Daniel Rainey | Online system takes a quick route to resolving disputes

GCN Interview: The chief of the Office of Alternative Dispute Resolution Services discusses how collaboration technology helps his organization resolve disputes

Daniel Rainey, chief of the Office of Alternative Dispute Resolution Services

When it comes to online collaboration, the Office of Alternative Dispute Resolution Services, headed by Daniel Rainey, could be one of the earliest adopters.

This small bureau of the National Mediation Board helps airlines and railroads work out disagreements without going to court. The office has found that collaboration technology can streamline resolutions and cut travel time for everyone.

Rainey is also a member of the Interagency Alternative Dispute Resolution Working Group (http://www.usdoj.gov/adr), which encourages agencies to use this form of resolution more often.



GCN: What is alternative dispute resolution, or ADR?

Rainey: Alternative refers to something other than litigation.

It really is about facilitating discussions.

You have a dispute and you could file a grievance, but first let's talk about it without having to go into any formal structure.

The Interagency Alternative Dispute Resolution Working Group is charged with periodically giving a report to the president about the status of alternative dispute resolution in the federal government. The Justice Department is the leader here, obviously, but it encompasses just about every agency in the federal government.

For years, it's been a dirty little secret that the number of cases filed in court is tremendously larger than the number of cases that get to court. [Last year], the Wall Street Journal reported that of the number of federal cases filed in court, something like 2 percent ever reach trial.

About 98 percent are resolved in some other way. Either a plea bargain takes place, one of the parties withdraws the case or there is an alternative dispute resolution process that is used.

Nationwide, the majority of local, state and federal court districts will refer parties in dispute to an ADR program. If that doesn't work, obviously you have the option to return to the court system, but ADR systems seem to work pretty well.

GCN: How did you first get involved with the board?

Rainey: I came aboard first as a contractor. They brought me in because they were looking for someone who had experience in how to integrate technology into the business of mediation.

The first thing that I did was to look at the case management system. The way that I have approached this technology is to look at the entire range of things that could happen when you have to deal with parties who are in dispute. It has to go all the way from intake and handling information to actually negotiating an agreement.

We started by developing a system internally that put information into the hands of the mediators, which would allow them to do their job better. After that, we looked at ways to extend case management to where the mediators could get information as easily from wherever they were as they would be able to get that information from their office.

GCN: What is the advantage of extending the case management system to the Web?

Rainey: We're a small agency.

We have 51 people total. About 14 of those are mediators. We do labor negotiations for about 150 or 200 airlines and over 700 railroads. So our mediators are on the road for at least three weeks per month, and they are very rarely working within close distance to D.C.

So it was important for a mediator sitting at the table to be able to see contract language about a particular issue, or a record of that case or a particular decision about an arbitration issue.

So we've developed two essentially parallel programs to do that. One is an internal, password- protected, Web-accessible secure system that deals with records and documents. And then we have a parallel system that is a totally public database, which is a full archive of all the arbitration decisions.

I see it all as a package deal.

We have software that allows us to do online brainstorming, to manage contract negotiations and go all the way down to offering information to the public.

The value-add there from a government point of view is that if there is an arbitrator who is preparing for arbitration, they have available from any Internet-accessible computer an archive of all the decisions that were available for as long as we've been in business.

GCN: How much traffic do you handle?

Rainey: We average about 5,000 hits a month with that service. When you consider we have only 14 mediators and a limited number of arbitration cases in any given amount of time, that is a lot of hits.

There are many cases where technology-assisted dispute resolution doesn't work. Some cases you need face-to-face [contact].

But there are many things that are very amenable to online work. So we run a Web video program that also allows document sharing. The arbitrator can see and hear other parties. They can share documents.

Everyone can do essentially everything that they could do face to face.

We had one arbitration case where there was an accident in a rail yard, and one party needed to show a hand-drawn diagram of what happened. So they put that up on screen and they had a pointer to show [the progress of events].

What Online Dispute Resolution (ODR) technology does is allow us to take the money that we don't spend on travel and apply it to cases where travel is really necessary.

And each party saves time off the job, travel expenses and all of that. So everybody wins.

GCN: How does the system work?

Rainey: There are normally two or three ways you could use the technology in dispute resolution.

One is to do intake. Both of the parties [in a dispute] go to an online work site and fill out the forms to initiate a case and then use the work site to answer all the questions that should be asked before the parties start talking ' and most of that can be done online. What is the issue? When can you meet? Who will be there? If there are multiple issues, in what order should they be addressed? Are there documents everyone should see? Also, the technology can help in brainstorming. Let's say we have a large messy problem, and we want to get a lot of people's input. We'll send a message that says, 'Starting midnight on Friday, you will have the opportunity to tell us your ideas on how to resolve this problem.'

The idea is that I can see them and other participants can see them. You basically get the ideas online and then you get can get together face to face and talk about them.

Finally, when you come to an agreement, you have to write up a document. Instead of spending another day together writing the thing or sending e-mails back and forth, you can post the document on the Web. Say two attorneys are involved in the final wording.

From their offices, they both can edit the document, finalize it and approve it, and then send it out to everybody else.

GCN: Your office was one of the first to submit a record retention schedule to the National Archives and Records Administration.

Rainey: All of our official records are electronic, in fact as far as I know, we have the only NARA-approved all-electronic records schedule in the federal government. Not that we don't produce paper. Obviously, everybody does. But [if] you come to us with a Freedom of Information Act request, asking to see all the records about X,Y and Z, our retrieval system could bring those records up within minutes.

This saves us a lot of money.

Essentially, if someone wants to know what we've got, it doesn't take us a lot of time to find out.

GCN: What are the goals of the Interagency Alternative Dispute Resolution Working Group?

Rainey: The working group is a collection of ADR professionals from around the government.

They work together to raise the profile of ADR, work on best practices, etc. And they are responsible for reporting to the president on the progress of ADR. We're beginning to get some interest in technology among the other agencies. They see how using technology to address alternative dispute resolution would be appropriate.

Take the armed forces. You have people scattered all over the place. You might have Navy people on a ship in the middle of an ocean with disputes and no way to have face-to-face access to dispute resolution help. In the Army, there may be parties in Iraq in the same situation. And so there is an obvious and immediate benefit of [being able] to do some of that work online.

The Navy and Coast Guard are interested, and I'm currently working with Walter Reed Army Medical Center, which is putting together an ombudsman's office.

One of the things we're hoping to do is add online dispute resolution technology to that, so that families, soldiers, doctors, anybody who is an interested party has a place they can go, confidentially, online for questions and assistance.

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