The first hint of serious trouble at the nuclear power plant came in the early hours of the morning, when instruments showed a problem with the coolant system. Engineers shut down the reactor, but the situation still worsened. Two hours later, they declared a state of emergency, notifying state and federal authorities. As dawn broke on Three Mile Island that March day in 1979, a crisis began not only for residents of central Pennsylvania but for the nuclear power industry.
Officials of Metropolitan Edison Co., the utility that owned the plant, wrote the textbook on how to mismanage a relationship with the public, according to Lawrence Susskind, professor of urban and environmental planning at MIT and director of the MIT-Harvard Public Disputes Program, and Patrick Field, a research associate at the Public Disputes Program. Key information was released slowly, and other information was simply wrong, they say in Dealing with an Angry Public: The Mutual Gains Approach to Resolving Disputes.
The Three Mile Island story plays out again and again in disputes throughout the country. The authors examine a dozen or so conflicts that show just how commonly business and government leaders tend to brush off those who question or disagree. “Indeed, they attempt to blunt or undercut the public’s concerns by dredging up countervailing facts’ or rebuttals from pseudo-independent experts and unscientific polls,” Susskind and Field write. “They commit to nothing and admit to nothing. The public is often treated like an angry mob rather than as concerned customers or citizens with legitimate fears, concerns, and needs.”
Arguing that negotiation with the public achieves better long-term results, the authors present a dispute-resolution strategy that they teach in the classroom. The “mutual-gains approach,” as they call it, relies on six principles, the first of which is that companies and government agencies must step back from their own self-interest and acknowledge early the concerns of all the contending stakeholders. The second requirement is that these companies and agencies engage in joint fact-finding with the public, working together to gather and then analyze information. Corporations that opt instead to massage information behind closed doors, or refuse to share their data, lose credibility.
Third, companies must offer firm commitments to compensate people if a planned course of action brings unintended consequences. “If a company or an agency promises that something will not happen, or cannot happen, they should stand behind that promise with a contingent offer of compensation,” say Susskind and Field. This approach, they point out, could help defuse many battles over matters such as zoning. For example, a hospital intent on building a new parking garage should do more than just assure abutting homeowners that their property values will not decline. The hospital should invite the homeowners to submit appraisals of their properties-and then create an escrow account that would reimburse anyone who sells within a certain period of time and does not receive either the appraised value or whatever higher value others in the area have enjoyed.
The fourth of the authors’ principles is that companies need to admit mistakes and share power. In cases where a firm’s initial course of action is flawed, allowing the community to help change it is the surest way to achieve a better outcome. Fifth, companies should act in a trustworthy fashion-that is, they should not camouflage intentions. Finally, they should look beyond the next days or months and instead build long-term relationships.
None of these admonitions are new, surprising, or particularly controversial. But are they followed in practice? Not often. The authors offer numerous examples of businesses or government agencies trying to steamroll their programs through, only to find themselves stuck in the mud.