Interaction ground rules

Ground rules refer to the norms and criteria that the members of a multiactor group use to deal with each other and with the issues. Setting jointly developed ground rules at the onset can help to overcome feelings of uncertainty about how to proceed in the multiactor environment (Vansina and Taillieu 1997). Ground rules also refer to the formal and informal regulations and work forms that organize a concrete interaction between the actors of a group with regard to aspects such as:
  • who to invite and how to invite them;
  • how to set the agenda;
  • who should deal with specific issues individually, bilaterally, or multilaterally;
  • how to treat information, e.g., as confidential, for internal or external use, as suitable for the general public, etc.;
  • how to deal with different points of view and interests; and
  • how to make decisions, e.g., majority, unanimity, veto.

Minimal agreements on ground rules can enhance the active involvement of the total actor group. Early agreements can facilitate the startup of activities, but ground rules can also evolve over time as the result of a learning process. Actors with similar cultural, social, or organizational backgrounds may have a lot of ground rules in common. These can be adopted implicitly by the multiactor group. However, when actors with different backgrounds are involved, the ground rules will need to be stated and negotiated explicitly.

Leadership and facilitation

The multiactor domain needs some form of direction setting to facilitate joint responsibility for developing solutions. Because of the ambiguity of the issues in the problem domain, asymmetries among the actors in power, resources, and/or expertise, and the complexity of the situation, participants in multiactor contexts may experience a strong need for leadership that can take away the uncertainties and ambiguities. However, classical leadership models are not suitable for multiactor settings, because they assume the existence of a formal leader with managerial responsibility and clear and accepted goals, whereas in multiactor settings no single organization has hierarchal control over all the others and agreeing upon collaborative goals is an important challenge (Huxham and Vangen 2000b).

The literature on multiactor processes stresses the importance of shared or distributed leadership in participative systems as an ideal (Brown and Hosking 1986, Gray 1989, Bryson and Crosby 1992, Chrislip and Larson 1994, Feyerherm 1994, Yukl 1999, Gronn 2002). They stress that inducing shared responsibility is a critical function of leadership. It is neither desirable nor likely that a single individual take up all the leading roles. However, strong leadership may be important at certain points to “manage the process leading to collaboration, particularly at points of pivotal breakdowns.” (McCaffrey et al. 1995:618). When this leadership focuses exclusively on the task, e.g., gathering information, working out plans, managing the budget, etc., there is a risk that the results will be suboptimal, because in such cases a strong leader may provoke high dependence in some actors and/or resistance from actors who feel excluded or put at a disadvantage. In fact, strong process leadership may be critical for multiactor collaboration (Chrislip and Larson 1994). Process leadership is about creating the conditions needed to get the most out of the diversity of perspectives, competencies, and resources, while ensuring that each actor can meet his own objectives (Vansina 1999). Managing the inherent tensions in the relationships among actors in interdependent work is an important aspect of process leadership. This kind of leadership can be understood as “convening” the actors and keeping the collaboration going, rather than steering and controlling the process unilaterally.

In some cases, especially when there is conflict, a third party such as a facilitator or mediator is invited in to take up process leadership (Schuman 1996). Facilitators, either explicitly designated or implicitly functioning as such, can fulfil an important role in dealing with the inherent tensions in multiactor domains (L. Vansina, unpublished manuscript). However, facilitation should be used in a very cautious and flexible way, and it certainly takes more than mechanically following some participatory recipes (Leeuwis 2000). Those who take up facilitation roles need to be serious “reflective practitioners” (Argyris and Schön 1974, Huxham 2000a), who can apply the toolbox of participatory methods (Jones 2001) from a good understanding of process.

Framing and reframing the issues in the problem domain

A problem domain such as the management of a river basin is not just out there in the natural world, it is imbued with meanings by social actors who call for an intervention in a situation that they perceive as a threat or an opportunity. Actors define or “frame” a domain as problematic and requiring intervention through selectively identifying the main issues and delimiting its boundaries. They gradually “cut out” a part of the ongoing reality, in interaction with the other social actors, and attribute a problematic character to it. This we call the interactive framing of issues in the problem domain (Lewicki et al. 2003, Dewulf et al. 2005).

Different social actors tend to acknowledge and highlight different aspects of reality as problematic, because of their specific practices and experiences and the specific frames they tend to use for making sense of them. When actors look at a situation from a different point of view, a situation ensues in which different perspectives or frames are at play simultaneously (Salipante and Bouwen 1985, Bouwen et al. 1999). In addition to identifying the different frames used by the actors involved to make sense of the problem domain, it is also important to look at how those frames develop, evolve, and influence each other when actors interact in the course of a planning or management process. Although each actor typically starts with a specific framing of the problem, this definition shifts through the interactive process of shaping issues. Frames are co-constructed through the way actors make sense of their situation in interaction with others (Putnam and Holmer 1992). The nature, importance, scope, interrelatedness, breadth, and stability of problems are negotiated through the arguments and counterarguments of the actors. Dealing with these differences in framing between actors is an inevitable and crucial aspect of river basin management. When differences can be dealt with constructively by addressing them and trying to connect them instead of avoiding or escalating them, new possibilities can be discovered and social learning becomes possible.

Negotiation strategies

Both dialogic exchange and strategic behavior are likely to be present at the same time in multiactor negotiations. Co-management of water resources then becomes a continuous process of dialogue and negotiation in which actors defend their own interests and at the same time construct a broader and common problem domain.

In the negotiation literature, a distinction is made between distributive and integrative negotiation strategies (Fisher and Ury 1981, Bazerman 2000). This distinction is often explained by referring to the pie metaphor: Distribution is about cutting an existing pie in smaller or bigger pieces, whereas integration is trying to increase the size of the pie, to better serve the interests of all the actors. Defending predefined positions on the issue can paralyze a negotiation, whereas exploring underlying interests provides a better chance of finding innovative and mutually beneficial agreements.

Direct interactions among representatives play an important role in transforming competitive, i.e., distributive or win/lose, relationships in collaborative, i.e., integrative or win/win, relationships among the actors. These kinds of micro-social interactions among the representatives are a necessary although not sufficient condition for social learning to develop. Representatives need to be capable of justifying and feeding back their personal learning to their constituencies. Research evidence suggests that representatives of diverse actors can construct a common vision through direct multilateral discussions. However it seems harder to cope with the differences when it comes to planning concrete actions, and so this part tends to be left to bilateral negotiations (Vansina and Taillieu 1997).

Representation and boundary management

Although multiactor processes involve organizations and social groups, much of the information exchange, sense making, decision making, negotiation, and learning takes place among individual representatives. Their mandate and their position in their own organization can differ widely, and so does their degree of freedom to make decisions without consulting their constituency. Some representatives may represent an underorganized actor group or an internally divided constituency, which can lead to insecure or inconsistent behavior.

One of the major tasks of representatives is to manage the boundaries between their own organization and the multiactor context, because the traditional boundaries of hierarchy, structure, role, and task are often not available. Therefore, the actors have to manage and negotiate so-called “psychological” boundaries on a continuous basis (Hirschhorn 1990). These include the boundaries of identity, task, and authority. These boundaries are subject to changes and negotiation during the collaborative process. If the boundaries around the multiactor group are firm enough, this enables the representatives to develop a collective identity based on common interests (Vansina 1999). However, if identification with the multiactor group is too strong, this might lead to conflicts of loyalty with one’s own constituency. This may result in a dual conflict in which the representative who comes back from difficult negotiations with the other actors faces an equally difficult negotiation with his or her constituency about the agreement that was reached.

The so-called “dilemmas of the negotiator” refer to the growing tension that representatives may experience at the boundary between the expectations of their constituencies and those of the multiactor group. Representatives are supposed to identify with their constituencies and express their perspective and interests. However, in the course of a collaborative process, they may gradually learn to appreciate a situation from the perspectives of the other actors and to develop alternative problem definition and solutions, so that they come to identify mroe with the multiactor group. The dilemma of transformation refers to the fact that, the more the representative tries to transform the positions of his constituency, the greater the chance to come to an agreement that is satisfactory for all actors involved. However, the same efforts to transform these positions may pose a risk for the representative when the constituency starts to question his or her legitimacy.