuals or organizations with a stake in the outcome attempt to destroy the process because they felt they were not involved in the process until it was too late to impact the decision.

Stakeholders include those who:

  • are affected or potentially affected by a solution,
  • have the potential to obstruct an agreement or its implementation.
  • have the authority to make the decision and/or the resources to carry it out.

Every member of a community may be somehow affected by an issue.  Yet many will choose not to participate.  They may believe that their views are already represented, their impact will be negligible, or the issue has already been decided.  On the other hand, there may be those who are demanding to participate, but may – by perception or reality – be blocked from the process.  The challenge in this case is to incorporate their views into the decision-making forum.

Early on, it is often important to separate stakeholders into the categories of primary and secondary.  Primary stakeholders are those, who because of power, status, position, or responsibility, are central to making the consensus agreement work.  Primary stakeholders are often consulted about how to construct an acceptable decision-making process since the outcome needs to respond to their expectations.  Secondary stakeholders may still need to be involved in the process, but their role is peripheral to the central role of primary stakeholders.  Secondary stakeholders need to be kept informed as the process unfolds.  

What Do Stakeholders Want?

Understanding stakeholder, perspectives, motivation, and underlying interests can help you understand similarities and differences and find common interests.  People’s behavior and interpersonal interactions in social processes directly reflect their perspectives. 

  • What are the stated positions of each stakeholder?
  • What are the stated goals of each stakeholder?
  • What are the expectations of each stakeholder regarding processes and outcomes?
  • What are the underlying interests of each stakeholder?
  • What are the dominant values that appear to guide the actions of each stakeholder?  Are they mutually exclusive?
  • Do any of the positions, goals, interests, values, or issues of any stakeholder challenge the identity of other parties?
  • Do any stakeholders view the issues as “high stake” issues?
  • Are there common interests that might provide the basis for an agreement?
  • Do stakeholders perceive their alternatives to a negotiated agreement to be favorable?

If stakeholders have superior strategic alternatives to a collaborative process, they may pursue those alternatives.  Such processes may be particularly difficult to sell to some of the parties.

Who are the Leaders?

Identifying leadership and ultimately determining representation of primary stakeholders is often a part of the process designer's task.  Optimally, this task is shared by the stakeholders.  Leaders likely to be influential often include those who:

  • hold leadership positions in organizations with a stake in the issue;
  • are perceived as influential by the stakeholders;
  • have participated in prior similar decisions, and
  • participate in a wide range of community activities.

Any person who comes from all four categories can be extremely influential.

How are the Stakeholders Organized?

  • Are the primary stakeholders mostly organizational entities?
  • What is their structure - hierarchical? Collective?
  • Does each organization have identified leadership?
  • What is the relationship between the leadership and others?

Government and private sector organizations often use hierarchical structures where all decision-making power is vested at the top.  Citizen groups often have very flat hierarchies, that is, their organizational structure is collective.  Here, leaders are not granted as much authority and decision-making power is often vested with the members.

If the stakeholders come primarily from hierarchical organizations, each organization may only desire a few representatives at the table.  On the other hand, if there are many organizations with grass-roots dominated structures, a much larger group of people may need to participate.

There also are circumstances where many stakeholders are not represented by an organization.  In these cases, the challenge is greater.  The process is as important to individuals as it is to groups, and their involvement may be crucial to building and implementing consensus agreements.

If each party is well organized and will vest responsibility in its leadership, ascertaining representatives will be easier.

How Are the Stakeholders Linked?

Groups will often develop an identity based upon other groups they relate to.  Some groups will be horizontally linked to similar groups.   For example, a neighborhood association may be linked to similar associations through a federation. Those with horizontal links know their geographic community.  Their contribution is often expertise in assessing community views, needs, and expectations.

Other groups will have vertical links to those outside the community.  Professional groups such as bar associations and medical societies have these characteristics.  In addition, many local chapters of national activist organizations such as the Sierra Club or the National Rifle Association also share this characteristic.  Groups with vertical links often can bring technical expertise and sophisticated political experience to public involvement processes.

What is the Status of Stakeholder Relationships?

Past relationships that worked well can be the basis for developing collaborative decision-making efforts.  Difficult relationships, especially those characterized by distrust, may need to be addressed directly for collaborative decision-making to be productive. If the current relationships are healthy, collaborative decision-making will help maintain strong relationships.  If current relationships are contentious or characterized by lack of trust, either a strong past relationship, a desire for a future relationship, or high levels of interdependence can mitigate current difficulties.  A desire for a future working relationship can be a strong impetus for using collaborative decision-making processes.

  • Do any of the stakeholders have a history of relationships with other stakeholders?
  • Has that history been productive or conflictive?
  • Were the relationships characterized by trust and respect?
  • Have any of the stakeholders avoided other stakeholders because they believed that working relationships would be difficult?
  • Do any of the stakeholders desire a future working relationship with other stakeholders?
  • Will the stakeholders need to work together on implementing an agreement?
  • Are the stakeholders forced to interact regularly because of the nature of their work or networks?
  • Are the stakeholders sufficiently interdependent so that they can meet their goals and satisfy their interests through cooperation?
  • Are the stakeholders able to influence one another?
  • Are the stakeholders capable of taking (or preventing) actions of one anther to meet their goals and satisfy their interests?
  • If the stakeholders are polarized, are productive, face-to-face discussions possible?

How do the Stakeholders Use Their Power and Influence?

Of the stakeholders who do not have formal authority for the decision, but seek to influence the decision:

  • Does any stakeholder have the capacity to block decisions that they do not approve?
  • Does any stakeholder have an incentive to escalate the conflict?
  • What is the capacity of each stakeholder to sustain its involvement over time?
  • Does any stakeholder need another in order to accomplish its goals?  Does interdependence exist between these stakeholders and the decision makers?
  • Have any stakeholders used their power to prevent others from reaching their goals?  Have any used their power to help other stakeholders?

If some parties have the capacity to block decisions, they will certainly need to be involved in the process.  If the parties have the capacity to sustain activities, they may be able to effectively participate in a collaborative decision-making process.  If the parties need each other to accomplish their objectives, collaborative decision-making may be appropriate. If one of the parties has systematically used its power in a direct attempt to injure other parties, those parties will be distrustful and very wary of collaborative decision-making processes.

Of the parties who do have formal authority for the decision:

  • Can they make and implement any decision they please?
  • Are they constrained by previous decisions or decisions made by others? (e.g., legislative bodies, precedent)
  • Can they sustain their involvement over time in any kind of process (e.g., legal, negotiated)
  • Do they need others to accomplish their goals?

If the parties can make and implement any decision they please, reasons for entering collaborative decision-making will be for other than their substantive interests.  If they cannot, they may seek a process where they can protect their essential interests and sustain their involvement over time.

Understanding the stakeholder population, their organizations, their networks, and the context in which they work can help you determine how to structure a conflict resolution or citizen involvement process that meets their needs.



In general, a public issue is amenable to collaboration if it contains the following elements:

  • Parties are not happy with the status-quo.
  • Parties are interdependent and must rely on the cooperation of one another to meet their goals and satisfy their needs.
  • Parties are able to influence one another.  They are capable of taking (or preventing) actions of one another to meet their goals or satisfy their needs.
  • Parties are not too polarized; productive, face-to-face discussions are possible.
  • It is possible to identify the primary parties and involve them with the problem solving process.
  • Deadlines or time constraints exist that pressure the parties into sharing the desire for a prompt solution.
  • Parties are aware that alternative procedures or outcomes to a negotiated settlement do not appear as desirable or viable.
  • Parties are likely to agree on issues in the dispute.
  • Real interests of the parties are not entirely incompatible.
  • External influences exist which encourage the parties to work together.

Alternatively, it is useful to know when collaborative processes should not be used.  Collaborative processes are probably not appropriate when:

  • The convenor’s sole motivation is to create an appearance of openness or consensus.
  • A crucial principal is at stake over which defeat by one of the parties would be preferable to any appearance of compromise.
  • Any parties believe their interests would be fully satisfied without negotiating.
  • Limitations on information, time, and other practical considerations are too severe.

 Adapted from The Mediation Process by Christopher Moore, Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco, 1988.