Since joining the Scottish Mediation Network nearly three years ago, one of the questions I have most often been asked has been how we can utilise the skills of mediators across an organisation and therefore get a maximum benefit for everyone involved.
It is clear that the issues surrounding breakdowns in relationships present themselves in a whole range of areas and that therefore the need for conflict resolutions skills are needed there too.
As I delved deeper it struck me that local authorities need to be equipped to resolve conflicts in a wide range of areas in order to support the communities that they serve but also to support their own staff.
In order to get a picture of the possible options, I spoke to Gary McCallum, the senior mediator at West Dunbartonshire Council, who operates a team of mediators making positive interventions in a number of areas of the council.
The mediation service at the council started in 1999 and was set up to deal with neighbour disputes between council tenants. Since then the brief has been widened to encompass more community based issues such as common repairs and in 2005 it was widened to all tenures of housing to include all form of social and private housing disputes. It was in 2010 that the council agreed to employ a full-time team of mediators to replace the volunteer system that had previously operated. Since then the team has taken on the areas of young people and families mediation, working with the homelessness team and has provided a workplace mediation service for the council’s human resources department.
In making these changes the team have been able to use their mediation skills in a wider range of disputes and in doing so developed their skills and expertise in mediation in a way that previously would not have been possible. More recently the team has been working with the local fiscal’s office to help in cases that may not go to court but where resolution is still required to help engage those involved in the community. Gary was clear that one of the key reasons for achieving this level of service was a willingness to engage in mediation and the possibilities that came from seeking a resolution approach. The housing, homeless and human resources team have all embraced the idea of using mediation to resolve conflicts and have integrated the approach into the way that they work. For the work in human resources, Gary also points to the willingness of management and unions to learn about mediation together.
That’s not to say that this has been a quick process and in some areas pilot projects were run to show how things could work. If Gary could change anything it would be to get involved earlier in some of the disputes that they have helped to resolve and so now in their work to reduce the number of homeless the team are engaging with youth agencies in an effort to reach young people and families in conflict at an earlier stage.
As regards what the benefits have been, for Gary it has been taking a preventative approach. By resolving disputes early, the time and cost of court is saved, by preventing homelessness the costs of emergency housing and family breakdown are saved whilst where relationships are repaired the stability of tenancies for young people are much improved. In human resources disputes are resolved earlier leading to less drawn out grievance and disciplinary hearings which not only take time but reduce staff morale and efficiency. In the community by helping people to come up with their own solutions more corrosive disputes are avoided and community cohesion is improved.
So could this be done across the country?
Gary would be hesitant to say that West Dunbartonshire could be simply replicated across the country but would definitely see the advantage of mediation be used more widely across not just councils but in a range of organisations.
The approach is one which seems to fit very well with that outlined by the Christie Commission. Services are built around communities helping to build autonomy and resilience. Communities are helped to be able to work out their own disputes. It supports the public sector and related agencies working together. The early intervention approach is supported by trying to heal relationships and help people to resolve the issues that might lead to homelessness and one of the key aspects of mediation is helping to give parties an equal voice. Ultimately there is also financial benefit to the work.
• Graham Boyack is director of the Scottish Mediation Network www.scottishmediation.org.uk