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Collaborative governance

In 1993 the U.S. federal government issued a request for proposals inviting housing
developers, workforce educators, social service providers and community members to
join forces in an unprecedented initiative to solve both the shortage and the instability
of urban affordable housing. HOPE VI promised to transform the afflictions of
affordable housing—the geographic, income and structural isolation fostered by
superblock public housing developments—by combining the talents, expertise and
resources of all the regional stakeholders with an interest in both the structure and the
consumers of affordable housing. By employing a cross-sector (and multi-pronged)
collaborative governance model their hope was to both anticipate and address each of
the root causes and offshoots of a growing housing crisis. HOPE VI is one of countless
public and private initiatives to view collaboration as their best source of policy
innovation—especially for handling intractable policy pathologies.
Collaborative governance has come to represent for many policy-makers, managers
and community members an elixir to the “business-as-usual” approach to policymaking
which privileges hierarchy and order over inclusion and innovation. Believers
in and proponents of collaborative governance tout its flexibility, creativity and
demand-driven orientation towards policy and program development, as well as its
adherence to the values of deliberation and transparency.
Despite a widespread belief in the power of collaboration to solve society’s ills,
however, we know little about what collaborative governance is, how it works and
whether it lives up to its promise. This chapter provides a summary of the salient
questions and theories that frame both the study and the practice of collaborative
governance. Through this review we can identify areas of agreement, contention and
confusion about the use, risks and benefits of collaborative governance.


Although scores of public and private sector entities employ what is often referred to as
“collaborative governance” to develop and implement policy initiatives, there is little
consensus about what it is or how it differs from other instances of stakeholder
participation. In general, however, we can categorize conceptual approaches into two
broad camps. In the first camp, scholars attempt to determine “what is collaborative
governance” by identifying its overarching, yet distinct, qualities or principles and its
overriding purpose. In the second, scholars shy away from asserting a single definition
or purpose and instead describe a set of critical procedures or components that,
combined, produce collaborative governance.

What Is Collaborative Governance?

Recent trends suggest that collaborative governance is gaining popularity as a superior
method of policy redress. This growing focus on and affinity toward alternative modes
of policy development and implementation have prompted scholars to formally define
the parameters of collaborative governance in order to both evaluate its potential and
tout its importance. Still, there is wide variation in how scholars concretize both its role
and its methods. On the one hand the term is used to capture a range of collaborative
decision-making activities in which policy approaches are developed through conversations
with multiple partners representing diverse interests (Conley and Moote 2003).
Here, collaborative governance is conceived of broadly to include any “method of
collective decision-making where public agencies and non-state stakeholders engage
each other in a consensus-oriented deliberative process” (Johnston et al. 2010, 699;
Ansell and Gash 2008). This model of interest aggregation “combine[s] the perspectives,
resources, and skills of a group of people and organizations” (Lasker et al. 2001,
183) in order to “resolve shared dilemmas” (Gerlak and Heikkila 2006, 658).
On the other hand, collaborative governance is confined to a more narrow set of
actors or functions. Collaborative governance, in some accounts, includes only those
partnerships that involve public agencies in service of public aims (Ansell and Gash
2008). Or, rather than being generously construed to include a wide variety of
decision-making approaches, collaborative governance, in these more tailored versions,
connotes a specific set of joint activities in which partners “co-produce goals and
strategies and share responsibilities and resources” (Davies and White 2012, 161; see
also Koontz 2006). These more confined definitions imply that, in collaborative
governance, collaboration marks all aspects of decision-making and implementation—
from goal-setting to outcome evaluation. Unlike other forms of collaboration or
stakeholder engagement, where outside organizations and individuals are consulted or
used to address one piece of a multi-pronged policy strategy (i.e. advisory boards
or steering committees), collaborative governance suggests that all aspects of policy
design must stem from joint decision-making efforts or “shared power” (Taylor and de
Loë 2012). At no point in the process should any single individual or organization carry
more sway.
Others reject altogether the notion that collaborative governance has any defining
characteristics. Here, the concept centers on the absence of formal governing procedures
or boundaries (Page 2010). In these narratives, policy decision-making and project
management are achieved through flexible, adaptive and emergent mechanisms rather
than through standard operating procedures (Bidwell and Ryan 2006; Reynoso 2006;
Fish et al. 2010; Everingham et al. 2012). By relying on multiple rather than a select
few stakeholders, policy-making entities are better able to craft and employ strategies
that meet their case-specific needs, and then match the resources to fit the problem.
Additionally, building the foundation for problem definition and policy response on the
shoulders of a diverse set of vested interests—rather than one organization or
individual—gives collaborative entities more programmatic and fiscal flexibility (Everingham
et al. 2012). Overall, the demand-driven approach to policy problems requires
that collaborative governance is marked more by procedural elasticity, or ethos and
orientation, than by fixed policy structures or procedures. The primary goal is, through a unified front of
diverse interests that collectively diagnose and address policy
shortfalls, to develop a set of problem-driven solutions with sustainable benefits.
One confounding factor for defining collaborative governance is its frequent conflation
with “governance” more generally. When governance is posited as a reaction or
solution to government the defining features of collaborative governance become fuzzy.
For instance, here, one group of scholars references the “shift from government to
governance” in which “community institutions and actors from multiple sectors”
address a range of social and fiscal ills (Everingham et al. 2012: 162). Some define
governance as the “joint realization and implementation of a plan” (Kallis et al. 2009,
635) or as “the means for achieving direction, control and coordination of individuals
and organizations with varying degrees of autonomy” (Imperial 2005, 282). Mitchell
and Shortell (2000) assert that governance is focused on relationships external to
the partnership. Accordingly, this raises the question as to whether there are “noncollaborative”
forms of governance.

How Does Collaborative Governance Operate?

Many collaborative governance studies sidestep concept definition altogether and
instead attempt to establish a set of characteristics or functions shared by “collaborative
governance regimes” (Fish et al. 2010). First, collaborative governance exists at
multiple levels of government, across the public and private sectors, and in service of
multiple policy responses (Ghose 2005; Davies and White 2012; Emerson et al. 2012).
Thus collaborative governance has a deeper bench of potential policy actors than
traditional policy structures. Local and community groups are perceived as viable
locations of policy innovation—and communities who are often disenfranchised or
isolated from policy debates are encouraged to participate and are valued for their
critical diagnostic and treatment insights (Plummer and Fitzgibbon 2004; Ghose 2005;
Davies and White 2012).
Second, in order for a policy entity engaging in collaborative governance to become
more than just a hodgepodge of diverse interests and ideas its members must, together,
develop and adopt a collective consciousness apart from their own identities, preferences
and motivations (Emerson et al. 2012). However, individuals will only sacrifice
their self-interests if they perceive the collaborative as having procedural and substantive
legitimacy. To that end the entity must develop decision-making mechanisms that
are believed to be credible and “free from behind-the-scenes manipulation” (Hicks et
al. 2008: 457). Procedural fairness alone, though, will not guarantee participant
satisfaction and investment. The collaborative must also enlist the help of “facilitative
leaders”—individuals who manage the relationships within the collaborative and
establish a context for “deliberative dialogue” (Bidwell and Ryan 2006), mutual
understanding and joint decision-making (Chrislip and Larson 1994; Hicks et al. 2008;
Ansell and Gash 2012).
Unlike traditional policy institutions, where the ability to enter and exit freely is
constrained by employment pressures, participation in a collaborative is largely
voluntary. Individuals (and their organizational homes) have significant autonomy over
the manner, intensity and duration of their participation. Their only incentive to stay the
course is the quality of their experience as members of the collaborative. Promoting transparency and
legitimacy, then, is the bread and butter of collaborative governance,
if the goal is to foster synergies that inspire, create and innovate.

The Commonalities
In all, though, despite the variation, some patterns emerge in these accounts that permit
us to narrow the space that collaborative governance occupies. First, and most
obviously, the key ingredient for any such endeavor is to create a network of partners
that represent diverse interests. The individuals who constitute the collaborative must
vary in ways that will create institutional, geographic, cultural, political or substantive
pluralism among the stakeholders. That is, after all, one of the driving goals of
collaborative governance—to analyze problems through multiple lenses and to employ
multi-pronged attacks. Second, the collaborative as a unit must have the authority and
autonomy to decide and to act—in other words, to govern. Where advisory boards or
committees may provide a forum for collaborative planning they may fall short of
permitting collaborative entities to implement their ideas.
A third and essential component of collaborative governance is its problem-driven
approach to identifying and addressing policy shortfalls. Within each of these scholarly
accounts lurks an underlying assumption that—regardless of the organizational features
selected—collaborative governance must remain demand-driven. To that end, entities
must integrate and prioritize flexibility and innovation into any decision-making
structures they develop in order to identify, diagnose and address unanticipated
obstacles. What distinguishes collaborative governance from other stakeholder partnerships
is the synergy that evolves from joint decision-making in which “stakeholders
invent new ways of seeing and responding to social problems” (Hicks et al. 2008, 456;
see also Lasker et al. 2001).
Finally, one strong, but less obvious, assumption undergirding the scholarship on
collaborative governance is the importance of learning and evaluation. Where more
traditional, actor-centered forms of policy development focus on encouraging stakeholder
buy-in and adherence to a set of policy proposals, the aim for collaborative
governance is to promote mutual understanding and consensus (Mitchell and Shortell
2000; Gerlak and Heikkila 2006; Hicks et al. 2008). While many partner-based
initiatives satisfy their collaborative goals through information-sharing, collaborative
governance requires stakeholders to work together in all aspects of policy development
and management—from problem definition and planning to implementation and
assessment (Gerlak and Heikkila 2006). If practitioners expect the shared-action model of collaborative
governance to be better equipped than top-down approaches to attack
the thicket of hindrances that characterizes most modern policy struggles, these models
must integrate mechanisms for learning and reflection to assess (in real time) the policy
environment and respond accordingly. Stakeholder participants do not simply acquire
data; through shared learning, analysis and design, they engage in an act of “transformative”
program development (Chrislip and Larson 1994; Fish et al. 2010).
Despite these risks and obstacles, however, the idea of collaborative governance
maintains steady and growing admiration among scholars and policy-makers who are
increasingly disenchanted by traditional governance structures. The potential for
collaborative governance is vast. Even in the absence of evidence to support the notion
that collaborative governance can resolve complex problems, policy-makers and
community organizers continue to place their hope in the power of partnership.
As mentioned above, by gathering at one table a range of experts who can speak to
the various prongs of a policy problem, the hope is that, through collaborative rather
than top-down efforts, policy struggles will be both understood and addressed more
comprehensively (Taylor and de Loë 2012). Where top-down siloed policy responses
fragment problems and apply narrow treatments, collaborative approaches view problems
in their entirety from all angles. The expectation is that, by seeing the problem in
all of its complexity, stakeholders can devise solutions that mirror these characteristics.
In this sense then, collaborative governance produces substantive benefits that are truly
more than the sum of its parts. By gathering together a range of skills and expertise,
collaboration can leverage each individual organization’s talents and contributions
(Booher 2004; Fish et al. 2010; Emerson et al. 2012) to produce “synergies” that
prompt innovative and equitable solutions to vexing problems (Brown 2002; Gerlak and
Heikkila 2006; Kallis et al. 2009; Fish et al. 2010; Davies and White 2012).
Membership diversity also provides a frame for increasing the scope of service delivery
and benefit distribution beyond that which each individual organization, in the
aggregate, could provide on its own (Brown 2002; Booher 2004; Gerlak and Heikkila
2006; Chapman et al. 2010). Finally, by pooling talents, collaborative governance also
pools risk, providing a more cost-effective and more stabilizing response to increasing
economic, political and social uncertainty (Booher 2004; Fish et al. 2010; Davies and
White 2012). more than an effective policy response. It also produces a number of civic and
redistributive benefits that have implications far beyond its policy-specific substantive
outcomes. Collaboration development is one critical step towards community building
(Lasker et al. 2001). When champions of collaboration attempt to diminish the
existence of silos, they are speaking not only to organizational silos but to community
isolation as well. When stakeholders come together in a collaborative they bring with
them the interests of their communities as well as their organizations. Ideally, by
presenting a united organizational front, each community can begin to carve out a path
for community-wide collaboration. Similarly, by demonstrating a capacity for deliberation
and inclusion (Ghose 2005; Gerlak and Heikkila 2006), successful collaboration
can inspire increased trust in government and policy-makers and empower others—
particularly those who are typically disenfranchised from the policy process—to engage
in the political process (Ghose 2005; Page 2010). This may have spillover effects into
other governance settings.