When Polarized Parties distrusted the motives of a team of wildlife biologists, they went directly to the Governor to stop their work.
The Governor’s phone was ringing off the hook. Outraged interests were calling to put political pressure on a team of wildlife biologists to halt talk of adding a comprehensive plan (to study the state’s elk population) to the Montana Dept. of Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ agenda.
Being “end-run” by opponents is an (unfortunate and unnecessary) everyday occurrence for public professionals. What’s somewhat unusual about this case was that the calls came from two key interest groups – and the seemingly benign proposal to do a more extensive study of the elk population – added to their polarization!
Neither group trusted the experts’ motivations, and even though it polarized them more than they were – it caused both to take immediate political action to stop it from being adopted.
The team of wildlife biologists was a bit caught off guard when the Governor alerted them that as much as he didn’t want to micromanage their technical work, he couldn’t ignore the controversy their talk of a comprehensive plan had kicked up. The Governor warned the agency that he’d have to intervene if they couldn’t soothe and resolve the stakeholders’ emotions. .
It looked like any effort to do a more thorough – and responsible – analysis of the state’s elk population was about to die on the vine when one of the wildlife biologists attended our training. As we discussed the tools and techniques that can help resolve issues of mistrust, distrust, and misinformation, she felt inspired that perhaps she could bring the comprehensive plan back to life.
The polarized interests suspected that the agency was pursuing the plan as a cloaked effort to assist the other, rather than because it was the scientifically and technically responsible thing to do. (We often see such misgivings among different user groups such as: sportsmen, recreational, commercial, environmental, local, tourists, etc.)
She already knew what hadn’t worked:
- Ignoring the accusations that the plan was a means to favor one interest group over another
- Refuting their accusations
- Appealing to the policymakers and Governor to dismiss the misperception-based controversy
- Offering more technical explanations
So she was willing to try Consent-Building.
Another student and friend of ours, Glen Marx, worked in the Governor’s office. He told us when he saw what the FW&P student and her colleagues did to turn things around – he was sure the phone would once again ring with angry calls…
But that’s not what happened.
Not only did the Governor not receive a single call in opposition (or anger) to the same comprehensive plan, but it also dissolved all the controversy and helped depolarize two of the FW&P’s key interest groups.
The team of experts was able to revive the comprehensive plan without watering it down, and regained the same interests’ trust and confidence that they were being mission-driving in doing so.