posted February 04, 2013

You may or may not  be familiar with the term “Alternative Dispute Resolution”. For most people it’s a phrase that evokes images of court room drama, legal proceedings, and the paneled conference rooms of Law and Order.

Unfortunately, that imagery fosters a misunderstanding about an extremely powerful set of tools that help people resolve conflict. Mediation, restorative practice, and collaborative decision making are just a few of the well documented and established methodologies that have taken root with corporate, educational, and governmental practices over the past 25–30 years, are specifically designed to help disputing parties avoid litigation. 

I had the opportunity to learn a little bit about ADR when I researched this issue for Dispute Resolution Education Resources, a client of mine that specializes in dispute resolution techniques and was curious how widespread ADR practices are in Michigan state government—and whether using them saves the government money over formal hearings and litigation. I jumped at the opportunity to gain a better understanding of how state agencies view problem resolution, as both a customer service experience and a cost savings medium.

What I found was encouraging. There is evidence across a number agencies that ADR techniques are used to bring people to consensus, avoid punitive measures when practical solutions suffice, and avoid prolonged costs. How are agencies doing this? In a number of ways:

  • Pre-hearings or compliance conferences—a technique in which the agency encourages an administrative conference between the complainant and the agency prior to a formal hearing to determine whether an agreement can be reached.
  • Mediation—the use of a third party to resolve conflict between two individuals.
  • Collaborative decision making—a method in which a third-party facilitator is used to craft a solution between opposing parties prior to implementing a new rule or regulation. This is most commonly referred to as a “stakeholder input” or “advisory group.”
  • Restorative practice—a set of problem-solving techniques used to engage individuals in finding alternative responses to wrongdoing.

Do all agencies practice ADR? No. In those that do—are they all practicing ADR in the same way? No. Can all agencies practices ADR? Absolutely, and the research shows that it can save time (which means money) and build better relationships between government and its constituents. 

To learn more about the use of ADR in state agencies, or the types of ADR most commonly used in government practice, read our report.

By Emily Houk