Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research (AISSR)

Conflicts in public life - Mediation

Conflicts are part of public life. Citizens often find themselves in conflict with each other and with government on questions like where to put a new road, how to interpret the details of new regulations, or how to allocate scarce resources. When policymakers address such problems ineffectively, conflicts can cast a deeper shadow over public life and public institutions.

People protesting

Citizens become more doubtful, they feel threatened, and the incentives to organize and resist can become more prominent. The delays that develop consume public resources and undermine the legitimacy of government institutions.

Squaring the circle - the Public Mediation Programme

Prof. Alexander Rinnooy Kan (Economics and Business), Dr David Laws (Political Science), and Martien Kuitenbrouwer (public administration and governance) were familiar with the variety of ways in which wicked public problems can undermine governance, create delays, and raise conflicts among competing interests.


Martien Kuitenbrouwer and Prof. Alexander Rinnooy Kan

Their experience with trying to organize public negotiations or to work together on engaging urban conflict in Amsterdam convinced them that scientific knowledge about conflict, negotiation, and governance could help effort to mitigate the costs of conflict and draw on the opportunities it provides to make democratic governance more legitimate and effective. The three joined forces and initiated the Public Mediation Programme (PMP) to provide a platform to deepen our understanding of public conflicts and develop the practical repertoire that is available for managing such conflicts.

The unique selling point of UvA’s Public Mediation Programme is the relationship among three lines of research and support: a scientific knowledge base rooted in the University of Amsterdam and AISSR, professional training and education through clinics and masterclasses, and practical support.

Organising negotiations

In PMP, the founding team seeks to balance the competing demands of conducting research and intervening to help efforts to address controversial social questions.  The programme tries to achieve a productive balance by organizing on-going interaction between researchers and practitioners in a shared effort to understand the challenges that conflicts present to those responsible for and affected by public problems.

From this perspective, public conflicts provide a unique opportunity to understand the perspectives and interests of stakeholders as these groups articulate their views, needs and priorities in their effort to shape policy and its implementation.

Kliniek publiek

The PMP team provides a way to take advantage of conflicts as opportunities to gain insights in these differences—and the practices used to manage them—by helping stakeholders who find themselves facing or mired in controversy.  

The PMP team seeks to avoid providing recipes for solving or managing conflicts. Instead, they provide a context that helps practitioners and stakeholders engage what is unique and what is general about their conflict, to draw on such analysis to develop plans that enable them to move on together, to reflect on their work, and to be researchers themselves, a much stronger foundation for sustainable solutions.

Example of learning to negotiate in conflict: a Clinic

One example of PMP’s approach is the clinic. Clinics are organized, at the request of stakeholders, to—in a case specific combination—help stakeholders diagnose the tensions and problems that they are experiencing, broaden their sense of practical respond options, and to learn from their experience.

Conflict Clinic

In a clinic, the stakeholders reconstruct cases to learn how they were shaped and diagnose the obstacles and demands that affect the individuals and groups that are involved. Clinics are intended to help affected parties tease out how they have come to the situation in which they find themselves and to play an active role in this diagnosis and in developing solutions. They close the gap between knowledge that is often too abstract and practice cases that can seem too unique to benefit from knowledge, design, and prior experience.

The future

PMP's goal is to become the partner in the Netherlands for the development of new forms of analysis and practice and for international cooperation around public mediation, negotiation, and other designs for engaging stakeholders in efforts to address wicked public problems.

People David Laws

Howard Bellman and David Laws

International cooperation has already been started by including Howard Bellman in the programme.  Bellman, one the founding fathers of public mediation in the US, shares his knowledge and expertise with the team and helps to think through how it might apply in the Dutch context.  Bellman has the benefit of drawing on an extensive practice that has ranged from the most ordinary civil and labour matters to international diplomacy, focusing, overall, on high-profile, controversial multi-party cases of public concern such as national rule making, spatial planning, large-scale environmental remediation, school desegregation, financing education, and Native-American land claims. 

The PMP programme also aims to reach beyond a consulting role and help stakeholders and researchers reach insights about conflicts and feed these insights back into our shared scientific knowledge base. The team thrives for an engaged form of research in which scientists are involved as partners in case-based studies.

Published by  AISSR

30 June 2017