Why would you want to build regional consensus during unfriendly times? What is the motivation for those who craft public policy to stop shooting each other and end up as drinking buddies...without giving away the farm? In this paper, I hope to plant the flag for regional visioning and problem solving and to do so in the context of the Tampa Bay Water Wars, fought a decade ago. There are always dangers in trying to translate your experiences to others and in a different time, but I respectfully suggest there are meaningful lessons learned from the Tampa Bay experience.
First let me paint the picture of the water dispute in the Tampa Bay area in the mid-1990’s. The key government players were Hillsborough, Pasco, and Pinellas counties; the cities of Tampa, St. Petersburg, and New Port Richey; and the Southwest Florida Water Management District (WMD).
-We were experiencing a multi-year drought.
-We had witnessed a couple of decades of significant population growth, now centered in unincorporated areas of Hillsborough and Pasco counties. The growth rates in Pinellas, once one of the highest in the state, had dwindled to virtually zero.
-Environmental impacts were occurring in the northern counties, at least partially due to groundwater pumping for the area’s drinking water.
-The press, both the Tampa Tribune and the St. Petersburg Times, were regularly covering the disputes over water and ridiculing our inability to solve the problems.
-The WMD had issued a “consumptive use permit” for Pinellas which allowed the county to pump the groundwater it was pumping; Pinellas wondered why these disputes were even happening.
-The northern counties and WMD were wondering why Pinellas was so obtuse not to see the environmental damage occurring, arguably, because of the pumping. House foundations were cracking because of soil subsidence, lakes and wetlands were drying up, cypress trees were falling over for lack of water. It was a grim picture, exposed almost daily in the press.
-The legislature was angered by the situation and was threatening to solve the problem for the disputing local governments.
-There was no regional entity, or regional leader of great power or standing addressing this subject matter.
-We had engaged in years of litigation; millions of dollars were spent; no regional peace reigned while this battle was going on, and worse...not a single new drop of new water had been produced for over a decade. The problem was not being addressed.
The search for common ground is the active pursuit of rational decision making; of the strategic concession. It is giving something up; giving something up of lesser value for something of greater value. It is compromise...not sacrifice. It is a win, but not that kind of bone-crushing, in your face, arms pumping in the air kind of win. It is the deeply personal, long lasting win that usually guarantees you can do business with the person again kind of win.
In its legal form, it is the reluctance to litigate. “Discourage litigation.” Lincoln said. “Persuade your neighbors to compromise whenever you can. Point out to them how the nominal winner is often a real loser-in fees, and expenses, and waste of time. As a peacemaker, the lawyer has a superior opportunity of being a good man. There will be business enough.”
I believe positional bargaining has limited value. I believe “fighting to the death” litigation, lobbing verbal bombs in the press, and an over-reliance on jurisdictional turf has little value... in finding long term solutions to most public disputes.
No, they do not. The desire to build consensus is not usually the first reaction. It goes against the grain in public debate.
After all, politics is about winners and losers. It is how you get to the position in the first place; you win an election. You are perceived as a champion for your cause, and your constituency. To settle, to negotiate, orworse, to appease, is to appear to be weak.
Seeking peace in contentious times is not usually the first goal. And I readily admit it should not be the only tool in the policy maker’s tool box. History gives us compelling examples of when there is no honorable negociation; when taking the hard-line is noble. (Lincoln’s insistence on emancipation and Dr. King’s refusal to settle the Montgomery bus strike come to mind.)
But few of us are called to lead in such times. As Princeton professor, Barbara Oberg, stated, “A stand for compromise is not the stuff of heroism, virtue or moral certainty. But it is the essence of the democratic process.”
So, in the public policy arena, why should the leader generally seek to resolve disputes, seek to be a consensus-builder, seek to be a peace maker?
First, it works. Offering the olive branch is often successful. Florida’s court administrators will tell you cases which voluntarily go to mediation are settled more than 60% of the time. The pain, and time, and cost associated with litigation is avoided by the parties who seek an acceptable settlement.
Second, finding peace tends to be less expensive than going to war, and third, cooperation begets cooperation. Most warring public entities have more in common than they might realize, not the least of which is they serve the people. In some cases, the same people and the battle is often over jurisdictional turf. Effective communication on small issues also leads to communicating on the more difficult challenges. Trust is built. You start to believe the problem can be solved, and you begin to focus on the problem not the person. You build an ethic of cooperation and it become commonplace for the policy maker to seek common ground first.
During the Tampa Bay Water Wars, the counties surrounding Tampa Bay shared many common challenges; the health of the bay, transportation, hurricane evacuation, economic development, and the list goes on. But if they could not solve their debate over drinking water, there was little impetus to address these other issues effectively. If they could, there was little to stop the momentum to address these other matters.
Based on this water war experience, and with some assistance from significant historical and academic figures, I respectfully propose 5 elements, or common threads found in successful public peace-making. They are:
1. Exercise the power to convene.
2. Shine an analytic light on the problem; use data as a foundation for public policy.
3. Interject a new perspective, a new idea; perhaps new players into the debate.
4. Articulate the principles underlying the solution.
5. Exercise humility.
1. Exercise The Power to Convene
In the fall of 1902, President Teddy Roosevelt was faced with a coal miners’ strike in Pennsylvania. The cost of coal was tripling, and the Mayor of New York wired the President with an ominous warning. “I cannot emphasize too strongly the immense injustices of the existing coal situation…millions of innocent people…will endure real suffering if present conditions continue.
President Roosevelt had no legal authority to engage in this matter; Pennsylvania had not requested federal aid, so it remained a state issue. But by this time, however, the strike was 5 months old; there had been as many as 14 murders, 67 aggravated assaults, and numerous riots, ambushes and cases of arson.
TR did what no President had ever done in a private sector labor/management dispute; he convened the parties. He invited mine owners and executives, and representatives from labor to Washington for a “sit down” with the President. He used his power, not any legal authority, to convene the disputing parties. The historian, Robert Morris writes, “he was bound to use what influence he had to end an intolerable situation.”
He was not there to be persuaded by the rightness of the parties’ positions. “I do not invite a discussion of your respective claims and positions,” he said as he completed his opening statement. He was not seeking justice; he was looking for an answer, a settlement, some mutually acceptable solution before the winter cold devastated both the people and the economy.
The power to convene. Most leaders have that power, but either; 1) do not use it, or
2) delegate it to some other player (an administrator or an agency) and then do not cloak that player with your personal power.
We get busy, focused on the crisis of the day; some might say by the tyranny of the crisis of the day. Fighting is simply easier, and certainly a more common response than making the tremendous effort to settle. The status quo is easier than creating something new. The key is to make sure that you are open to the conversation to build consensus, capable of exercising almost unnatural patience, and willing to provide your personal leadership in solving complex, multi-jurisdictional challenges.
2. Shine the Harsh Light of Truth on the Issue; use data as a foundation for public policy
Roger Fisher, a professor of law at Harvard and Director of the Harvard Negotiation Project, is the “godfather” of dispute resolution theory. In 1981, he co-authored the national bestseller, Getting to Yes, (with William Ury) and the book remains a “must read” in forwarding the goal of finding resolution to conflict. This short volume directs the reader to:
-separate the people from the problem
-focus on interests and not positions
-establish precise goals at the outset of the negotiations
-invent options for mutual gain, and
-insist on using objective criteria.
These are elements of what Fisher describes as principled negotiation, and it is the last recommendation I wish to highlight. It is principled to agree to use provable, objective, “say with a straight face” criteria. Deals can be explained, and will last, when they are based on a solid, factual foundation.
Fisher writes, “The more you bring standards of fairness, efficiency, or scientific merit to bear on your particular problem, the more likely you are to produce a final package that is wise and fair…It is far easier to deal with people when both of you are discussing objective standards for settling a problem instead of trying to force each other to back down.”
Fairly early in my tenure as a local elected official, that analytic light was shined directly in my face. A WMD Board Member, the late Roy Harrell, heard me speak about the future of our county’s water supply. It was an article of faith for a Pinellas politician that a desalination plant would never be permitted on the Anclote River; too much salty brine would be placed in the receiving water body.
I had repeatedly made that comment in public and Mr. Harrell finally challenged me to back it up; he urged me to fly to Tallahassee to meet with the Department of Environmental Protection’s primary reviewer of these kinds of permits. We did. I asked the staff person if a desalination plant could be permitted. Based on his initial regulatory review, he thought it could be permitted and it certainly would receive a permit before a new well-field would.
In a single meeting, a long-held assumption was debunked and a piece to the settlement of the water wars was put in place.
Water supply, like many other policy challenges, is complex subject matter and often the truth is not always so evident. It is shaded and soft around the edges, and sometimes with characteristics of both science and politics. Finding truth in public policy is not like finding it in chemistry or math. But there is objective criteria, and third parties whichcan provide wisdom upon which you can rely to illuminate a path.
Finding the truth also requires some recognition of the other side’s position. As Dr. Rand writes in her book, Water Wars-A Story of People, Politics and Power,
“…a reliable version of the truth was out there, but to find it Pinellas officials need to accept that pumping could be a problem and the District need to accept that other factors could have had impacted the environment.” (184-185)
Shining the analytic light requires one to recognize independent standards, respect the opinions of others and the real weaknesses in your own position.
3. Interject a new perspective, a new idea, new faces into the debate
Solving thorny community problems is often a function of developing a new perspective. “Discovery consists in seeing what everyone else has seen and thinking what no one else has thought,” said the Nobel-prize winning Albert von Szent-Gyorgyi at the turn of the last century.
The Tampa Bay Water Wars raged for years, pitting veteran soldier against veteran soldier until some key players changed. The two WMD administrators left, a long-time and powerful county commissioner retired, the regional water utility director was replaced. New faces with different perspective were needed if we were to break the impasse. And new ideas, such as a new fund for alternative water resources, created by raising and dedicating taxes to a solution to groundwater pumping, were essential to success.
There are those who in public policy who recognize and embrace change and those who do not. We must be open to “thinking what no one else has thought.” And sometimes new players are necessary to create that new reality.
4. The Potential Solution Must Be Distilled to a Principle Which Can Be Explained
Leaders lead someone. Someone’s consent must usually be gained to chart a new course…the electorate, or the legislature, or party leaders, the press, your spouse…someone. And to gain that consent, there must be an explanation based in principle which can be clearly and simply articulated.
Effective public policy requires the effective communication. In the Tampa Bay water dispute, the Mayor of St. Petersburg, David Fisher, articulated his version of the answer quite early…and it stuck. “Common ownership, common rates” he told us. Each warring local government owned its own water source and each paid a rate ranging from 25 cents to over a dollar per 1000 gallons.
If the governments jointly owned the facilities, and shared the cost equally, your interests were aligned. All of the painful detail of the deal was built on the vision of “common ownership, common rates.”
We often underestimate the importance of articulating, in a way which promotes widespread buy-in, the value of the solution.
5. Be Humble
The personal characteristic most needed to address Florida’s future water supply is not courage, nor intelligence, nor political skill, nor even imagination. Those are helpful, but the essential element to discovering what is a sustainable water supply is humility.
The humble person is unpretentious and modest; one who is open to hearing the wisdom of others, who approaches these challenges with an open spirit. Humility requires a connection to, and an attitude of respect for, the persons and the natural systems around us.
Humility should not be confused with weakness, nor with an absence of conviction. The guiding stars of humble persons are usually crystal clear and not given to negociation nor dilution.
Humility means not getting diverted by ego or trading your focus on greater things for energy spent on lesser things.
Lincoln’s personal secretary, John Hay, tells the story of Lincoln and his Secretary of War, visiting General McClellan at his house one night to discuss the progress of the war. The President and Secretary were informed the General was out, but would return soon. After an hour or so, McClellan returns and after hearing about his visitors, goes upstairs. The President waits another ½ hour and asks the servant to remind the General they are there; the servant notifies his distinguished quests the General has gone to bed. The President of the United States is asked to leave the McClellan home.
Hay is appalled by this “insolence of epaulettes.” Lincoln seems not to notice, saying, “it was better at this time not to be making points of etiquette and personal dignity.”
It is not that Lincoln had no ego; it was more that other matters deserved his energy more than a personal slight.
It is the ego which arises from our acquiescence in being defined by others;
defined by our status, our accomplishments, our reputation, our political power, our jurisdictional lines...not by our own internal moral and intellectual compass and the clear recognition that we serve, not ourselves, but the people and the future.
In his classic business text, Good to Great, the author Jim Collins analyses the greatest CEOs in America, and calls them Level 5 leaders. These are individuals who blend “extreme personal humility with intense professional will.” He writes,
“Level 5 leaders channel their ego needs away from themselves and into the larger goal of building a great company. It’s not that Level 5 leaders have no ego or self-interest. Indeed they are incredibly ambitious, but their ambition is first and foremost for the institution, not themselves.”
Humility encourages others to fully participate in finding the answers, and creates its own energy and magic.
Benjamin Franklin was only person to sign all four of this nation’s founding papers; the Declaration of Independence, the treaty with France, the peace accord with Britain, and the Constitution. In recommending adoption of the final draft of the Constitution, the 82 year old Franklin said,
“I confess that I do not entirely approve this Constitution at present; but sir, I am not sure I shall never approve it:...the older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment and pay more respect to the judgment of others….
It therefore astonishes me, sir, to find this system approaching so near to perfection as it does; and I think it will astound our enemies, who are waiting with confidence to hear that our councils are confounded like those of the builders of Babel, and that our States ar on the point of separation, only to meet hereafter for the purpose of cutting one another’s throats. Thus I consent, sir, to this constitution because I expect no better, and because I am not sure that it is not the best.
“I cannot help expressing a wish that every member of the convention who may still have objections to it, would, with me, on this occasion, doubt a little of his own infallibility and to make manifest our unanimity, put his name to this instrument.”
Finding peace during contentious times requires a person commitment to building the hard, but sustainable path to solving difficult policy challenges. If we use the power we currently possess to invite fighting parties to the table; if we rely as much as possible upon objective criteria; if we are willing to see the problem with fresh eyes; if we can articulate clearly and simply, and in a humble manner, what we are trying to accomplish, our chances to accomplish truly great deeds are greatly increased.