Joint Fact-Finding Builds Consensus, Makes Partners Out of Adversaries

Mar 8, 2012

RESOLVE was pleased to welcome Masahiro Matsuura, Professor at the University Of Tokyo Graduate School Of Public Policy, to our Washington, DC offices last week to share insights on an important mediation technique known as joint fact-finding (JFF). JFF can be a useful approach to manage many of the challenges that arise at the intersection of science and policy decision-making such as lack of data and contested scientific information. (For more on science-policy challenges, see RESOLVE resources such as When the Sparks Fly: Building Consensus When the Science is Contested; Managing Scientific and Technical Information When the Science is Contested; and Building Knowledge: When Knowledge from “Here” Meets Knowledge from “Away” .)

In contrast to more conventional and often contentious approaches JFF involves bringing a wide variety of stakeholders together to identify what information is needed to answer policy questions, how and by whom information should be gathered and interpreted—including “technical” and “local” knowledge— and how to connect this information to policy decisions . Scientists and technical experts have an important role in “translating” technical information so that non-technical stakeholders understand and can give input on information gathering, processing, and outcomes, and to learn about inherent uncertainties and tradeoffs of different policy options. This process builds trust, cooperation, and can make stakeholders partners and problem-solvers rather than adversaries in the policy-making process.

Dr. Juliana Birkhoff, Vice President of Collaborative Practice at RESOLVE, shared two JFF case studies with Dr. Matsuura. The first case study involved the communities of Falls Hills and Poplar Heights in Fairfax County, Virginia, in which a local stream suffered from regular flooding events that threatened homes, schools, and recreational trails in the area. Dr. Birkhoff used this case to illustrate how traditional science-based policy making can lead to undesirable outcomes, and how JFF can serve as a more effective alternative. Using a traditional problem solving approach, Fairfax County officials consulted a few area homeowners and designed a flood mitigation solution that was based primarily on technical information. When County officials presented their solution to the communities, residents were outraged that the last remaining stand of woods in their neighborhood would be cleared to create a retention pond. To settle the dispute Fairfax County turned to RESOLVE to go back to the drawing board and engage stakeholders in a JFF process. RESOLVE held public meetings where members of the community and technical advisors shared information, built trust, and developed a list of priorities and options that ultimately led to a sustainable solution supported by all stakeholders.

The second RESOLVE case study involved the development of EPA’s microbial disinfectant byproduct (MDBP) rules. Drinking water is regularly treated with disinfectants in order to kill pathogens that can cause acute health problems, but disinfection creates byproducts that can lead to cancer and other long-term health impacts. The agency needed to make a number of tough choices on how to balance two conflicting objectives. RESOLVE convened a broad range of stakeholders and technical experts to develop a set of rules that significantly reduced public health risks, balanced the interests of stakeholders, and shaped major public infrastructure investments for decades.

We also explored how JFF operates against different cultural backdrops. Dr. Matsuura shared that, historically, the Japanese public has had very high confidence in scientists and government officials. RESOLVE observed that, in the U.S., public confidence is wavering or low for government; and dueling expert scenarios such as climate change and high profile public health cases, among others, often cause the public to question science and scientists. (A December 2011 Gallup poll sheds more light on how Americans rate honesty and integrity of professionals in different fields; respondents were not asked for views of “scientists” in the poll.)

Regardless of historical and cultural differences, we agreed that the erosion of public trust in institutions and experts has created a space for JFF. Dr. Matsuura noted that in Japan serious questions about government’s and scientists’ transparency with regards to nuclear power in general and especially the handling of the Fukushima disaster have diminished public trust in Japanese Institutions. This situation will challenge policy making and JFF—making it difficult to identify experts credible to key stakeholders and the public—but can also serve as an impetus for exploration of JFF techniques in Japanese policy-making and dispute resolution.

Dr. Matsuura is undertaking a three-year research project organized by the Japan Science and Technology Agency in order to learn about and refine the processes involved in JFF. He also plans to review three case studies in the fields of distributed energy systems, food safety, and marine spatial planning. We recorded our conversation and presentation with Dr. Matsuura to share with his colleagues and others in Japan, and are also sharing a link here. We look forward to learning how JFF is implemented and integrated into policy decisions in Japan.

- Jen Peyser

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