Tag Archives: negotiation

Negotiating within a coalition – or why Liberals don't trust Jack

So the one thing I glossed over the other day about negotiating in coalitions is that you’d better have already completed your negotiations within your coalition. Reading Andrew Coyne’s blog (among others) suggests that this has not happened. This project seems to have been cooked up by Dion and foisted on the party and there are a few disgruntled MPs starting to emerge from the woodwork.

Toronto MP Jim Karygiannis said “a lot of my constituents” are saying Dion should go. He also complained that MPs had been kept out of the loop on the coalition negotiations.

Just add this on to the further stresses for the coalition. If this thing even begins to teeter, someone is going to have to wear this, and the blame game isn’t going to be pretty.

Another big problem is Jack Layton. Interestingly I think a lot of Liberals are more wary of working with Jack than with Gilles Duceppe. Gilles intentions are always very clear – he’ll do whatever is in Quebec’s interests. Layton’s motivation and history is a little more shaky. Take, for example, that Layton never had to wear the fact that he got us all into this mess three years ago when he helped bring down Paul Martin’s government.

Here was a man who was getting the goodies he wanted added to the budget and yet voted against the Liberals so that he could what… win an extra dozen seats in the house? Layton has had his opportunity to work with Liberals to advance his agenda and he instead opted to give the Conservatives the opportunity they were craving. I suspect the trust threshold between most Liberals and the NDP leadership is so low that it will take real skill to sustain a working partnership.

Again, a common threat can bring people together, but as the threat recedes (the conservatives lose power, or even more intriguing, Harper is forced to resign) then the capacity to work together becomes more important. Canadian political parties have never invested much in this capacity… can they make it work now?

Negotiating in Coalitions: some thoughts

A few people have asked me about the how to handle negotiations in coalition like the one proposed by the Liberals, NDP and Bloc. Here are a couple of thoughts.

First, coalitions like these are very different then alliances and partnerships in the private sector. This is, most importantly, because corporate alliances and partnerships are very rarely zero-sum games. Usually, the total amount of money to be made is not fixed. So if every one cooperates, everyone stands to make more money. This is a strong positive incentive. (It also creates incentives for free rider, but this is another issue)

While political alliances are not entirely zero-sum, they are much more so. The benefits to be accrued for the country by cooperating are potentially unlimited, but the benefits to who ends up being credited with creating these benefits is are not. Specifically, there are a fixed number of seats in the house and so, benefits to one party necessarily come at the expense of one of the other parties. Were the downside only to be experienced by the Conservatives, this wouldn’t be a problem – potentially all coalition members could increase the number of seats – however, there is real risk for all coalition members that they will lose seats to another coalition member. Should one party be seen as making particularly strong gains, the coalitions will likely become fragile or will fall apart all together. This means – paradoxically – that success can be as much a threat to the coalition as failure. One question I might have is: have the parties talked about how they will manage success?

The second challenge has to do with unknowns. On the one hand the Liberals, NDP and Bloc have been wise to craft a deal that is narrow in scope (my understanding is that it focuses largely on creating an economic stimulus). However, the challenge for any alliance or partnership is not dealing with knowns, but dealing with the unknowns. Further economic turmoil, a terrorist attack, an international crisis, all of these events demand – a sometimes very quick – response from the government. And these are extreme examples, bad press on a failed program can, on its own, generate a political crisis. A coalition posses real challenges to the capacity of the government to react, especially if there is disagreement among coalition members. Have the parties talked about what their deal breakers are? About a process for responding to crises?

Finally, there is the simple capacity of managing a coalition government. It is one thing for a leadership cadre to negotiate an overall agreement for how to work together in the face of a common threat. It is something else for the working members of groups to cooperate and negotiate on a day to day basis. The leaders may have forged a common bond and understanding, but it probably does not trickle very far down into an organization – particularly partisan organizations which are used to working against one another. While one small challenge or disagreement is unlikely to derail the coalition, a series of them can be devastating. Is there a process and guidelines for how MPs might handle disagreements and does the leadership have a plan for how to deal with them? This challenge may seem simple today, but as the immediate threat of the conservatives disappears it becomes increasingly problematic.

I remain skeptical that a coalition government this diverse can function for any period of time (especially if the press starts assigning “winners” and “losers” early on, or if polling data shows the public breaking towards one party. That said, it is possible for such a coalition to function, but it will take incredible negotiation skills and discipline, particularly among the parties leadership (including political staff) but also among its rank and file.

Also a postscript, I’m a big beleiver that sometimes as Eisenhower out it”If a problem cannot be solved, enlarge it.” The biggest problem for this coalition is that it could defined by being anti-Conservative as opposed to “the coalition to rescue Canada’s economy.” This is why, although it would create some more challenges, it might also cause everyone to reframe what the coalition is about if they followed Kinsella’s advice and brought some conservatives into the fold.

Wikipedia: Community Management as its core competency

Last week Paul Biondich lent me The Starfish and the Spider and I just finished reading it (I know, I didn’t put it in the sidebar). Indeed, a number of people I respect have had great things to say about it – John Lily suggested the book ages ago and I remember reading his review and wanting to pick a copy up.

Tons of exciting ideas in the book. One that excited me most related to an idea (articulated by many people) that I’ve been trying to advance – namely that Community Management is core to open source. Specifically there was this exciting piece on how Jimmy Wales, the “catalyst” behind Wikipedia, spends his time:

Jimmy focuses a great deal of attention on maintaining the health of the Wikipedia community. “I go to speaking engagements all over the world at conferences, and everywhere I go I meet Wikipedia volunteers,” he told us. “Usually we go off to dinner and talk shop about Wikipedia. The Wikipedia gossip is the same all over the world-just the characters are different. The problems that affect community are always the same problems.” When he doesn’t meet the members in person, Jimmy spends “a ton of time writing e-mails internally, to the community, touching base with people, discussing issues that come up on the mailing list.” But “as far as working with Wikipedia, I don’t write articles. Very, very little do I ever edit. But I do engage with people on policy matters and try to settle disputes. (page 112 – paperback edition)

It could be that in starfish organizations the role of managers and leaders isn’t to tell people what to do, but help settle disputes, grease the wheels and make sure that groups are working well. Is this to say other expertise are not needed? Not at all. But it is great to see another take on how soft skills such as dispute management, facilitation, negotiation and mediation may be essential for sustainable success of starfish organization (like open source communities).

so dave, what do you do? (or my life, on a powerpoint slide)

So more than once people have asked me what I do… and sadly the answer is never easy. All the titles I’ve heard feel a little overwhelming, mostly because I don’t think I’ve done enough to earn any of them: public policy entrepreneur, public thinker, writer… Indeed, I most often use negotiation consultant and public policy analyst – but these fail to capture the threads of ideas that I’m attempting to weave together.

Herein lies the main challenge. Because I have picked up a number of diverse threads, my life sometimes looks scattered. (Admittedly, occasionally it is). But I see the connections between these disparate areas and I draw strength and ideas from the connections between them. Consequently, I need to do better at explain these connections, and why the matter, to others.

In pursuit of this goal I’ve created a map of my (work) life. Outlined are the three main themes I focus on and then, to show how my activities map against them I’ve listed a) some of the issues I tackle, b) the organizations I work with, for or sit on the advisory boards of, and c) some conferences where I give talks. Some stuff may be missing (indeed, if you see something please send me an email or comment below).

Better, I hope this might inspire you to map your own life. If it does please let me know, I’d love to see it and link to it.

At the very minimum, I hope this leaves you understanding me better.
note: you can click on the image to make it bigger

Collaboration – a dirty word rescued by connectivity


1. The act of working together; united labor.

2. the act of willingly cooperating with an enemy, especially an enemy nation occupying one’s own country.

During a conversation over breakfast yesterday I was asked to talk about my experience in open source public policy (through Canada25) which led me to talk about the differences between cooperation and collaboration I’ve ruminated upon before here.

After outlining the idea my friend stopped me and said

“You know, it is interesting, for people in my generation (re: boomers) collaboration was a dirty word.”

He went to explain that he’d talked with young people in his organization and had discovered that they had largely abandoned the word’s negative connotations, but he was again struck by how easily I embraced and used the term. For boomers – he explained – “collaboration” brings forward notions of Vichy France or narcs, people who sold out or who betrayed their origins in some way, often for gain or even to work (usually on behalf of) of a new (usually alien and/or evil) outsider.

What a difference a generation makes. Today I see more and more of my friends using the term. Which begs the question…


One hypothesis I have relates to the changing nature of our economy and how we work.

I don’t know if people have to work in teams more frequently then they use to, but i feel fairly confident that even if the frequency of teamwork has remained consistent, the emergent, or self-organizing, or even self-directed nature of those teams has probably increased. Thanks to the telecommunication revolution, and even just the rise of the knowledge economy, we are increasingly being asked to work together as we exchange, mix, re-mix and mash up ideas.

As a result, I think ours is a generation that is grasping for more nuanced and complex ways to describe working with others. No where is this more important than in the online world where the opportunities for both communicating, and miscommunicating, have never been easier. And within the online world nowhere is this more important than in the open source space where whole new models of how people can work together on large complex problems are emerging. With so much going on, is it any surprise our vocabulary is adjusting?

I say great. We need a more sophisticated and nuanced vocabulary to describe how we work together. The fact is people can work together in lots of different ways, conflating that variation with a single term is likely to make success harder to repeat.

Now… the revival of the word evangilism among non-religious coders is also interesting. I’ve done research as to where that came from and would be curious how it started getting used. The resistance to that word – especially given the culture wars in the US – is likely to be much greater. Outside the technology geek world that word still triggers LOTS of people.

Negotiation Workshop for NGOs in Vancouver

I’ll be doing a Negotiation Workshop on behalf of the Hollyhock Leadership Institute in Vancouver this April 25th and 26th. You can find out more, or register, here.

Since moving back to Vancouver I’ve been interested in finding ways to enable the local NGO community so when HLI asked if this is something that might be possible I jumped on the opportunity. While the workshop will be applicable in a number of circumstances, I want it to relate to two specific challenges.

Puzzle Circle

The first relates to what I think is a critical moment in BC, particularly for NGO’s.

With the coming Olympics and the passage of the recent provincial budget I suspect the number of negotiations between NGO’s and the provincial government will likely increase and/or taken on greater urgency. On the one hand this is an enormous opportunity for ENGOs to engage and partner with government and advance their cause – if the two parties can create a collaborative framework for working together.

Creating such a collaborative framework is often challenging.  Further complicating the issue is that parties will need to be able to sustain this collaboration in specific areas while the NGO community (legitimately) continues to critique and condemn government activities in other areas. These cooperative/competitive relationships are always difficult to manage, but all the more so when two groups – government bureaucrats/politicians and scoail activists – come to the table with a complex (and sometimes personal) history.

The second challenge relates to the equally difficult issue of the negotiations between NGO’s or among the activists within a social movement. As anyone experienced in this type of work will tell you, these conversations can be equally, if not more draining. If we can begin to develop skills and foster a culture that improves our capacity to engage in these conversations and negotiations, the movement can only be strengthened.

My hope is that this workshop can enable members of the community to better manage these negotiations and their relationships both with government and one another. If this is of interest, check out the workshop webpage. Also, I’ve mapped out what some of the critical negotiations in social movements are in this earlier blog post.

Negotiating with the Lord's resistance army (redux)

Some of you may remember the post I wrote after doing a workshop with some Ugandans who’ve been negotiating with the Lord’s Resistance Army for the release of kidnapped children.

I forgot to mention that the Canadian Consortium on Human Security published a slightly revamped version as the lead piece in last month’s edition of the Human Security Bulletin.

Critical Negotiations in social change movements

Recently I had the good fortune of sharing a tea with Andrea Reimer of the Western Canada Wilderness Committee. Our conversation focused on critical negotiations in social change movements – and more specifically, environmental movements.

Andrea pointed me to The Movement Action Plan, an article by social activist Bill Moyer.  The article outlines both the 8 stages (graphed below) a social movement often goes through – as well as the opportunities and pitfalls that exist along this path.

I’ve identified and mapped out (see slideshare presentation below) the 3 points where I believe there are critical and predictable negotiations. This is by no means meant to be an exhaustive, nor an absolute list. But based on a number of recent conversations I suspect this simple list of negotiations are both likely as well some of the most difficult for any movement to engage in. That said, I could be wrong and would love for critical perspective or countering data. This would be helpful as this is helping me frame my thinking for the negotiation workshop I’ll be giving on behalf of the Hollyhock Leadership Institute to members of the Environmental NGO community in late April.


  • The first key negotiation is in stage 2 through 4 where the movement’s component groups and individuals need to negotiate with one another about how to best advance their cause. This is, in short, a large alliance management problem where the benefits of collaboration could be increased public awareness and activism.
  • The second is in stage 5. Here the movement has to transition from being purely activist drive to long term focused. Here the movement is confronted again with an internal negotiation – the “take-off junkies” need to be persuaded to either adopt a long-term strategy or take on a new challenge. Alternatively, the movement could attempt to marginalize them.
  • The third is in stage 6 and 7. Here the movement may find it is negotiation – implicitly or explicitly – with the powerholders. Here the option is to reach agreement to establish a new status quo or, should negotiations collapse, to return to either activism or pressure building. This is where I believe many (but not all) Environmental NGO’s in British Columbia currently find themsleves. They are negotiation with the Provincial government over standards, policies and plans where they can either reach agreement or retreat to protest politics. In a sense their ultimate BATNA (and nightmare scenario for the government) is to threaten to engage in another round of the 1993 Clayoquot Sound protests. The question is, can the NGO community negotiate effectively, both with among themselves over their strategy, and with the government over the standards, policies and plans?


Choice Analysis Case Study: Negotiating with the Lord’s Resistance Army

Before Christmas I was fortunate enough to be invited to the Liu Institute to give a negotiation workshop to a group of visiting Ugandans. As some people know, but many do not, Uganda has had a large rebel force – called the L ord’s Resistance Army (LRA) – operating in the country’s north for over 20 years.

What makes this conflict particularly troubling has been the LRA’s strategy of kidnapping and indoctrinating and ultimately converting children into soldiers and supporters of the movement. To give you a sense of the scale and scope of the problem Wikipedia talks of the sadly named “night commuters” who: “between the ages of 3 and 17… would walk up to 20 kilometers from IDP camps to larger towns, especially Gulu, in search of safety.”(Photo on the right is of such a safe haven.)

LRA Child SoldierI met with tribal leaders who were attempting to negotiate the release of their women and children who, over the course of the conflict, had been kidnapped, indoctrinated and ultimately integrated into the LRA community (many to a degree that, even if their release were secured it is unclear that they would wish to leave their newly adopted home). In addition to running through some negotiation advice I decided to conduct a choice analysis. This is something I often do with clients – it is an ideal tool for understanding why someone you are negotiating with keeps saying “no.”

A choice analysis rests on a two simple assumptions:

  • People do what they believe is in their self-interest
  • We can’t influence people unless we understand how they see the situation

To conduct it you need to determine:

  • Who is the decision-maker?
  • What question does the decision-maker hear? (not, what question are you asking – there is a difference!)
  • What are the likely consequences for the decision-maker saying a) yes; b) no?

In the case of the Ugandans I was working with – the Choice Analysis looked like as follows:

Decision-maker: Kony (leader of the LRA)

The question they hear: Shall I today bow to the pressure of these weak and powerless tribal leaders and give up one of my best forms of protection? [One should always frame the question in the most negative way possible]

+ I keep my human shields and help ensure my safety

+ I keep wives close to me

+ I protect my own children

+ I assert my authority

+ My soldiers and followers see I am a tough negotiator

+ I demonstrate I’m more powerful than those who are asking

+ I can always say yes tomorrow

– The women and children are more likely to be caught in war zone

– I may be seen as conceding that I held people against their will and violated international law

– I lose future soldiers and supporters for my army

– I no longer directly protect the released members of my own and my soldiers families

– It may be perceived as a sign of weakness

– My subordinates may believe that I no longer have confidence in our future

– Undermines central abduction ‘doctrine’ of LRA

– People may think I believe others can take better care of these people than me

– I disappoint (and possibly betray) those women and children who are released but who don’t want to go

– I create expectations among other women and children that they too may get released if they would like

+ I gain credibility as negotiator and allow

   peace talks to continue

+ My reputation among local and international actors improves

You know you’ve done the analysis effectively when, if looking at it, you tell yourself – “Looking at it from this perspective I can see why they are saying no.”

So what does this analysis give us? It gives us a window into the interests and concerns that we have to address in order to craft a proposal that our target is more likely to say “yes” to.

In the above case Kony has legitimate concerns about the safety of these women and children should he release them back to their communities (in an effort to seek revenge against him an aggrieved individual might try to attack someone who is believed to be one of his wives or children). More importantly, life at the head of a rebel army in the African bush is fraught with danger – Kony can never show any sign of weakness lest he be overthrown. As such he can only say yes to a proposal that affirms his power and does not weaken him in the eyes of his soldiers and subordinates.  Also important is the fact that “releasing” these women and children would be a tacit acknowledgment that they had been kidnapped in the first place – something he is unlikely to want to do since that would strengthen the legal and political case against him.

There are of course, some who will argue that Kony is not a rational actor – that he is a murderer and a sociopath. The problem here is that if you adopt these as starting points where do you go…? How do you negotiate with him? Kony himself is alleged to have said “I’m not evil. I’m not stupid, I’ve built this whole army.” We can debate whether or not Kony is evil, but one doesn’t survive for 20 odd years as the head of a successful rebel army without a) being extremely smart; and b) possessing a finely (even ruthlessly) honed sense of self-interest. As difficult as it is to negotiate with someone like this we must appeal to these traits to be successful. Your odds will be better than negotiating with someone who is truly crazy.

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The unwritten story of the Vancouver Municipal Strike

With the strike now months over I’ve been looking for a story about the total costs of the Vancouver municipal strike and have yet to see one.

Most critically, I’ve been hearing from a number of sources that the strike to a heavy toll on the city’s staff. In short, many staff were unable survive for several months on strike pay along and ended up quitting their jobs and taking employment elsewhere. While no one has been specific about the numbers – they suggest they are large enough to represent several % points of the workforce. Indeed it would be interesting to learn how many staff got poached by the neighboring municipalities.
The costs of recruiting and training staff are significant (I’m frequently told it generally takes 6-9 months for someone to get up to speed on job) and these costs often don’t not even take into account the lost tacit knowledge and institutional memory held by employees who left. It’s possible that the real damage of the Vancouver strike hasn’t even been felt or noticed yet by the Vancouver’s citizens.

Worse still, neither the union nor the city appear to care much about this issue. In their stand off against each other, these workers were probably seen as expendable. The Mayor’s aggressive behaviour was in an effort to recast the next election along pro vs. anti union lines. When you are as unpopular as he is, it is possibly the only remaining strategy that will attract traditional NPA voters. As a result having a large swath of the public service quit conformed nicely with this tactic.

On the union’s side, the retention of any given member was probably not of consequence as the assumption was that some new face will simply jump in and pay union dues once the strike ends. As long as the number of jobs is unchanged, who fills them may not matter to the leadership.

With both the Union and Sam claiming victory (how I don’t know). It seems everyone won, except of course, the citizens of Vancouver, along with the current and past employees of the city.

I’d love to see the Vancouver Sun cover this…