How to Resolve Conflicts with Professional Activist Opponents

The stakeholders I interact with appear to be a different “animal” than what are often discussed in the class and Brownbag. That is, they are professional activists that work for non-for-profit groups.

I have been working hard to communicate with them and apply many IPMP techniques, but they are demanding, not always respectful and appear to never be satisfied.

For example, just last week one threatened a lawsuit because we are more formally implementing public record request process.

My predecessor didn’t follow the formal protocol and now these PAIs are angry that they can’t call up and ask for documents to be emailed immediately.

Ultimately, I believe they will always object because that is their job, (their Raison D’Etre) and they have resources to do it!

What can I do about this?
Thank you for the question T.K. We think that more than a few of our Brownbag participants can identify with the fix you’re in. There’s just no shortage of dyed-in-the-wool stubborn opponents, even outside of a state environmental agency!

The stakeholders you’re talking about are exactly the interests (or “animals”) we talk about, worry about, lose sleep about, fret about, . . . and work on! You can expect the paid advocates for some of the for-profit stakeholders to play a more intense game of hardball than the staff of a nonprofit group.

Nonprofits generally pursue a mission that’s more likely to be in-line with the public’s interest than for-profit corporations who generally make no pretense of working for the public. Because it’s your mission to prevent and/or clean up environmental messes, we’d be surprised if nonprofits were your fiercest opponents.

The fact that these particular folks are paid staff working for a nonprofit group should not deter you from developing the group’s Informed Consent. After all, you are paid staff! You have lawyers, scientists, engineers, analysts, etc. working on your team . . . the team that came up with whatever it is you are proposing.
We don’t believe that the argument for your proposal’s legitimacy is so weak that you can only defend it against criticism from volunteer amateurs.

One of the biggest challenges of developing the public’s Informed Consent is mis-information, dis-information, lies, distortions, and confusion. One of the advantages of having professionals working for your project’s opponents – either as staff or as consultants — is that the public debate is less likely to be dominated by gross misunderstandings and distortions of the technical/scientific issues.

One thing that troubles us:

We are troubled by your remark that these folks – the opponent’s staff — are upset that you now “follow the formal protocol” for responding to requests for the release of public records. It looks like you might be giving exactly the wrong message to your stakeholders.

Please consider the following:

– The US Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) was passed by Congress in 1966, not for some abstract reason about the desirability of transparency of governmental decision-making, but because there were persistent complaints government agencies were hiding information that – by right was public information. The accusation was that bureaucracies were hiding information, and the release of the information would make it clear what biases and/or hidden agendas their decisions were based on – rather than on the objective analysis of valid data.

– In the years after 1966, just about every state followed the federal FOIA law with a parallel state law – with the same objective: making it difficult for public agencies to hide information from the public . . . information that the public had a right to. California adopted the ‘California Public Records Act’ in 1968; Colorado enacted the ‘Colorado Open Records Act’ in 1969; New Mexico’s ‘Inspection Of Public Records Act’ was passed in 1978; Etc. (Chances are you know more than we do about when, and how, your particular state adopted its version of bringing sunshine into governmental decision-making.)

Ideally, the public trusts its public agencies

Ideally, the federal FOIA and the 50 State-versions of FOIA are not needed. Ideally, the a set of stakeholders doesn’t feel the need to resort to FOIA. Ideally, their interaction with the agency in question is such that they know the agency isn’t hiding anything from them. . . that the agency works hard to communicate with them. . . that the agency is forthcoming with any and all relevant information – especially with information detrimental and/or embarrassing for the agency. . . that the agency wouldn’t think of hiding potentially relevant information.

So, when stakeholders feel the need to resort to the use of FOIA. . . the agency has already screwed up. It has already managed to convince people that stakeholders have to use the FOIA club to get what’s properly theirs. . . The agency has lost credibility.

Project managers, department heads, division directors. . . all the way up to agency administrators who are besieged with FOIA requests, need to an Outreach Program in place that has – as one of its objectives – to “Nurture and Protect the agency’s Credibility.”

The underlying message of such an Outreach Program would be the message:

    • “Hey, . . . we do NOT hide information! . . . In fact, we try HARD to make sure you-all have all the project-relevant information.


    • “We are sorry if, somehow, someone is getting the impression that we want to hide information . . . Please work with us on this!


    • “Work with our project staff and our outreach personnel; . . . they’re working hard to make sure that you are well informed . . .


    • “If and when you feel that some specific data or information are missing from the various Outreach vehicles we are using, . . . for goodness’ sake, let us know what it is, and we’ll get it to you.


  • “You should not have to go the FOIA route to get the relevant project information!

This approach does not guarantee that you can completely eliminate FOIA requests, but it should drastically reduce them.

These are symptoms of how well – or how poorly – people trust you and your agency. That’s a terribly important thing. Having potentially affected interests THINK that you are attempting to hide information from them is unacceptable; responsible management of a public agency does not ignore this situation.

Here’s where our concern comes in:

– It appears that your predecessor did – sort of – use this informal approach (i.e. trying to establish a less formal — less adversarial – relationship, making stakeholders realize that your agency is not the enemy. That, in fact, you’re on their side, . . . that you want them – you need them — to be fully informed . . . not because it’s the law but because it’s the right thing to do).

– If the change in how you’re handling FOIA requests gives the appearance that if it weren’t for the law, you would hide project related information. . . If that’s what a skeptical stakeholders is likely to conclude from your change in process. . . Then you’re giving exactly the wrong message!

– Of course those stakeholders are wrong! Of course you’re NOT hiding – or attempting to hide – information! . . . So don’t do things that give the opposite impression!

People who are cynical and skeptical about your agency’s agenda and/or competence will cling to ANY clue that supports their suspicions! That’s why you’ve got to police everything you do, say, and write to make sure they will slowly – but surely – persuaded that their cynicism is misplaced, that they CAN trust you, that you would NEVER intentionally hide information that they have a right to.

One of the things you’ve got to examine is:

  1. Why in the world are people with whom you are totally open and honest resorting to your state’s version of FOIA to obtain project-related information that – in fact – the project staff and the outreach staff are working HARD to get to them?
  2. How do we react when someone DOES make FOIA requests from us? Does our behavior help CHANGE their mistrust? . . . Or, does it CONFIRM their cynicism?

What do people do – what would YOU do – when a public agency appears to hide public information. . . when an agency appears to use the fine print of the FOIA regulations to frustrate the purpose of the FOIA law? . . . Well, you probably would do what most people do: You’d file – or threaten to file – a lawsuit.

We urge you to get busy convincing these stakeholders that this is all a big misunderstanding, that you’re NOT the enemy, that do NOT try to hide ANYTHING!

This is perfectly solvable communications problem. Making these folks realize that they were wrong won’t turn them into supporters, but you’ll have the relationship that gives a decent chance of earning their Informed Consent.

Remember, Consent-Building depends on achieving 15 Citizen Participation Objectives. Credibility is just ONE of those 15.