Sunday, 14 October 2012

Cooperative Problem-Solving: the key to a reciprocal society

[On 12-13 September 2012, a group of academics, students, and leading figures from the cooperative and community sectors met at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge, to discuss why and how cooperative problem-solving should be more widely understood and utilised. We agreed to issue the following position statement, to provide a basis for collaboration between educators, civic activists, and policy makers.]

1. There is a growing awareness that many problems in society cannot be adequately dealt with by relying on a few to make collectively binding decisions without involving others, leaving poorly resourced individuals to tackle them on their own, or asking people to vote on options without any informed deliberation.

2. Evidence built up over decades from cooperative management, participatory engagement, and restorative practices have shown that better outcomes (e.g., business success, community safety, environmental enhancement, education attainment, social cohesion) can be secured when the people affected are enabled to cooperate together on equal and reciprocal terms to decide how to solve the problems they face.

3. The increasing acknowledgement of the value of ‘cooperative’, ‘mutual’, ‘co-productive’ approaches, however, is not always backed by sufficient appreciation of what the essential elements of cooperative problem-solving really are, or what it takes to implement them effectively. Therefore, decision makers, irrespective of the sectors in which they operate, should ensure that any verbal embrace of cooperative working is matched by a genuine commitment to apply cooperative problem-solving without leaving out any of the following four key features:

4. First, all those affected by the problem in question and any proposed solution should have the opportunity, with the help of a facilitator, to express their concerns. Under conditions of openness and equal respect, everyone who has a relevant point to make should be given a hearing, and no one who is abusive or seeking to dominate discussions should be allowed to disrupt proceedings.

5. Secondly, those involved should be enabled to hear from and question witnesses, experts, and anyone else currently assigned a specific responsibility to deal with the problem under discussion. This is to ensure relevant consideration is given to what possible solutions there might be, the pros and cons of going along with them, and what constraints there might be to taking any other courses of action.

6. Thirdly, participants should be encouraged to contribute any suggestion of their own, discuss with each other how conflicting positions can be resolved, and explore the implications of mutual concessions and support, before giving their backing to a set of collectively ranked priority actions.

7. Finally, responsibilities and resource implications are to be agreed for taking forward the prioritised actions and for reporting back on their impact in practice. The feedback will then form the basis of a review of the effectiveness of the action plan, and inform whether further changes need to be considered.

8. It is not easy to incorporate all four elements that have just been outlined. Efforts are required to ensure marginalised voices are not ignored. Attention is needed to identify, and if necessary train up, facilitators who can be both firm and empathetic. Tension and conflict have to be sensitively resolved, not suppressed, to bring about consensus. Where large numbers are involved, representative selection or proportionate election may have to be used to obtain groups wherein meaningful deliberations can take place. Above all, power differences have to be managed so that no participant can have an unfair advantage over others in securing support for their preferred position.

9. Whatever the difficulties, the costs of overcoming them are likely to be outweighed by the benefits, because the solutions produced are shaped by people’s needs, unlikely to require expensive corrections, serve the common good rather than the interests of just a few, and are more sustainable because people take ownership of them.

10. To share the lessons on how the approach outlined above can help us deal more effectively with diverse social, economic and environmental challenges, we are committed to promoting learning and research in the development and application of cooperative problem-solving.

[This statement is supported by representatives of the British Youth Council; Community Development Foundation; Community Matters; Co-operative College; Co-operatives UK; Equality Trust; Locality; National Children’s Bureau; National Council for Voluntary Youth Services; Speaker's Corner Trust; Student Voice; Take Part; UK Youth Parliament; Workers Educational Association; Young Advisors; along with academics from Cambridge University’s Faculty of Education; London University’s Institute of Education, Goldsmith’s College, & Royal Holloway College; University of Lincoln; the Royal Docks Community School; Rutger University’s Graduate School of Education (USA); and Waikato University’s Faculty of Education (New Zealand)]

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