Avoiding “Alternative Facts” with Joint Fact-Finding
The language of dissonance seems to permeate modern day politics and discourse. It is easy to become overwhelmed with the prospect of trying to work collaboratively with others in light of this constant rhetoric of division and discontent.
Amid this current atmosphere of division, do you face situations where you need to reconcile disparate views in order to make progress in moving forward with the decision-making process? Do you feel overwhelmed at the idea of trying to get people with vastly different perspectives to somehow come together in agreement on a shared set of information in order to accomplish a shared objective? If so, you are not alone and there is in fact a relatively simple method for achieving success in getting opposing groups to collaborate–joint fact-finding.
Joint Fact-Finding, A Brief Lesson
The idea behind joint fact-finding is to build a collective set of information that parties (i.e., stakeholders) involved in a decision-making process can agree upon as the basis or starting point from which to come to an agreement on how to resolve an issue. It stands in opposition to what happens in many decision-making process, in which each side or party presents their facts and scientific or technical information separately in a more adversarial setting and attempts to undermine the information presented by the other.
“We increasingly find ourselves in a society and in situations where everybody feels the need or right to marshal their truth and disregard others’ truths. And that’s a really difficult situation to be in,” said Todd Schenk, assistant professor in SPIA’s Urban Affairs and Planning program and co-editor of the book Joint Fact-Finding in Urban Planning and Environmental Disputes. “There are a lot of problems with a world in which people just don’t trust anybody or any information that does not come from their favorite news outlets and respective echo chambers.”
Joint fact-finding is a way to confront this challenge and find a way to move forward. “Pragmatically, if we are going to make decisions, if we are going to find ways to coexist and reach consensus, we need to find ways to come to a shared set of facts for our decision making,” Schenk said.
The process requires stakeholders to collectively:
- define their information needs (i.e., the data that would help them to make the best possible decisions);
- translate these needs into research questions;
- partner with technical experts that are widely trusted and seen as legitimate to devise and conduct a research program; and
- jointly receive the results and consider the implications on the questions (i.e., planning and policy challenges) at hand.
Schenk cautioned that joint fact-finding isn’t some magical formula that will result in a completely shared, comprehensive view of the world. It won’t bring our disparate values into communion with each other, but rather, it is a way to arrive at and agree upon a shared set of information and facts that both parties can use as a point of departure for negotiation, conversation and deliberation around important policy questions.
Dealing with an Uncertain Future
Joint fact-finding can be a great way to deal with complex issues that have high degrees of uncertainty.
According to Schenk, it’s a matter of acknowledging uncertainty and making it an explicit part of the decision-making process. He suggests using the joint fact-finding method to make contingent decisions that require ongoing monitoring, evaluation and amendment. He proposes several approaches that can augment the joint fact-finding toolkit to facilitate these more dynamic decision-making efforts.
“There are important tools and approaches we can adopt in order to make decisions despite uncertainty. One, for example, is the use of multiple scenarios—we can create a set of different possible futures against which we can assess an option and evaluate how it looks against those multiple possible futures,” Schenk said.
Joint fact-finding and especially the use of joint fact-finding for issues of high complexity and uncertainly like climate change adaptation, is something Schenk strongly imparts to his students in the classroom.
“I try to bring elements of this into different things I teach,” Schenk said. In his class on environmental planning and policy last semester, Schenk pointed out how something like the Clean Water Act is a product of competing interests and priorities. It’s implementation is an ongoing source of contention, and subject to ongoing deliberation.
“If we think about it as an ongoing process, it behooves us to think about who the stakeholders are and how they are active in the process. It’s helpful to think about how we might more effectively mediate those differences and how we can support such efforts with joint fact-finding,” Schenk said.
Facing a Fractured Society
The idea of dueling ideologies and polarized interests is often at the forefront of collective decision-making and it is something that has interested Schenk throughout his career.
“My work revolves around collaborative planning and decision making,” Schenk said. “How do multiple stakeholders come together to collectively deal with a planning issue, a planning question or a policy question?”
He believes that joint fact-finding can be a powerful complement to multi-stakeholder efforts as they seek to address what is a major hindrance to productive, collaborative planning and problem solving.
In a new book he co-edited with Masahiro Matsuura called Joint Fact-Finding in Urban Planning and Environmental Disputes, Schenk brings together the voices of practitioners and academics utilizing joint fact-finding. Together, they share practices, reflect on where the approach is going and what the potential barriers are, look at some examples, and make a case for why joint fact-finding should be more widely adopted.
“We were keen to use this as a viable way to help groups use scientific and technical information (and general information) more effectively in decision making” he said.
Hopes for the Future
“Someday I’d love to do a very case-based class on these things,” Schenk said. “I would also love to do some sort of a project-based collaborative process with students as well—I’d love to find a way to integrate this work more into the classroom.”
For now Schenk hopes the book can be a valuable resource for students, practitioners and colleagues looking for more information on the status and progress of joint fact-finding.
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