Solving project conflict through mediation: The innovative experience of CoST Thailand

Over the past few months, CoST Policy Adviser Maria da Graça Prado has been conducting an analysis of the efficacy and impact of CoST Thailand’s work. Using a combination of interviews and field observations, this has shone a light on how CoST’s core features of disclosure, assurance, multi-stakeholder working and social accountability work on the ground in Thailand, to produce an environment of greater transparency and accountability in public infrastructure.

A full report will be soon published, highlighting the programme’s positive impacts including a reform to institutionalise CoST disclosure practises in the Thai Procurement Act. These findings also show an increase in disclosure levels and a greater commitment to transparency from procuring entities: many have improved implementation practises following direct recommendations from the CoST Thailand assurance process.

During her time monitoring the programme in Thailand, a specific approach used during the assurance process stood out to Maria: the use of mediation techniques to resolve disputes between local communities, procuring entities and contractors. In this blog, Maria explores the use of mediation in this context.

Mediation in a nutshell

Mediation is a method to solve disputes whereby a neutral third-party helps disputing actors to find common ground and work their way out of conflict. Communication is a key part of this process. So much so that academics consider mediation a tool to restore the broken communication between the parties. It is through the dialogue facilitated by the mediator that parties can understand each other’s position and devise a mutually satisfying solution to their conflict.

Before joining CoST, my work focused on alternative dispute resolution in the infrastructure sector, and mediation had become one of the preferred methods in this sector due to its ability to build consensus and solve conflicts. My own research carried out in Brazil indicated that the provision of a mediation clause in contracts was interpreted as a sign of trust in the project and in the counter-party.

CoST Thailand’s process of incorporating mediation techniques into the assurance process

CoST Thailand has incorporated mediation into the assurance process in a way which merits a close inspection. As referenced above, assurance is one of the CoST core features. The assurance process is an independent, third-party review of a sample of disclosed project data, to check the accuracy and completeness of the information.

The detailed analysis carried out during the assurance process allows the assurance team to identify red flags in project implementation (a low level of bid competition for example) and to pinpoint grey areas in the infrastructure sector (such as a lack of transparency in the tender process). Red flags and grey areas are highlighted in the assurance report to encourage action to be taken.

Although standard procedures exist in the assurance process (such as site visits and interviews), CoST applies a flexible approach to programme implementation which allows countries to tailor the programme to meet local needs and priorities. The use of mediation techniques in CoST Thailand’s assurance process is an innovation which has been facilitated by the flexibility of the CoST approach.

An innovation led by the CoST Thailand multi-stakeholder group (MSG) and the assurance team

Understanding how this innovation flourished was one of the key points I explored within the impact study. Its origins can be traced back to CoST Thailand’s MSG: a governance body composed by representatives of government, civil society and private sector, responsible for overseeing the implementation of the programme.

In 2018 – the year of CoST Thailand’s second assurance process – the MSG discussed the importance of including a public engagement session in the process. The intention was to create a physical space where local communities could meet with procuring entities and contractors to discuss any challenges in project implementation.

In interviews, I was told that the idea of a public forum session was to build a closer connection between CoST and local communities. The end goal identified by the MSG was to reinforce social accountability – another core feature of the programme and an essential pre-requisite to facilitating change.

Initially, the MSG had envisioned inviting only community leaders to the public sessions. But in the first session in 2018, the community leaders opened invitations to the entire village and this model, with broad attendance, was replicated by the assurance team in other CoST projects across Thailand. In interviews, the assurance team used the term ‘mediation’ to describe this form of dialogue among stakeholders.

Parallels between community engagement and mediation 

There are many parallels between these public sessions and regular mediation sessions. An ex parte meeting between the assurance team and the procuring entity normally occurs so that the assurance team receives complete project information. The CoST assurance team encourages dialogue between the parties and ensures that questions from stakeholders are correctly understood.  During the session, all stakeholders are invited to express their views on project implementation. The outcome of the public sessions normally involves concessions and middle-ground solutions, agreed by the parties to solve any conflict which has arisen.

The main difference noted was confidentiality. While most commercial mediation is confidential, the assurance team’s sessions are public by nature. But the overall idea of promoting understanding, rebuilding trust and offering a win-win outcome are common elements between the two approaches.

The impact of mediation in the CoST context

The use of mediation techniques in CoST Thailand’s engagement sessions have had a direct impact on project implementation, with a reduction in the level of site conflict reported after the sessions.
But the impact goes beyond that. As well as smooth implementation, in one project the procuring entity reported an acceleration in completion time, which provides insights into the use of community mediation as a project management tool.

A change in stakeholder behaviour was also noted as a result of these sessions. There has been a greater commitment from procuring entities and contractors to comply with the solutions agreed with local communities. From the perspective of communities,  a space to voice concerns relating to project implementation and design has led to enhanced civic engagement – a practice that is not common beyond CoST projects. Community participation was observed in all sessions carried out so far in CoST Thailand projects.

What lessons can we draw?

The immediate lesson to take from this is the positive impact generated by community sessions and mediation techniques in terms of project implementation and social engagement. By tracking the experience of the same local communities over time, it will be possible to identify whether the quality of the engagement improves in following years, with important consequences for CoST’s theory of change.

More broadly, CoST Thailand offers a valuable example of how the flexibility of the CoST approach – which allows for local needs to be incorporated into national programmes – can catalyse organic, in-country innovation.