UMass Boston


The Role of a Neutral Forum

Neutral forum means an institution that has a reputation for impartiality, the ability to create a neutral “space” for participants to address issues, and the credibility to assure participants that the process will operate in an unbiased environment suitable for discussion and deliberation. As a neutral forum, MOPC provides MA leaders with expertise and capacity to assess, plan, and conduct collaborative processes, including establishing structures for on-going problem-solving and implementation. Engaging MOPC ensures that collaborative structures and processes developed and conducted under its guidance are carried out according to proven principles and best practices for collaborative governance as defined by the Policy Consensus Initiative (PCI).   Across the country, universities are serving as neutral forums through centers like MOPC that specialize in multi-party conflict resolution, collaborative problem solving, and public engagement. These centers help sponsors find facilitators, conduct assessments, determine what processes will work best and coach sponsors on how to play their role most effectively. MOPC is part of a national network of university-based centers for collaborative governance - the University Network for Collaborative Governance (UNCG).

Conflict Assessment

Conflict assessment helps parties determine whether an issue or dispute is appropriate for dispute resolution or consensus building. An assessment provides an opportunity to clarify the issues in the dispute, choose or design a dispute resolution or collaborative problem-solving process, decide who should participate in the process, and determine the costs involved. The assessment is conducted by a neutral who is skilled in convening parties and designing dispute resolution and consensus building processes.


Mediation is a form of assisted negotiation in which a trained neutral third-party helps parties in conflict create their own resolution.  The mediator meets jointly and separately with the parties to review the issues and explore possible proposals for resolution. The goal is to arrive at a mutually agreeable solution as efficiently and amicably as possible, thereby avoiding the time, expense and uncertainties of protracted litigation and on-going conflict. Participation in mediation is voluntary and confidential (G.L. Ch. 233, Section 23C). Agreements reached as a result of mediation are binding by mutual consent of the parties. During a typical mediation session, the mediator helps the parties to explore underlying issues, clarify misunderstandings and ambiguities, and address personal, emotional and relationship issues. The mediation helps the parties gain a different view of the dispute and better understand each other’s interests and needs. The mediator provides an impartial perspective on the issues in dispute and assists the parties in exploring opportunities for mutual gains, realistic trade-offs and creative solutions. Mediation offers participants a way to test proposals before committing to them, and enables parties to shape agreement terms that insure prompt, reliable and feasible compliance. The efficiency and reliability of mediation is helpful even when a case does not settle, because the issues are often narrowed and clarified. The flexibility of the mediation process makes it well-suited to highly complex, multi-party public policy disputes.


Consensus building is a term for a variety of processes based on collaboration in which a facilitator assists groups of individuals with diverse and often competing interests to collaboratively problem-solve and reach agreement. By bringing all affected parties (stakeholders) into the process as early as possible, consensus-building processes have been effective in resolving multi-party, multi-agency problems. Consensus building processes usually result in policies with wide support and a reduced likelihood for divisive community battles or legal challenges. A neutral facilitator assists in defining the stakeholders, getting the parties to the table, designing the ground rules and meeting structure, facilitating the process, providing meeting summary notes and assisting in the writing of the agreement.

Deliberative Dialogue

Deliberative dialogue is a form of public deliberation. In public deliberation, people come together to talk about a community problem that is important to them. Participants deliberate with one another face-to-face to explore options, weigh other’s views, and consider the cost and benefits of public policy decisions. Deliberative dialogue forums are structured discussions which range from small study circles held in peoples’ homes to large community gatherings, and are led by trained moderators. Using nonpartisan issue books that outline three or four possible ways to address a problem, participants analyze each approach through dialogue. Participants range from teenagers to retirees, prison inmates to community leaders, and literacy students to university students. Each dialogue focuses on a specific issue such as energy consumption, social security, or juvenile crime. Deliberative dialogue does not advocate specific solutions or points of view but provides citizens the opportunity to consider a broad range of choices, weigh the pros and cons of those choices, and meet with each other in a public dialogue to identify the concerns they hold in common.

Capacity-Building & Training

Dispute resolution training is provided to state and municipal officials and employees, and citizens involved in public projects. A broad variety of skill-building trainings are offered, including Negotiation, Mediation, Consensus-building, Arbitration, Conciliation, Conflict Resolution, Facilitation, Meeting Management, Workplace Violence Prevention, Cultural Competency for Mediators, and Communication with the Public. Trainings range from half-day workshops to a complete 30-hour mediation training. These training programs provide a full exploration of negotiation, mediation and conflict resolution theory as well as diversity issues. Participants also have an opportunity to learn skills that will help them handle conflicts in their organizations, and in most cases, participants are able to practice these newly learned skills through role-play exercises in a safe learning environment. Skill-building can focus on a variety of areas, from conflict analysis and prevention, to creative problem solving, to negotiating with challenging personalities. Trainings are custom designed by identifying the specific needs of potential trainees through a needs assessment, focus groups, surveys and/or interviews. The goal of trainings is for each participant to walk away with real and useful skills for resolving conflict and problem-solving effectively and a higher sense of confidence in dealing with conflict and managing diverse views.

Systems Design

Systems design is a process that helps organizations to develop policies and programs to better manage conflict, both internally and externally with stakeholders. System design experts consult on how to launch conflict management programs, deal with organizational resistance and constraints, ensure that the design fits the larger organizational culture and regulatory scheme, motivate people to use the system, and evaluate the system to determine if it works. The design process involves consulting the legislation, regulations and rules under which the dispute resolution system will operate; assessing organizational systems and goals; interviewing employees and stakeholders; facilitating collaborative and participatory design processes; preparing policies, procedures and forms; recruiting and training neutrals; and orienting agency or court staff on how to effectively use the dispute resolution program or system.

Monitoring and Evaluation

MOPC includes monitoring and evaluation practices in all of its programs and projects in order to closely monitor the quality of services, as well as the impact to sponsors and participants. Practices include receiving feedback and other information from sponsors, participants, and MOPC practitioners through the use of evaluation forms, interviews, and surveys. MOPC staff also observes projects for quality assurance and impact assessment. Thorough program evaluations for our Agricultural Mediation Program and Parent Mediation Program have been developed and approved by the University of Massachusetts Boston Institutional Review Board.


Massachusetts Office of Public Collaboration

100 Morrissey Boulevard McCormack Hall, 1st Floor, Room 627
Boston, MA 02125-3393