Public sector challenges: An Interview with Kate Kopischke (2015)

Reflections from Practice Series - No. 03


ACCESS Facility shares from time to time insights on company-community dialogue and rights-compatible, interest-based conflict resolution from senior practitioners who are part of the Community of Practice hosted by ACCESS.

Public sector challenges: An Interview with Kate Kopischke

Kate Kopischke is an independent mediator specializing in stakeholder engagement, dispute prevention, and dispute resolution in the natural resources sectors. Kate’s work involves conflict assessments and facilitation of dialogue-based processes to help communities, companies and the public sector address concerns stemming from the impacts of large-scale development projects. Kate also serves as expert dispute resolution practitioner for UNDP’s Stakeholder Response Mechanism, a formal avenue for stakeholder engagement when people believe a UNDP project may have adverse social or environmental impacts. From 2005 to 2010 she worked as dispute resolution specialist for the Office of the Compliance Advisor Ombudsman (CAO). CAO is the ombudsman for the International Finance Corporation, the private sector lending arm of the World Bank Group. Kate holds a master’s degree in intercultural communication from the University of New Mexico.

What is one of the more significant challenges or dilemmas you face when you are facilitating company-community dialogue?

Engaging reluctant and unpredictable public sector actors.

Most of my facilitation work involves conflicts between private-sector companies and communities who are impacted by the operations of those companies. While the public sector may not be initially involved in the filing of a grievance, government officials typically become important stakeholders in efforts to resolve company-community conflict. After all, governments are responsible for developing national laws and policies, and ensuring that companies operating within their jurisdictions comply with those policies. The role of public-sector actors in resolving company-community conflicts varies depending upon the industry and nature of the project or grievance. They may serve as equal participants in a mediation or agreement-seeking process, or play a less direct role as a resource for public information or clarification of relevant regulations and statutes. They also may serve as high-level conveners of a collaborative process, encouraging and supporting the involvement of key stakeholders. A significant challenge is that many countries in which large-scale development is taking place have weak governance structures; a conflicting, unclear or unenforced regulatory environment; and little or no experience with collaborative approaches to problem solving. Often, government officials are reluctant – if not totally unwilling – to participate in mediated or dialogue-based processes. They may fear that participating in such a process will undermine their credibility or public image, or feel threatened by the presence and involvement of a trusted, third-party facilitator. In my experience, public leaders have actually worked to sabotage a mediated process by threatening willing participants, refusing to participate when their involvement is essential, or by starting a parallel process that excludes key stakeholders and process fairness. This type of inertia within the public sector can exacerbate conflict, or cause long delays in moving dialogues forward. This is especially true during election cycles, and in contexts where corruption is entrenched.

What is an example of this challenge?

A process I am co-facilitating concerning impacts of an on-shore oil and gas project.

Community groups living near a large oil and gas field alleged that the oil company’s operations are causing tremors that are damaging homes and buildings, and contributing to a climate of fear and insecurity. The company disagrees. It maintains that the region has always been highly prone to earthquakes, and that tremors are naturally occurring events. Prior to our involvement, the company had been making efforts to confirm its own belief that the tremors are naturally occurring, and not caused by company operations. It had purchased two seismometers (instruments that measure ground-level motion) to place near the impacted village to provide a more detailed analysis of the tremors. The company drafted an agreement with the then-national government, in which the company would donate the seismometers to the country’s national seismic institute – a public institution – provided the seismic institute would monitor the seismometers at that location for a period of time and report the findings publicly. The company knew that if it conducted the investigation itself, few if any people would trust the results – particularly if they supported the company’s position. Before the agreement was signed, national elections were held and a new political party entered office. The company waited until the newly elected officials were installed, and presented them with the draft seismometer agreement. However, several key officials refused to sign the agreement or begin monitoring the seismometers unless the company first provided five seismometers, rather than two; provided funding for several new full-time faculty positions at the university that houses the seismic institute; and met a range of other demands. Frustrated and feeling extorted, the company refused. A conflict ensued between the government and the company. Even after two years of effort, the government has been unwilling to connect the seismometers to its national grid.

How did this impact the parties’ ability to achieve rights-compatible, interest-based outcomes?

Long delays are occurring, but new and unlikely allegiances have been formed.

From the perspective of both the company and the community representatives involved in the dialogue process, the government is evading its responsibility to protect the public interest and serve as an honest broker of information. The company believes government is trying to shift blame for “acts of God” to the company, to force the company to provide compensation. From the community’s perspective, the stalemate underscores widespread frustration with public sector officials who put profit and personal gain before the public interest. Both see that if the government cooperated, it could immediately begin providing information about the cause of the tremors, which in turn could help stakeholders identify evidence-based solutions to the problem. Acknowledging their common interest around this issue, the parties decided to write a joint letter to the government, describing their dialogue process and efforts to cooperate, and demanding the public sector do its job to provide information to the public. They sent it to a range of high-ranking public sector officials and demanded a response within one month. Copies of the letter were sent to the international financiers of the project. It has now been more than three months, and no response has been forwarded to the dialogue participants. Our understanding is the letter has moved from desk to desk among ministers, even reaching the desk of the Prime Minister. This situation highlights some of the challenges in working with reluctant public sector officials in trying to advance collaborative solutions to company-community challenges. One positive development, however, is that the company and community have found common ground in their frustration with government. A conversation has begun about how and where to find an alternative third-party seismic specialist to review the seismic data. As a result, we also see other areas of common ground emerging, opening up new avenues for cooperation.

Written by Lindie Botha based on an interview by Pablo Lumerman. It may be cited as

Lindie Botha with Pablo Lumerman (2015). Public sector challenges: Interview with Kate Kopischke. Reflections from Practice Series No. 03 (B. Ganson, ed.). The Hague: ACCESS Facility.

It may be freely copied and distributed with proper attribution.