Virginia's Judicial System

Federal Sector Opportunities

One day in early April 1998, I received a phone inquiry that would change my mediation practice. The Department of Navy was seeking a trainer who could provide skills training for EEO counselors on four different alternative dispute resolution processes. I answered the request for proposal and assumed that some big provider in some metropolitan region would get the contract. Instead I received another call stating that I had been awarded the contract and that Navy had scheduled the first iteration of training two weeks hence! Lesson learned: never assume that the size of your organization will define your opportunities; the quality and unique nature of your services can pave the way for business growth.

Opportunities for the provision of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) services abound in the federal sector. In fact, some would argue that the federal government is leading the way in the use of ADR in numerous contexts ranging from the workplace and discrimination to contracts and procurement. Business in general has been more apt to use ADR for resolving "four-alarm fires" than it has in adopting preventative and facilitative approaches to dispute resolution, but in federal government we see the opposite trend.

Forces at the federal level, including administrative mandates (e.g. the Federal ADR Act of 1993 and following enacted by President Clinton), are demanding that disputes be resolved at the earliest possible time in order to save both time and money expended by all sides for disputes in which the federal government may be a party. All federal agencies are required to have an ADR plan and for that plan to be implemented by some agreed upon date. Defense Department agencies and the U. S. Postal Service have been leaders in such initiatives and cite savings of millions of dollars in dispute costs.

Do states have similar ADR acts? Not that I am aware of at this time, however, efforts are underway to create a Virginia ADR Act that parallels the Federal ADR Act. John Settle of SETTLEment Associates and others on the Board of the Virginia Mediation Network are working on this legislative initiative. Virginia was among the first of states to develop and adopt mediation certification procedures, and perhaps Virginia will lead the way again with a comprehensive ADR act.

So what are federal and other governmental agencies looking for in dispute resolution services? They are largely looking for mediation training and/or conflict resolution services, and are increasingly interested in finding providers who have experience and expertise in other ADR processes such as neutral inquiry, conciliation, and neutral settlement conferences. Federal agencies look for neutrals who have experience in employment related dispute resolution and who are familiar with relevant federal agency structures, rules, mandates, etc. Many agencies also have specific styles of neutral facilitation that they require neutrals to use (e.g., Postal's use of the Transformative model of mediation), and this at times presents ethical questions regarding standards of practice which neutrals need to consider carefully.

What can mediators do to equip themselves for ADR work in the federal sector, particularly in the context of employment related disputes? Find ways to get mediation experience in the workplace context. Take a course in workplace mediation, other ADR processes, or the resolution of workplace disputes. Each dispute context requires specific knowledge about the context in which the dispute is embedded, and the workplace is no exception. If you wish to resolve labor disputes or contract disputes, the same guidance applies; acquire specific knowledge about that context. Take courses at your local college or as offered by the human resources organization in your community to learn more about employment related conflict, human resources, and organizational psychology. Finally, investigate the specific ADR style required by the federal agency you want to provide services for and develop skills and knowledge appropriate for that context.

Remember that, although the size of your organization may not define your opportunities, the quality of your services can open doors as well as close them. Set goals for your business growth and equip yourself to meet the challenges that abound!

Merri L. Hanson is the Director of Peninsula Mediation Center in Hampton. Certified as a mediator in Virginia since 1993, she is certified at all levels of court and serves as a mentor and trainer of mediators. Ms. Hanson is also a member of the OES-DRS Advisory Council.

This page last modified: March 13, 2001