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Dispute Resolution for the Public Service

Currently, the pressure placed on our collective mental health by the Covid-19 pandemic is evident in the increased workload and stress levels of public service conflict resolution officers. From the welfare agencies, hospitals and healthcare agencies, police services and every tribunal, commission, Ombudsman and complaints authority you can think of, complaints handling staff and decision-makers are struggling to cope with a climate of uncertainty and heightened emotional, financial and psychological distress.

We are managing an increasing level of high-conflict behaviour and unreasonable demands, while adjusting to new work environments and managing our own personal challenges. In this climate, mediators and dispute resolution experts, have an immense role to play. Our ability to drive fair processes, explore underlying interests and communicate with empathy is key to surviving conflict. The following three established areas of dispute resolution practice have an important role to play in ensuring our public servants survive the many conflicts that the current crisis has fostered.

1) A fair process guarantee: even if you cannot give someone the outcome that they want, you can guarantee a fair and accessible process. A good mediator does not dictate the terms of an agreement, but they fiercely control the process with independence, impartiality, and an uncompromising commitment to fairness. In the public service, this fair process-driven mindset ensures individuals understand and are understood before any decisions are made on their entitlements. In this way, while an individual may not get what they wanted, they feel they have been heard and treated fairly – a crucial component to ensuring trust in our public service.

2) Identifying underlying interests: taking time to consider why someone is seeking a particular outcome and identifying their underlying interests is the key to an effective negotiation process. Mediators conduct comprehensive exploration processes specifically for this purpose alone. Interest-based conversations that involve canvassing all options, before proposing outcomes, and separating people and relationship issues from the problem at hand, is second nature for most mediators. These skills must also be used by public servants as a means of ensuring outcomes that add value and are more likely to be accepted by the community. It is very easy, as the workload increases, for government agencies to resort to formal, legalistic and template correspondence. However, in doing this we lose the great value we can gain from collaborative, interest-based negotiations.

3) Understanding high conflict behaviour: just knowing that difficult and unreasonable behaviour often comes out of fear and vulnerability instils public servants with the right mindset to manage high-conflict behaviour. Apart from a few exceptions, many of the most difficult individuals in our community are also the most vulnerable. They are often burdened by mental and/or physical disability, and lack social and family supports, while being subject to the attention of law enforcement and mental health authorities. These individuals place a considerable emotional and workload burden on many public servants. Equipping public servants with the tools to understand why some individuals behave in an irrational way and developing strategies to calm and engage with them in a collaborative way is another essential component of conflict resolution in the public service. It is also important for ensuring the resilience and wellbeing of public servants who deal with challenging behaviour.

Together, these three elements ensure trust, understanding and connection in our community. Now, more than ever before, we must work harder to maintain these values. So where do we begin? Well we can start by ensuring that the public servants have access to the right training and support to develop these skill sets.

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