Communique Magazine  

Jane Mansbridge on Legislative Negotiation

The Ash Center sat down with Jane Mansbridge, Charles F. Adams Professor of Political Leadership and Democratic Values, to discuss her work developing a package of case studies, simulations, and exercises for teaching effective legislative negotiation aimed at state and federal legislators in the United States

What interested you about the field of legislative negotiation?

My field is deliberative democracy. I realized recently that all of the academic literature on deliberation put down negotiation, denigrated it, considered it bargaining. Deliberation is supposed to be talking about the common good, whereas bargaining pits people against each other. But because I’m here at the Kennedy School, I work with colleagues teaching negotiation. So I knew that negotiation isn’t just two absolute enemies bargaining to just get the best thing for themselves. It’s more creative than that. So, I thought, ‘Well, let’s see what political science has to say about negotiation.’ And, the answer was: it had zero to say about legislative negotiation.

Why do you think that is?

Legislative negotiation takes place behind closed doors. It has to be behind closed doors to maximize success. So to study it, you can’t watch it. You have to ask people who’ve been there what they remember. Two problems: First, they might not remember accurately. Second, even more importantly, they’re not necessarily going to tell you what went on, because the point of closed doors is to keep things from getting out. Good negotiators don’t talk at the time, and the best ones don’t talk later either. Also, unlike roll-call votes, there are no obvious numbers attached to the process. As a consequence, this really important democratic method has just not been studied systematically at all.

Some journalists have done a brilliant job of writing case studies of particular negotiations, asking lots of people and beginning to pry things out of them. But there’s been nothing systematic.

What about the study of negotiation? Certainly at Harvard we regularly train negotiators in law, business, and other fields. Have legislators and their staffs regularly participated in these trainings?

There has never been any training in legislative negotiation. The negotiation field came out of business and to some degree international relations. Most of the cases are business cases.

It’s almost as if it were that no one knew this material was absent so, therefore, there was no demand for it.

Exactly. It’s one of these circular things in which, because nothing exists, nobody asks for it. And, because nobody asked for it, nothing exists. It’s funny, because some legislators have taken negotiation courses at law schools. Some have even gone to public policy schools and have taken negotiation there. But the fact that they never once had a case in legislative negotiation had never occurred to them until we mentioned it. So it’s quite extraordinary; once we began to say the magic two words together — “legislative” and “negotiation” — people went “bing, bing, bing, bing, bing” in recognition.

So how has this project been received by legislators and their staffs?

The uptake has been terrific. Legislators and staff have been very pleased with it. Some of the legislative participants who helped test the cases and simulations are wonderful negotiators themselves, but they weren’t familiar with the scholarly language of negotiation and the conceptual apparatus that you learn in negotiation courses. Giving them that framework helps even these experienced folk. In the last training we did with Congressional staff, every single participant responded with a “seven” on a seven-point scale to the question on whether they would recommend the training to another staff member

So how will this package of material that you helped develop ultimately be used?
We are making the simulations and cases available free through the Kennedy School Case Program. In law and business schools, we hope that traditional negotiation courses will add a legislative component. In political science, we hope that courses on Congress and the legislative process will add a negotiation component. In Congress and the state legislatures, we hope that greater skill in negotiation can help policymaking in this hyperpolarized world. Our mantra is: “You can negotiate with enemies.”