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DG Study Calibrates Conflict Resolution
Researchers Develop Prototype System to Aid Mediation with Precise Record-Keeping, Filing, and Communication
For the DGRC

Online Dispute Resolution

Researcher profiles:
Leon Osterweil
Ethan Katsh
Norman K. Sondheimer

Project profile: SGER: Preliminary Evaluation of Process Formalisms for Defining Government Processes

"Conflict resolution" sounds inherently dramatic, the stuff of wars and messy divorces, a process full of grand-standing tactics by showboating participants who hope for victory, not compromise.

In reality, says Digital Government researcher Leon Osterweil, most disputes are resolved through disciplined negotiation or mediation processes. It's all about details, not drama.

The settling of disputes is, after all, a legal process. As such, there are deadlines, documents and other administrative necessities that must be adhered to. The "what if" that Osterweil and his co-PIs, Ethan Katsh, Professor of Legal Studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and Co-Director of the Center for Information Technology and Dispute Resolution, and Norman K. Sondheimer, co-director of the Electronic Enterprise Institute, have set out to answer is whether or not some of the routine requirements of the process can be automated.

"Human creativity, such as that which is required in effective dispute resolution, has to be supported by more pedestrian things, such as precise record-keeping, filing, and communication. As these are relatively more tedious, people tend to shortcut them," says Osterweil, "The disciplined and careful use of technology could handle such tedious, but critical, chores, freeing humans to concentrate on the more interesting and creative tasks that they want to concentrate on."

Further, Katsh asks, could online dispute resolution yield benefits that are unobtainable in face to face meetings?

To answer those questions, Osterweil, Katsh, Sondheimer, and their collaborators, have partnered with Dan Rainey, of the National Mediation Board to design a prototype online dispute resolution system. The project will both be a test of the efficaciousness of technology applied to dispute resolution and a way to closely analyze the process of dispute resolution itself.

Katsh highlights the broad applications of the research by noting that almost all federal agencies are dispute resolution agencies, "Most people don't think of them that way, they think of them as regulatory agencies, but think of the work of agencies like the FTC and the IRS - they settle disputes."

Online dispute resolution makes an excellent test bed because it requires a mix of human creativity, and fastidious adherence to process, while also requiring attention to issues like security, privacy and controlling access to documents. In addition, says Katsh, it could prove enormously convenient and generate cost-savings in situations where disputants are miles apart.

One hypothesis is that situations could be identified in which people might actually trust computers to be more "objective," and so be more content when some decisions are "made" by them. For example, decisions like enabling access to critical documents or position statements, initiation of a key negotiation phase (eg. encouraging final bids) might conceivably be more acceptable when managed by a disinterested computer, rather than a human.

Of course, everyone knows the frustration of being told that something can't be done because the computer won't allow it. Often this arises when a particularly unusual combination of exceptional circumstances has arisen. The underlying problem is the difficulty of taking a typically wide range of exceptional circumstances into account clearly, precisely, and completely. Dealing with such a range of exceptions is one of the key challenges that the DG team faces as they address the dispute resolution processes at NMB.

The team's approach on this project is based on the use of Little-JIL, a graphical process programming language, created by Osterweil, professor of computer science, and Dean of the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, who can be considered the father of process programming. His paper describing the concept was presented at the ACM's 9th International Conference on Software Engineering in 1987. Ten years later in a conference retrospective, it would be awarded the title "Most Influential Paper."

Osterweil contrasts true process programming from flow charts, that familiar tool of management. Process programming focuses on such issues as exception management, resource utilization, and coordination of parallel activities, most of which are awkward or impossible for flow charts. Flow charts can't truly model processes because, among other things, "They tend to depict the world as if things don't go wrong," says Osterweil.

Production flow charts, for example, optimistically list things like, "Text to Graphics on March 1. Graphics to Production on March 21." They never say, "Graphics to Production on March 21, unless our designer breaks her wrist, in which case ..."

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A process programmer must know how to reason about processes and focus on just these sorts of exceptions to define precisely how to prepare for unanticipated problems, says Osterweil, "The choreography of that is complicated and not something you can depict with a flow chart."

By contrast, Little-JIL was conceived with exception management as part of its structure. "This NMB project will entail programming processes that are expected to have a really dazzling variety of exceptions, thus providing an important experimental evaluation of the Little-JIL language semantics," says Osterweil.

From a computer scientist's point of view, Osterweil looks forward to validating whether the Little-JIL language is effective in various domains. There have been many experiments with process technology, explains Katsh, but it's never before been studied systematically. He finds this project particularly exciting because, "It brings together computer scientists, social scientists, a lawyer and someone from our school of management to apply all of our expertise to one area of government."

Rainey agrees wholeheartedly, saying, "The development of software is beginning with a really fundamental look at the mediation process itself - with all of its twists and turns and exceptions - and is using that fundamental look to guide development of software.

This is a huge issue because, among other things, the basic interests of the parties related to security, access, control, etc., are all being considered on the front end and built into the software," says Rainey. "Second, as we move forward, there will be a very high level of party and third party involvement in the development of the software. This means that issues important to one party, but irrelevant to the other party or the neutral, will nonetheless become an factor in the design process.

"All of this suggests that when we get down to actually mediating cases and studying the impact of technology on the mediation process, we can really focus on issues of performance and party satisfaction with some level of confidence."