JOINT FACT-FINDING: An Answer to the Pervasive Mistrust of Information?

Author:Kavanagh, Shayne, Levenson, Nate
Position:Cover story

Budgeting and long-term financial planning often involve weighty decisions for local governments. If stakeholders agree that a decision is based on accurate information, they are more likely to support it. This article introduces "joint fact-finding," a mediation technique that helps people with different viewpoints build consensus about underlying facts.


A democratic system depends on a free flow of information for its participants to make wise decisions, and collaboration deteriorates if participants mistrust the information they receive. The free press has been the main information source in our democratic system, but the current trust in mass media is very low--only one in three Americans expect the media to report the news fully, accurately, and fairly. Trust in media has declined for over the past 15 years, according to Gallup (see Exhibit 1). (1)

"Fake news"--false and fabricated information masquerading as real news reporting--poses a more recent problem. Approximately 80 percent of Americans are concerned or very concerned about the impact of fake news on the credibility of real news, and 70 percent of Americans believe that fake news reduces civility in society, contributing to anger, confusion, and disengagement. (2)

These trends of distrust have worrying implications for local government. The media plays a smaller role in disseminating information about local civic issues than it does at the state or national level, but as public trust declines in traditional news sources, people may be more skeptical of information from any institution, including media and local government.

Perceptions of fairness play an important role in the effectiveness of government decisions. To perceive decisions as fair and just, people have to trust that the decisions are based on accurate information.' It's especially important for those who are affected by a decision to believe that it is fair if they're to accept and support it. For example, research shows that managers are more supportive of a strategic plan when they believe it emerged from a fair process, even if it does not fulfill all of their wishes. (4)

Perceived fairness also affects higher-stakes decisions such as layoffs. Research into layoffs shows that only 16 percent of those who feel fairly treated will consider legal action against their former employer, compared to 66 percent of those who feel unjustly treated. (5) A person who feels wronged may even undermine the entire system in order to punish the perpetrators of the perceived injustice, even to his own detriment. (6)

Joint fact-finding avoids these issues by building consensus about underlying facts prior to the decision-making process. Representatives from both sides of a dispute work together to explore and determine the relevant facts, and to freely share their findings with each other. Because the opposing parties share an understanding of...

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