Technical Issues and Relationships

Peter Woodrow

Partner and Program Manager, CDR Associates

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

Q: In situations where there's a federal agency and an organization, some sort of governing organization, I'm assuming there is for this water example you just gave, it seems like there are a lot of technical, regulatory things going on. You also mentioned the term relationship, which may sound surprising to someone who thinks of bureaucracies and agencies as faceless. How does a relationship enter into something like that?

A: Well, first of all, in the technical area, it's important when working on something like this water fight. I understand western water law in broad terms. I don't have to be a legal expert on that. Luckily on this particular case my co-mediator is an environmental lawyer who understands western water law up and down. So that's very helpful on the case, although he hasn't necessarily had to bring that legal expertise directly into it. It's more like when we're strategizing and I ask him a dumb question about water law he can answer me. But in the mediation sessions with the clients, there are water lawyers all around the table, and we as a mediation team should not try to interpret water law in front of everybody else. So the technical expertise is, you know, we need to know enough to be able to be credible as mediators, but we don't have to be experts. 

Usually there are more than enough experts floating around on those issues. In terms of relationships, really the relationship between any two organizations, whether it's a federal agency, a university, what have you, comes down to interpersonal interactions. So in this case it's the Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency that builds the dams and water infrastructures throughout the West, and then they've got a local office that relates to this particular water district, and they have to work together to do water releases and water storage plans and a plan for irrigation every year, and they have to work very closely together to do that.

There's personnel on one side and personnel on the other, and they sit down around tables and they develop plans and they have to agree and everything has to work. So how they communicate, how they treat each other, the degree of respect and acknowledgement that goes back and forth, the degree to which there was consultation on important matters, all of that comes into that relationship, and that's what we're talking about when we're talking about relationship. You know, it's not about whether they're best friends or anything like that. It's whether they have a good working relationship, which usually involves communication, trust, respect, all the same things that people need with their wives and spouses, but in an organizational, working context. So that does come into it, and with the particular relationship I was talking about earlier where all the lawsuits were involved between the Bureau of Reclamation and this water district, we had been recommending that even if they resolve the legal issues, they need to have some work directly on their relationship, which isn't what they're used to. 

They're not used to having to face that, but they realize that their relationship is bad, so they've been sort of saying yeah, well, maybe we'll do that. But we sort of have to still sell them on taking that directly. But we'll see. Maybe they'll do it and maybe they won't.