Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

Conflict Management and Resolution: Building Collaborative Relationships at the County Level-A Symposium

Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

Conflict Management and Resolution: Building Collaborative Relationships at the County Level-A Symposium

Article excerpt


Limited research exists on managing conflict in counties. This symposium attempts to fill this void by examining the role of the county manager in addressing conflict to foster cooperation and understanding approaches to resolve conflict at the county level. The objectives of this symposium are threefold: (1) to help practitioners understand what they need to emphasize to foster cooperation in a fragmented government; (2) to impart strategies to manage and resolve differences at the county level; and (3) to offer direction for additional research on this topic to establish a systematic body of knowledge to guide practitioners in a government that is increasing in responsibilities in a diverse culture with different perspectives and high expectations.


Unlike cities and villages, counties are more prone to conflict due to their fragmented governmental structure and the increased demands placed on them by federal and state governments through mandates, block grants, and service shedding. For the most part, conflict in county government occurs when parties disagree over goals or approaches to implementing policy. Furthermore, county conflict is typically multi-interest. For instance, in the area of environmental disputes, the average number of parties to a dispute is typically four or more and, in some situations, the number can be as high as forty (Bingham, 1986:100). Equally important, conflict is perpetuated because those who participate in dispute situations often do not possess a thorough understanding of legal and political processes and/or adequate knowledge of the issue or decisionmaking authority over goals and procedures (Klase and Song, 2000.

Counties exhibit numerous approaches to deal with conflict. A review of the literature (Thomas, 1976; Ury, Brett, Goldbert, 1988; Klase and Song, 2000; MacManus, 1996; Svara, 1996) reveals that county governments resort to both organizational collaborative strategies and legal/political means to manage conflict. Figure 1 illustrates the interaction between the means to manage conflict and resolution outcomes to articulate specific strategies used in county government to address conflict.

The lower quadrants of the figure represent more traditional approaches to address conflict in counties. In particular, the lower left quadrant illustrates legal means via the courts to arbitrate or mediate disputes. In these situations, parties do not voluntarily collaborate together to resolve differences; instead, a resolution is imposed on them by a higher authority (i.e., the courts, an administrative judge, etc.).

Depending on the nature of the dispute, a resolution may not be forthcoming for some time. Consequently, frustration may be high among parties due to the lack of constructive problem solving or closure on the issue. The lower right quadrant represents electoral approaches to resolve differences. Much of the differences are addressed through majority rule and a disadvantage here is that the minority will not be satisfied with the outcome.

The upper left and right quadrants of the figure illustrate strategies to address conflict outside traditional legal and political institutions. The upper left quadrant conveys the idea that, while parties may be working together, they have not made a commitment to a resolution framework but are willing to explore options through informal discussions or work sessions without litigation or formal mediation. An encouraging aspect of this cell is that a resolution may be forthcoming that all parties will endorse.

The upper right quadrant typifies Svara's (1996) and Malone's (1986) notion of facilitative leadership where county managers need to work all along horizontal structures that transcend governmental fragmentation to foster cooperation on policy issues. In effect, managers and other county actors exercise networking and people-- style management and approaches to develop constructive problemsolving approaches to address contentious issues. …

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