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How Brexit Inspires Me to Launch Negotiation & Public Service

Today is “Brexit Day”. For over two years, UK and European sights were set on 29 March 2019 as the divorce date. At the surface, Brexit is a failure of political leadership; underneath it is a negotiation disaster of the first order.

On the very date the UK should have left the EU, MPs will vote on the Withdrawal Agreement for the third time later today. Most Brexit wonks expect another defeat, another No in one of the most painful internal negotiations ever to take place in public. Even if it is a Yes for once, Brexit remains the largest negotiation train wreck this century. And even a No plus some more overtime granted means everyone is still losing, and much of the economic and political damage has already been done.

In the (lime)light of all this negotiation failure, no better day to announce the launch of a new initiative on Negotiation & Public Service. My vision for this venture is that it serves those working for the greater good in three unique ways:

  • NPS as a space to advocate the importance of negotiation for public service

  • NPS as a collaborative network growing negotiation capacity exclusively for civil servants and non-profit professionals

  • NPS as a bridge between theory and practice, with both leading negotiation teachers and accomplished (former) practitioners working together

A Bigger Why

The Brexit saga fuels my belief that the time to launch Negotiation & Public Service is now. The idea behind it, the origin story if you will, has been brewing for quite some time. Entrepreneurs call this a “slow hunch”. I used to believe strongly in the progression and irreversibility of a rules-based international system. Imperfect as it may be, I thought cooperation and negotiation would grow global public goods strong enough to deal with international crises in conflict, climate and commerce. Might is Right would become more rare. Coercion would recede.

I am still an optimist but I no longer believe progress on dealing constructively with conflict is irreversible. Meanwhile, negotiation challenges grow more complex and evolve more rapidly. And yet, few public service professionals are adequately trained in negotiation. Far fewer organisations view it as a core competence they should have.

I've been increasingly intrigued with the question why there is so little attention to negotiation capability of people and organisations whose primary drive is public service. The very DNA of their work is navigating a complex environment filled with shared and opposed interests; with very diverse and occasionally very difficult people; and with processes that are prone to lead a life of their own. From municipalities tackling industrial rezoning to states hammering out international treaties. From government officials in talks about mining concessions with multinational corporations to frontline humanitarian staff negotiating access for the world's most vulnerable groups in conflict zones. In most cases, the public service side is staffed by people -very often talented, committed and well versed in substance- who have not been exposed to negotiation as a subject and field of expertise in its own right.

I was catapulted into complex and high-level talks myself without a negotiation toolkit. Without a day of negotiation training, without ever reading a book on the topic, I sat at the table in international trade talks and, later on, in contentious talks on the Middle East. And I was not alone. On the contrary: being an ‘accidental negotiator’ remains a very commonplace phenomenon in public service. And more accidents are bound to happen...

A Collective Venture

Negotiation & Public Service will be a collective venture. In parallel to an actual Brexit or another EU-turn, the launch of NPS will be complete once a group of highly qualified individuals have joined me in the next few weeks. People with a track record 'at the table' in public service, in teaching negotiation, or both. We can provide a collective and scalable contribution to creating agreements for the greater good.

I hope many of you will join me on this journey.


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