Five questions for Tanya Heikkila

In a divided culture, professor explores how to move from discord to collaboration

Tanya Heikkila
Tanya Heikkila

Conflict is an age-old issue, but so is concord. Tanya Heikkila’s teaching and research focuses on policy processes, especially “the two sides of a coin” in the debate in order to understand how people can move from disagreements to collaboration in the highly politicized world of energy governance.

While earning a master’s degree in public administration at the University of Arizona, she researched the coordination of ground and surface water management.

“I got really into it, and my adviser said I should look into getting a Ph.D., since the data I had been collecting could be used for a dissertation. I naively said, ‘That’s a good idea.’ But it turned out to be a great career choice. I love being able to integrate what I learn from my research into my classes and teaching,” said Heikkila, a professor in CU Denver’s School of Public Affairs and associate dean for faculty affairs.

Heikkila in Machu Picchu.
Heikkila in Machu Picchu.

Her early career work focused on water governance. For the past six years, Heikkila has been studying politics around oil and gas issues, and, more recently, other types of energy infrastructure, including wind and solar.

As someone who loves studying the environment, she also loves playing in the outdoors – hiking, skiing and rafting. Another love is international travel. She recently was in Peru for a conference, and at its conclusion, was joined by her husband and children for a visit to Machu Picchu.


1. You are in the middle of a two-year grant to research conflict in energy infrastructure sitings. What are you learning and what do you hope to accomplish with your findings?

That grant, funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, is a collaborative project with my colleague Chris Weible and several of our Ph.D. students here at the School of Public Affairs. We are trying to understand how conflict and concord emerge around the siting decisions for four types of energy infrastructure – wind and solar energy, and natural gas pipelines and transmission lines – partly to get a better sense of the differences across these infrastructure types.

We got into this largely because a lot of attention gets focused on the high-conflict cases when we do research or even in the news media, and our speculation is that there is more of a distribution of conflict. We don’t just have high conflict then no conflict, we have different types of conflict. There are a lot of cases of low conflict or some areas of agreement that don’t often get studied or highlighted in the news media.

We are trying to get a better sense of what is that distribution of conflict and concord around these projects and what is associated with it. What are the characteristics, the location and the people involved and the types of strategies that emerge in these projects? We are doing some news media and media analysis and are collecting demographic and socio-economic characteristics of the areas where these projects are located to help explore the characteristics of conflict and concord and how they compare across different types of energy infrastructure.

Ideally, we are contributing to the academic dialogue, but hopefully we can provide practical insights as well around how we can better understand what might trigger the types of severe conflicts that often arise, or when people are more likely to be in agreement on these siting decisions.

2. Have you worked with groups or entities to help them understand conflicts and move toward collaboration?

Most of my research has been funded by the National Science Foundation or agencies like Sloan’s that want to see some academic output, but I think more and more, academics and funding agencies want to see more engaged scholarship and more practical output.

I’ve been working on that kind of engaged scholarship process in different ways. Under another Sloan Foundation grant that focused on the politics of oil and gas development, we brought together stakeholders from nonprofits, industry, government and other interest groups so they could inform us of what types of questions they might be concerned about in terms of the politics and the debates around oil and gas development. We also shared our findings and offered some suggestions of what the findings might imply for decision-makers. We’ve had a couple of these small dialogue processes that were meant to provide a safe space to have conversations around difficult issues because, as you know, the oil and gas debate has been politicized here and across the country for the past 10 years or so. We’ve tried to have these conversations in more neutral ways to provide a venue for people – who may disagree and may be actively contesting each other – to sit down and talk. And we can see how politics are playing out in the state and what would be helpful for policy makers to know.

I also spent a couple of years with the Aspen Institute in a dialog series with a similar group of people from the environmental community, industry, state government and academia. We got together every few months to talk about the governance challenges around shale oil and gas development that uses hydraulic fracturing. We discussed what recommendations we could provide to broader industry and government groups to improve how stakeholder engagement is happening and to improve information flows about the impacts of oil and gas development, which, in turn, could improve some of the interactions between the industry, government, environmental groups, and communities where oil and gas development is occurring.

That was a wonderful process and opportunity for me to provide input on some of these broader questions and to sit down and talk with people in deep and meaningful ways around these challenges. There’s always the assumption that we can find technical solutions to most environmental dilemmas, but at the end of the day, people recognize that it is truly the politics and the institutional challenges that prevent us from making good progress on how we manage difficult environmental challenges.

3. If humans are the problem, does that mean conflict and collaboration are similar across all sectors or is environmental governance different? Is it more emotional, for instance?

I teach environmental policy to master’s students and the beginning of the class is focused on why we see so much conflict around environmental issues. Why do we see people challenging climate change and the science around climate change? I think certainly there are other highly contested political issues out there – gun control, immigration, abortion – that spark intense conflict. I think across those issues, it is about the fundamental challenges of competing human values, but it also goes beyond that.

People can have competing values and still come to agreement on issues, and so there are other things that trip us up. One of them is this idea of perceived threat. If your action in making policy or proposing policy are perceived as threatening to me, that you are going to take away something I have, that is going to fuel my emotions in that policy debate and make me less liable to compromise on an issue. When we see variation in intensity of conflict, a lot of it comes down to my perception of my opponent’s position, so to speak, and how much of that is a threat to me. It also intensifies the political behaviors we see where people engage in a range of activities from lobbying to influencing the media to court cases.

4. Your research also focuses on concord, or agreements. What is an example of a positive outcome?

I see this as kind of two-sided coin. I’m interested in understanding conflict but also what motivates and incentivizes people to solve collective-action problems and work together when they have different interests and goals and values.

One of the cool things about the environmental field is that, while we see a lot of conflict, we also see a lot of collaboration. We see amazing examples of how people have worked through decades of disputes, for example managing transboundary water issues, and come to an agreement to say this is how we are going to solve this problem. I look at how we devise institutional arrangements and government processes to support that type of collaboration, but I’ve also looked at how we can engage in learning in those processes.

One of the biggest challenges right now in our politics is how we learn and whether we can learn from each other. It goes back to the basic psychological challenges we have. When we are in intense emotional conflict, we tend to shut down to information we disagree with, and we are seeing this in our politics today.

The question is, how do we get over that? What types of mechanisms in a governance process can help us overcome that tendency to dismiss information we disagree with and only accept information from sources that reinforces what we already know?

There are examples of collaboration out there, and I think there is a lot of hope. I spent a number of years looking at the Everglades in south Florida. The Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan was authorized in 2000, and was sparked by an awareness that the ecosystem had been severely impaired by infrastructure for flood control for increased development and by farming that was releasing phosphorus into the Everglades and the national park, which historically had no phosphorus in the system. The water quality and endangered species issues sparked a lot of concern and brought people together from federal, local, state and tribal governments to devise a federal/state plan and to create a task force to guide the restoration effort. It is not a perfect model, but they’ve built an arrangement that has allowed an ongoing communication process across the different stakeholders. So there is a mechanism for ongoing learning and a mechanism for vetting some of those conflicts in a professionalized forum rather than leaving it up to the courts and adversarial processes, which, unfortunately, is what we often see.

To build the types of institutional arrangements that can bring together diverse and often competing interests, I think it is more about trust-building and about having the time and experience to get to know your opponent, to get to know some of the people that you see as “the other.”

5. You’ve written several books, including “Making Policy in a Complex World,” which was released this year. What are the lessons of this book?

The goal was to embrace the messiness that exists in policy processes and decision-making but to do it in a way that would be simple and straightforward. Some of the governance processes that I study are not traditional, top-down approaches to decision-making. I study processes that may look messy on the surface but do have structure and design that we can learn from.

One of the goals of our book was to emphasize that we can learn to navigate governance processes that are complex, and in doing so, we can become better advocates and better policy makers. I think one of the lessons we’ve seen across literature, and some of my work, is that people who build more robust and diverse networks, and people who are engaged in policy making and in governance and decision-making, are more successful at reaching agreement. We need to spend more time building our social capital and that’s how we build trust.