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Back to the Future

Pat Bonner

More than eighty years ago Mary Parker Follett stated her ideas about public involvement/deliberative democracy, citizenship and how the public and government could solve problems together. Seen as a Prophet of Management by Peter Drucker - among others - the writings of or articles about Mary Follett's ideas are worth exploring for their relevance to public engagement and conflict prevention/resolution. A few items, ones that resonated for me, from two of her key contributions follow.

Today, we hear about the need for capacity building, both within government agencies and among the public.  Follett wrote in The New State: Group Organization, The Solution for Popular Government, 1918 Exit EPA Disclaimer: ".Why should the next generation do any better than the present unless we are training our young men and women to a proper understanding of the meaning of good citizenship and the sense of their own responsibility? The need of democracy to-day is a trained citizenship. We must deliberately train for citizenship as for music, art or trade." She also stated: "Citizenship is not to be learned in good government classes or current events courses or lessons in civics. It is to be acquired only through those modes of living and acting which shall teach us how to grow the social consciousness."

Public engagement practitioners know that everything we do depends on the quality of our relationships. In The New State: Group Organization, The Solution for Popular Government Follett wrote: "The study of democracy has been based largely on the study of institutions; it should have been based on how men behave together." (1918: 19). She also noted: "We have an instinct for democracy because we have an instinct for wholeness; we get wholeness only through reciprocal relations, through infinitely expanding reciprocal relations" (p 157). The best decisions are integrative: "not based on my needs or yours, nor on a compromise between them or an addition of them, but on the recognition of community between us." (p 79)

Six years later, inn the concluding chapter of Creative Experience (1924), Follett further explained the basis of conflict prevention and resolution: "What I have tried to show in this book is that the social process may be conceived either as the opposing and battle of desires with the victory of one over the other, or as the confronting and integrating of desires. The former means non-freedom for both sides, the defeated bound to the victor, the victor bound to the false situation thus created--both bound. The latter means a freeing for both sides and increased total power or increased capacity in the world" (p. 301). "To free the energies of the human spirit is the high potentiality of all human association" (p. 303).

The Association for Conflict Resolution presents the Mary Parker Follett Award to honor individuals like her, people who have a passion and a willingness to take risks, tackle a contemporary problem or opportunity in the field of dispute resolution, have used innovative and experimental techniques and draw upon the talents and ideas of all persons involved.

If this short series of quotations from Mary Parker Follett's works piques your interest in reading more of her philosophy, terrific. If you find other quotations worth sharing, send them to Pat Bonner (bonner.patricia@epa.gov) with why her words intrigued you or how they apply to what you do.

If another writer's work has been useful to you, please send a few examples of particularly relevant material with how the ideas helped you do your work.

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