From Confrontation to Consensus

Round Tables are not a substitute for government. They don’t make policy like the Fijian elders, they provide policy advice to democratically elected bodies, whether these be national, state/provincial, or local. For this reason it is not usually appropriate for Round Tables to be ad hoc (self-constituted) in nature. It is usually best if Round Tables are appointed by, and answerable to, a democratically elected body that is in a position to make decisions based on the Round Table’s advice.

There are many variations on this theme. For example, if a private company wants to foster the creation of a Round Table to consider an industrial proposal, it can do so by working with the appropriate level of government. If an environmental group wants to employ the Round Table process to focus attention on a development it believes is harming the environment, it can also do so by working with the appropriate elected body. It is nearly always desirable that the appropriate elected body be responsible for determining or approving the terms of reference, appointing the members, and appointing the facilitator for the Round Table. Then the Round Table is consultative to, and answerable to, the democratic system. Private sector proponents can fund local Round Tables, providing they do not control the membership or direction of the process. This creates a situation where the credibility of the process is in the hands of elected government. If the government body loses confidence in the process, it is scrapped.

The Round Table Process Itself

The membership of a Round Table has an initial meeting with the appointed facilitator in order to review the terms of reference and to provide any feedback to the convenors of the process, such as the elected government that appointed it. At this stage the members must be satisfied that all legitimate interests have been included in the make-up of the Round Table. If they think that additional members are required they must indicate this. Also, the members must be satisfied with the terms of reference; that they are not too limited in scope but also not too open-ended.

Once the Round Table is comfortable with its membership and mandate, it can move on to the next stage, the identification of issues and concerns. Issues are real points of substance that most members agree are important to the dispute or task at hand. Concerns are like worries, not always accepted by a majority of the members, but must be given consideration even if only one member has the concern.

The process of identifying issues and concerns begins to allow the members to stop stating their positions, and to identify the reasons why they hold those positions. Instead of saying “I am against the uranium mine”, they are asked to say why, such as “uranium mining may cause water pollution”. The process of identifying issues and concerns should be an exhaustive one, no stone should be left unturned. Even after all issues and concerns have been identified, this agenda item should be left open throughout the process, for additions if necessary. It is a general rule that in consensus process, the agenda should always be open so as to make it clear that nothing has been cut off from discussion.

The issues and concerns should then be listed in some logical or methodical way. Sometimes a group of issues will come under a single general heading. The identification of issues and concerns will usually require about two full meetings

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