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Adaptive Approaches to Cooperation and Conflict in the Public Sector

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Ferd H. Mitchell and Cheryl C. Mitchell
March 20 2015

We often encounter cooperation and conflict in the public sector. Cooperation typically results when organizations separately decide that their interests are best served by seeking to take actions that may be endorsed by all of them. Cooperative relationships are often the most comfortable, but it may take skilled maintenance to keep them going. If cooperation begins to fade, and interests shift, cooperation may turn to conflict.

Sometimes, there may be no organizational relationships—or neutral relationships: there are no interactions, or those interactions taking place do not matter to those involved. Varying degrees of conflict can result when there are no cooperative arrangements and neutrality seems to be unavailable.

Mitchell march

Conflict can result from competition, or from differences in interests, antagonism, disagreements, lack of cooperation and other factors. Each of these factors may be probed in turn. Competition for resources or success may result in conflict due to struggles to “win.” Different organizational interests arise when agendas overlap and cannot be reconciled. To reduce competition, interests may be negotiated, or methods for coexistence may be sought.

Sometimes—unfortunately—conflict grows out of a mutual or one-sided antagonism that develops in organizational relationships. This type of conflict often may be attributed to historical factors. Disagreements over what to do can lead to conflict, which may increase in intensity if all groups attempt to “go in their own ways,” but relationships still exist.

A lack of cooperation can evolve into conflict. Cooperation often takes nurturing if it is to continue. Existing cooperative relationships can turn sour as the world changes, with conflict resulting. The degrees of conflict may range from “open warfare” to hidden resistance that “lies below the surface.”

In the real world, almost all administrators encounter combinations of cooperation and conflict. Often at issue is what to do about the conflict aspects. The key to dealing with conflict is often to consider some type of adaptation to the situation. If the source of conflict can be understood, efforts may be made to reduce or even eliminate the active signs of the conflict. However, adaptation is often hard work. It means changing the ways in which situations are viewed and understood. But efforts may be worth it.

In bureaucratic organizations, people are often supposed to do the jobs that they are assigned and otherwise suppress personal factors from being involved. However, this ideal is rarely achieved, despite the principles of public administration. When bureaucracies are placed in conflicting situations, the leaders of the organizations are supposed to deal with the situation. However, it may be difficult to understand why the conflict has developed, and how adaptation may be applied to improve the situation.

If leaders are experiencing conflict, it may be essential for a maximum effort to be made to understand the causes and evaluate modes of adaptation that might be acceptable and productive. Administrators can often exert more influence and achieve higher levels of success, if they are able to make use of change strategies to reduce various conflicts that “wax and wane” in public settings.

This is hard work. Administrators may find themselves tired after trying to understand sources of conflict and introducing change strategies to help deal with such situations. A price may be paid—in energy required to assess a situation and in deciding on the actions to be taken. Managing change and adaptation is difficult. However, the payoff may be improved organizational efficiency and a feeling of relative success. Withdrawal as a strategy is easier than conflict resolution through change, but the organizations involved may be less effective if such an avoidance approach is taken.

The approach to understanding a conflict situation and engaging in change efforts may sometimes be difficult to decide upon. There are no perfect “check lists” to review all possible causes of conflict, and no perfect guidelines to assessing and making changes.

But there are methods that can help. The causes of conflict may often be best determined by collecting as much information as possible about the situation. In many situations, much more information is available than initially expected, with only minor efforts needed to seek it out.

It may be helpful to consider the perceptions, interests, and values of the parties involved. Perceptions require thinking about how other organizations look at the world. Interests require thinking about the possible payoffs for other parties associated with the various choices that they face. Values require an approximate understanding of what is most and least important to the organizations involved.

In many circumstances, it may be possible to combine clarifying information of this type with an estimate of the options that might be available to help evolve from present conflict to more peaceful circumstances. The best solution may be to work toward the lowest-profile intervention that is possible. Administrators can then choose how they wish to deal with such conflict issues.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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