Andy Kerr

Conservationist, Writer, Analyst, Operative, Agitator, Strategist, Tactitian, Schmoozer, Raconteur

Consensus Groups Can Deplete Democracy

By Andy Kerr

Column #39 - Go to next column

Length: 749 words

Published: January 15, 1998, Wallowa County Chieftain

It is fashionable to address environmental disputes by bringing parties to the table in the hopes of reaching a mutually acceptable solution. It rarely works and usually wastes time.

Elected and appointed officials love advisory committees or consensus groups, because it allows them to duck responsibility, conveniently positioning themselves "in the middle" between opposing interests.

While we elect politicians to vote, if an issue is at all controversial, they seek to avoid voting, lest they antagonize some voters.

Such groups are often the result of controversy sparked by a government agency either failing or attempting to carry out its lawful mandate. It's convenient for an agency to be able to shift responsibility to the affected parties rather than do its job.

Environmentalists should not waste time participating in such processes just to tell an agency to do what's legally required. Tell them once to achieve standing in court, then sue if no compliance follows.

Sometimes such efforts stem from litigation and start with an assumption that the environmental plaintiffs should lay down the legal sword and talk "in good faith." Conversely, the opposing side expects to be able to continue their illegal activities while talks continue. No voice can be heard over the roar of a chainsaw.

Lawsuits either compel or allow bureaucrats to do the right thing. A lawsuit is better cover for good bureaucrat and a better motivator of a bad one than any advisory committee. Environmentalists should not negotiate with lawbreakers. The law usually requires a minimal standard of environmental protection. When they have been met, such groups may be beneficial to discuss other matters.

These groups usually include special interests that are benefiting greatly from the status quo and therefore have little or no desire to change. Their tendency is to stall any change by talking or studying an issue to death, wasting precious time of public interest advocates. Special interest advocates are most often paid for their time, so filibustering to maintain a privileged position at the public trough is a good use of time.

Each special interest comes to the table seeking to protect their own special interest while hoping to persuade other special interests to compromise. All the while, the discussion is couched in talk about the public interest.

Membership in such committees always includes individuals with a direct financial conflict of interest. Ethically, one should not participate on decision-making bodies that are considering matters in which one has a financial stake. Where government officials rely on such committees and rubber stamp the results, participation by special interests with a conflict of interest is corrupting.

Such efforts are often run by consensus, resulting in the lowest common denominator of environmental protection—most always at a level less than the law requires.

Consensus can work in certain limited situations, say for a group of climbers seeking an agreeable route to ascend a peak. It will not work when some want to save the mountain's forest and some want to clearcut it.

Imagine the issues of taxation without representation, slavery, female suffrage, and segregation had been assigned to consensus groups.

Several mistaken assumptions can contaminate advisory committee processes.

A first is a failure to distinguish between misunderstandings and disagreements. The former may be eliminated by communication, but the latter may not even if one each has a perfect understanding of the position, views, beliefs and wants of the other.

A second is a naive belief that if only everyone had the same information, then all would reach the same conclusion. People value things differently, because life experiences, financial interests, hopes and goals are different. Some put a higher value on wild salmon than cheap electricity. Some do not.

A third is a belief that "win-win" solutions always exist. Sometimes a resolution of an issue requires reallocation within a zero sum game. One cannot have their forest and clearcut it too.

A fourth is a belief that the differences can always be split. The solution of cutting the baby in half results in a dead baby.

Democracy is a complex contact sport. It requires the involvement of citizens in electing legislators and then lobbying them. It requires advocating one's case before bureaucrats. It requires holding appointed officials accountable before a court of law if they are acting contrary to the law or in an arbitrary and capricious manner. Finally, it requires making your case not only to yourself and your fellows, but to a majority of voters.

Nobody promised it would be easy.

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