The Massachusetts Office of Public Collaboration (MOPC) at UMass Boston’s John W. McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies has completed a conflict needs assessment for the Massachusetts Legislature that finds destructive conflicts are causing dysfunction and harm in local governments and communities.
Based on the data collected locally and on a review of local government experiences across the country and the benchmarking of successful external models, the interim report recommends a “statewide call to action” for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to establish comprehensive policy and programming to support municipalities and local communities by building on existing Massachusetts resources.
All across Massachusetts, municipal officials are at the front lines of solving today’s complex problems in such areas as budgets, education, land use, environment, economic development, public works, public safety, and public health. These issues may involve several jurisdictions and require the participation of multiple parties to develop comprehensive solutions. Some involve a degree of complexity that demands levels of expertise and resources that exceed the capacity of any single entity, whether governmental or non-governmental.
The UMass Boston study reports examples of Massachusetts' municipal officials managing public conflicts using approaches that range from traditional means to novel methods. In addition, it documents the impact of those approaches and presents preliminary findings about the impact of public conflict that is not managed well.
The report examines “destructive” public conflict that involves behavior that escalates conflict until it seems to have a life of its own. In these scenarios, the parties involved forget the substantive issues and transform their purposes to getting even, retaliating, or hurting the other parties to the conflict. In destructive conflict, no one is satisfied with the outcome, possible gains are not realized, and the negativity left by one conflict episode gets carried over to the next—creating a degenerating or negative spiral.
According to MOPC's Executive Director Susan Jeghelian, “The evidence in this study demonstrates that destructive public conflict can reduce government efficiency, divide communities, demoralize public managers, and cause a host of other financial and non-financial losses to municipalities and local communities. The destructive conflicts documented in this study caused dysfunction and harm to local Massachusetts governments and communities by decreasing trust in government, eroding civility and civic discourse, reducing community unity and togetherness, harming community well-being and prosperity, and reducing government efficiency, among other impacts.”
To address these harms, the study identifies specific needs that municipal officials identified as important for dealing with public conflict and for obtaining the societal results they desired. These range from resource and process-oriented needs to structural or systemic changes.
A set of preliminary recommendations is presented for the purpose of generating further discussion and developing solutions strategies among municipal officials, policymakers and other stakeholders. The report also includes an asset map that provides an inventory of existing Massachusetts resources identified through this study that can be deployed to support solutions.
Jeghelian notes, “The intent of this interim report is to engage Massachusetts municipal officials, policymakers, and other stakeholders in further exploration of strategies to address identified local government needs and implement practical solutions.”
A final report on the study will be filed in late 2015.