Getting to a Brexit Strategy: Focus on the Process

Press coverage of Brexit negotiations is focused on the politicians in support of different exit strategies, from a no-deal Brexit to no Brexit at all. As one consequence, the debate then focuses on whose right or wrong and why. All very newsworthy, but not an approach to reaching any consensus on the approach the UK or the EU should take. It is an approach to cementing divisions.

In today’s climate of polarization, and the normalization of hate from each side, it might be difficult to recall, or even give some thought to, a literature focused on resolving differences of opinion. One of my favorite treatments of this issue was a book entitled ‘Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement without Giving In’ by Roger Fisher and William Ury of the Harvard Program on Negotiation  (Fisher, Ury and Patton 2011 [1981]). It spoke to the processes likely to support a negotiated resolution of conflicting positions, which identified some general rules that could help reach a consensus on contentious issues, such as focusing on the interests of different stakeholders rather than their positions in the debate – whose right and whose wrong.

Decades ago, I read this book when puzzling over how to make sense of my study of how computer models were being used in the policy process (Dutton 1982; Dutton and Kraemer 1984). My colleagues and I were looking at how computer models were shaping urban development decisions in the US, since local governments were adopting models that purported to project the fiscal impact of alternative decisions, such as urban infill versus sprawl. Such decisions were in no way as major as Brexit, but they were nevertheless very contentious, promising to reshape everything from the economic vitality of the city to the racial composition of neighborhoods.

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My colleagues and I were skeptical of the role that models could play in such a contentious process. We realized it was naïve to expect models to simply enable a more rational decision by providing more reliable forecasts of the outcomes of different alternatives. At the same time, we were not convinced that modeling was simply a tool for supporting partisan political decisions, using models to provide support to positions and decisions that had already been made.

What we found was far more interesting. The modeling process was inherently political, but political in ways that helped the contending parties to reach a negotiated consensus on the likely outcome and therefore to help reach a decision. For instance, the modeling process helped focus debate on the assumptions of the model, rather than on the positions of parties to the debate. Stakeholders began to focus on what outcomes should be forecast, rather than which decision they supported. In such ways, the modeling process provided a boundary spanning object and a process for stakeholders to understand the likely outcome of alternative decisions.

The success of this approach was evident is some unanticipated consequences. For example, by the time the modeling process was near completion, all the stakeholders tended to agree on the likely outcomes. This was so much the case that no one was really interested in reading the final report – the stakeholders already knew what should be done. If all the major stakeholders are represented in the modeling process, then they are brought along through this process such that the final report is old news.

My sense from a distance – informed only by press coverage – is that the proponents of different Brexit strategies are marshalling evidence and arguments for their own positions. They are not sitting around the same table trying to understand the likely outcomes of alternative strategies. Getting the right stakeholders within and across the EU and UK around a single modeling process could be one way to gain some level of consensus on the most sensible way forward.

A major limitation of such an approach is the degree that democratic and ethical concerns can be more critical than information about the outcomes of any decision. However, at this moment, most debate is focused on the Brexit strategy, and not whether or not to exit the EU, which is the decision most fraught over respecting the outcome of democratic process, regardless of the purported outcomes. So to the degree that this remains the case, and the focus remains on strategies for exiting the EU, then all parties in the EU and the UK should have a major stake in getting to yes.

References

Dutton, W. H. (1982), ‘Computer Models in the Policy-Making Process,’ Information Age, 1 (2), 86-94.

Dutton, W. H. and Kraemer, K. L. (1985), Modeling as Negotiating: The Political Dynamics of Computer Models in the Policy Process, Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Corporation.

Fisher, R., Ury, W., Patton, B. (2011) [1981]. Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In (3rd ed.). New York: Penguin Books.