Why Should Conflict Specialists Treat Public Networks More Seriously? Anat Cabili

Why Should Conflict Specialists Treat Public Networks More Seriously? Anat Cabili

Those of us who practice in the fields of Collaborative Governance and Public Participation know how challenging it can be to convince public leaders to convene stakeholders and citizens in order to collaboratively work through public issues. Indeed, in many communities collaborative processes are still the exception, not the rule. We therefore often find importance in educating public leaders and citizens about collaborative processes through talks and workshops. Our rational is simple: the more people who "get" these ideas, the more likely they will use these processes when appropriate.

Our continual efforts to raise awareness of the advantages of collaborative governance can benefit from highlighting the topic of public networks. There exists a growing body of research on how public networks function. Since many of our clients operate within such networks, it would benefit them, and us, if we could use this research to help our clients operate more effectively within these networks, emphasizing our unique contribution as conflict specialists.  

Here is one among several definitions for a public network: “Public Networks are collaborative structures that bring together representatives from public agencies and NGOs to address problems of common concern that accrue value to the managers… their participating organizations, and their networks” (Robert Agranoff, Managing within Networks, 2007). Many on-going committees, tasks forces, and councils fall under this definition. Among their characteristics are permanent status, regular formal meetings, leaders and participants, and a definable communication system (ibid). Many people work within public networks. Often, they are not aware of that fact that this is what they are doing.

Current literature explores the different types of networks, their unique management tasks and their evaluation. This research can be extremely useful in our work with our clients, who are increasingly more in need to work across organizational boundaries.

Here are some preliminary thoughts on how we can help public networks and those working within them:

- Highlighting to those already working within public networks that this is what they are doing. Research concerning the challenges of network management, leadership within networks, their analysis and evaluation will probably resonate with and help them;  

- Conducting trainings on conflict engagement to those working within networks (e.g. trainings on integrative negotiation, conflict management, and consensus building) designed especially for the unique settings of networks.  Our trainees will find these skills extremely useful for the ongoing maintenance and success of their networks, which require great deal of collaboration;   

- Intervening in conflicts within a network, when appropriate;   

- Facilitating processes aimed at starting up and designing networks. Sometimes such networks stem from collaborative processes in which parties realize that on-going partnership would be essential;

- Designing dispute systems for networks; and

- Utilizing existing networks to help in collaborative governance processes (networks can help us reach out to important stakeholders, to give one example).

A classic article on public networks, written by Laurence J. O’toole in 1997, explored the question: Why treat networks seriously? Paraphrasing on his words, I think it is important for conflict specialists working in the public sphere to take a serious look at the potential of research on public networks to enrich their work.  


Anat Cabili is a Senior Advisor and Project Manager at the Werner Institute and an instructor at Creighton Law School’s GOAL (Government Organization and Leadership) Master’s Program.

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