Focus

Information-Based Bargaining for a New Age

by Robert L. Zorn

Information-based bargaining is a new negotiations process for school administrators in today's information age. Many administrators have used traditional win-win bargaining, methods or interest-based bargaining often called "IBB," but informational bargaining is the next step in the evolution of negotiations.

The process focuses on extensive, comparative, research-based information as a basis for reaching agreement. As a data-driven approach, it focuses on information and not the personalities, interactions or relationships of those at the table. It does not focus on winning or losing or what each side perceives as its interests without regard to factual information.

The factual information at the heart of the bargaining includes historical trend data as well as comparative data from the present. The goal is to reach a solid and fair agreement as quickly as possible with a reasonable amount of effort by all parties. Information-based bargaining involves extensive time for researching and compiling information prior to coming to the table.

Visible Signs
In preparation, school district negotiators predetermine the major negotiations topics to be researched. Each year before negotiations begin in public education, there are plenty of signs of what the issues are going to be. State school board associations have a pulse of the issues statewide and conduct workshops on the latest negotiations topics. Law firms may offer sessions on the latest negotiations matters. Newspapers and professional journals can be sources of hot-button topics that are being bargained today. Some districts hold informal pre-negotiations meetings to discuss topics that are likely to arise at the negotiations table so the agenda isn't a surprise to the parties involved.

Compiling the topics from all these sources into a single comprehensive negotiations list will cover most of the topics that will be seen when the actual bargaining begins. Once the list is finalized, the data compilation begins.

The research becomes the underpinning of information-based bargaining. For example, on the topic of salary, the most common topic in negotiations, research should show the historical trends of salary increases as well as how those salaries rank on a comparative basis to similar school districts. This information can be compiled by percentages or dollars, by salaries paid for specific positions or by salaries as a percentage of the budget over the years and by comparability with salaries in other school districts with like fiscal resources and similar demographics.

Medical insurance is another topic appearing on almost every negotiations agenda. Because of rapidly escalating costs, employee co-payments and premium sharing have become difficult bargaining matters. Compiling detailed comparative medical insurance data is much more time-consuming, detailed and complex than salary data. Co-pays, deductibles and benefit levels often vary greatly from school district to school district, not to mention among the sundry health care plans. Thus compiling comparative data is much more time-consuming; yet it is even more critical to do so.

The idea is to put together enough information that most individuals looking at the information will come to the same or a similar conclusion as to where salaries should or could go in the new agreement. Thus the bargaining is driven by information rather than what one side or the other side wants without regard to what the information shows.

This style of bargaining is predicated on the assumption that educated persons looking at the same information will come to the same or similar conclusions. Obviously this doesn't happen every time. In cases where it doesn't and matters must go to mediation, all the information compiled is extremely helpful in presenting one's case to the mediator. The mediator also will use this information to try to get the parties to say yes to an item based on factual data rather than emotion or what one side wants.

Research Rich
Should the worst-case scenario happen — an impasse or work stoppage — sooner or later the public will demand information on the sticking points. Based on these facts, the court of public opinion then has an impact on the negotiations process. Thus, putting together information before the bargaining begins is an essential step to the information-based negotiations process. The research-rich compilation is the key to informational bargaining. These techniques can even be used in conjunction with other forms of bargaining, such as win-win and an interest-based process.

Factual information and data should include the answers to key questions, such as what can the community afford in comparison to communities of similar demographics and what is fair to the parties based on comparative past, present and projected information? What is best for the parties obviously can be debated, but there will be much less debate if the comparative research data holds up to scrutiny and is based on accurate details.

Challenges in negotiations are predictable if issues aren't resolved at the table. Conflicts are less likely to go far if the information cannot be refuted. This is the basis of information-based bargaining — extensive, accurate, comparative information.

Robert Zorn is superintendent of the Poland Schools, 30 Riverside Drive, Poland, OH 44514. E-mail: pola_rz@access-k12.org