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Keeping conflict constructive

Updated Tuesday 9th January 2007

This extract from Shaping Public Policy, taken from The Open University Master of Public Administration, describes the process of introducing new ways of working.

Changing ways of working is always controversial. The disagreements may turn on different values and priorities, or they may reflect conflicting narratives about why the problems have arisen and the likely effects of different choices.

Arguments of this sort are practically essential for problem analysis as they test reasoning, bring additional information to the surface, highlight important risks, and provide different interpretive frames to consider ambiguous developments and possibilities.

Even if the arguments do not substantially add to the analysis, they will certainly highlight issues and angles that will need to be addressed in explaining and justifying proposals.

However, for anyone already convinced of the rightness of their view, or, conversely, of the foolishness of the entire exercise, or who is just in a hurry to get on with things, the careful scrutiny of possibilities can be frustrating and dispiriting. The tendency then will be either to push, or to resist, more overtly, re-emphasising the same points and staking out increasingly strong positions.

Such escalation leads to a gradual polarisation around conflicting positions and values: each side sees itself as comprising the good guys, upholding progress or defending things everyone holds dear against the mindless damage wrought by the benighted forces ranged against them. In fact, of course, these conflicts are not cases of ‘right against wrong’ so much as ‘right against right’.

Classic fault lines lie between managers and professionals, between ‘street-level’ and senior staff, between politicians (and political advisers) and civil servants, and especially between the innovators (those involved in a pilot project, say) and those defending established practices.

Both sides base their claims on important values but, nevertheless, in no time the stereotypes are being rolled out and the splitting and projection begins. The larger the scale of the proposed changes, and the harder for those affected to engage directly with each other as people, the worse all these difficulties are. And they may be overlaid by other, social and geographical differences.

One technique for containing and working with potentially divisive polarities is to gradually bring to the surface the ‘shadows’ of the opposing positions. For example, when new ways of working are proposed, it is very common for the argument to take the following form.

The advocates of the changes point to various shortcomings in the current arrangements and set out an uplifting prospect of a new scheme, emphasising the benefits it will provide.

Those who identify with the old ways then raise questions about the proposed changes, suggesting various difficulties with them, and deny that the problems with the current arrangements are anything like as serious as has been presented (and if they are, this is for reasons they have often said needed to be addressed in other ways).

The interesting point about these exchanges is that they may hardly engage with each other at all. The advocates compare the way they hope things will be with the way (they say) things actually are, while the defenders compare the way things are currently meant to be with their predictions about how things would actually be. An air of unreality can permeate the whole discussion.

The table below illustrates what often goes on. The advocates contrast their ‘sunny uplands’ with a murky picture built up from various awkward and neglected (shadow) aspects of the current arrangements. But this feels too much like an attack on those who have invested years in making the old ways work. Their collective self-image provides not just a coherent rationale for what they do, but one that justifies them, locating the reason for shortcomings elsewhere.

So they present a robust defence to the implied criticism (as people always can) and, of course, since the advocates have presented a somewhat wishful or idealised sketch of their proposals, it is not difficult for the defenders to home in on important omissions, likely difficulties and major costs – while perhaps also alluding to some questionable motives underlying the proposals.

Arguments for and against change – how much is discussable?


  The old familiar system The proposed or emerging arrangements
Collective self-image(or ideology) The way it’s meant to be the official line or public story. An answer for everything; explains away shortcomings (e.g. lack of resources). Emphasises staff contribution and commitment. Sunny uplands the simple, idealised system. Answers, in principle, to all major current difficulties and weaknesses.
Collective shadows(or blind spots) Inconvenient truths – aspects denied, ignored or played down; undeclared personal interests and advantages in the existing arrangements. Awkward questions – the gaps, ambiguities and elisions; obvious risks and unwarranted optimism about predictable pitfalls; undeclared personal interests and advantages in the proposed arrangements.

The only way to progress such discussions is to acknowledge the shadows. This may be much harder than it sounds; if the discussion has become at all adversarial, getting beyond the defences takes time. And it is not just a matter of whether people are willing to acknowledge certain things, but whether they are able to. After all, if you have been personally and publicly committed to a particular position for years, it may be painful to acknowledge that it has had major shortcomings (this can be just as true for change consultants as it is for staff in public bodies).

To the extent that each side can own its shadow, this shifts the basis of the argument from ‘past bad, future good’ (or vice versa) to ‘past problematic, future problematic’ – a much more realistic foundation (which certainly does not preclude making real improvements, of course).

Framing the differences in this way does not, in itself, resolve them. What it can do is one of two things. It can winch the arguments back down to earth, puncture the more high-flown and value-laden rhetoric and establish a basis around what is agreed, where the main differences and uncertainties lie and how they can be jointly investigated.

Alternatively, where ‘helpfulness’ or other considerations mean that disagreements are not being expressed, this approach can help to bring the difficult issues into the open.

Based on the Overview for Unit 8 Institutional Renewal, part of Shaping Public Policy, one of the core courses for the OU Masters in Public Administration.


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