Can Government Solve Big Problems Collaboratively?

Commotion of Arrows

Stefan Rajewski –

The Open Government Initiative of the Obama Administration has given high priority to increasing the use of collaboration in the federal government. Yet many federal offices have not in the past encouraged the sort of collaborative mindset that is necessary for meaningful efforts in this direction.

As William Eggers and John O’Leary have noted, it’s often the failure to work inclusively that leads to disappointment or even disaster, as they discuss in the fatal tunnel collapse of Boston’s Big Dig project. If We Can Put a Man on the Moon draws lessons from many other examples of what can go wrong when government tries to solve the big problems.

What I want to look at in this post, though, is one of the major positive cases they cite: the successful effort to reform the healthcare system in Massachusetts. Their summary of key steps in that process nicely defines the elements that characterize good collaborative work to solve a critically important public problem. It’s a useful example for federal officials to keep in mind as they move ahead with the Open Government Initiative. Although this case occurs in a legislative context, the model can be effective in most public policy settings.

Here are the major steps they single out: Read more »


Innovative Thinkers on Collaborative Leadership: Mary Parker Follett

Varina Patel –

The ideas of collaborative leadership discussed in the previous post seem quite new, and often appear as part of the “paradigm-shift” toward learning organizations and open government. In fact, one of the most innovative thinkers in this field developed and wrote about all this 80 years ago, from 1918 to the early 1930s. That was Mary Parker Follett, an important figure in her day but neglected for decades thereafter. Only recently has her work started to become known and influential again, but her new audience is still relatively small.

Although she used a different vocabulary, this extraordinary thinker pioneered the concepts of collaborative leadership, integrative negotiation and empowerment and creativity through group interaction. She also drew parallels between biological studies of emergent order in nature and human organization and non-hierarchical management, closely related to the recent popularity of collaborative networks as alternatives to traditional hierarchies of authority.

She saw the integration of differences and continuing interaction of groups with different goals as the essence of creativity and achievement in all walks of life. Only by looking for ways to harmonize interests could new solutions emerge In describing the dynamic of individual and group differences. She introduced the concept of integrative negotiation in an early form in The New State, published in 1918, and refined in her essays of the 1920s.

Her conception of the integrative dynamic of the social process led her to rethink the nature of power and leadership. She emphasized the critical importance of exercising power-with rather than power-over. Leaders needed to be collaborative participants in the creative exchange of ideas among organizational or community members. The rigidity of traditional hierarchical lines of authority needed to be erased to allow full scope to the creative interaction that led to progress.

While she was best known for her work in business management in the 1920s, her underlying concern was to define the group basis for democracy. She championed an idea of citizens working together and learning from each other at the community level. Citizen-based community groups needed to be the foundation of a true democracy, organizing in regional and national groups to provide direction to government. She believed that the current political system used the idea of consent of the people as a means to limit the citizen role to voting and exclude the public from real influence in government decisions.

An excellent starting point for understanding her ideas is Mary Parker Follett Prophet of Management, with an introduction by Peter Drucker, one of Follett’s most influential advocates. As Drucker explains it, her work fell out of favor during the Depression years when the emphasis was on building the power of national governments rather than devolving power to citizens. Rediscovery of her work had to wait for the world to come round to her way of thinking. Read more »


Defining Collaborative Leadership

© Maxim Malevich at

What kind of leadership is most effective in building collaboration around public policy issues?

Most discussions of leadership work from the top down. They describe the personal qualities and skills of the leader that inspire staff of an organization or members of a community. Effective leaders of this type are charismatic figures who set the vision, embody the energy and will to realize it, and instill a sense of purpose in others. They are the drivers of success.

For decades, though, a counter-movement has pointed to the importance of collaborative leadership based on a quite different concept, as I’ve written in several previous posts. It begins not with the leader but with the collaborative forms of organization that demand a different type of leadership.

These groups operate on the basis of shared power and management among peers, rather than direction from the top through a hierarchy of authority. In a time when many things feel broken, collaborative networks of organizations and individuals have emerged to meet critical needs. Government with its rigid divisions of authority keeps disappointing while collaborative groups emerge to accomplish what government isn’t doing well or can’t do through its rigid structures.

Collaborative groups are often referred to as self-organizing, based on models drawn from scientific study of complex adaptive systems observed throughout nature. In practice, however – at least in the public policy world, such efforts usually depend on convening by a collaborative leader who organizes a group around a specific issue. Someone has to make the first move, but that doesn’t mean they control the process. Read more »


How Diversity Improves Collaborative Problem-Solving

© Jason Yoder |

Is diversity necessarily a good thing when it comes to solving problems? We tend to assume that we’ll get better results from groups of people from different backgrounds and possessing a variety of skills than we we would from groups with a single orientation. That means diversity of many types, not only differences of culture, ethnicity and gender, but also variety of expertise, intellectual perspective, values and interests. They are all important for collaborative public policy.

We may believe in the value of diversity from intuition, ideological conviction and personal experience. But do we have rigorous models and empirical evidence to support this belief?

Scott Page says that both logic and evidence prove the benefits of diversity in his thought-provoking book, The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies. Page, a professor of complex systems, political science and economics, provides a firm basis for the value of diversity, but the case he presents is not a simple one.

Cognitive Diversity

He finds that all forms of diversity are not equally effective. To get to his main conclusion. It’s the differences in perspectives and methods of approaching problems that most often lead to better outcomes. This is what he calls cognitive diversity. Variety in the way problems are framed and interpreted helps a group get unstuck when a single approach can’t produce a workable solution.

Differing ways of looking at the world, interpreting experience, solving problems and predicting future possibilities work together to produce a distinctive mental tool set. Groups with this sort of variety consistently outperform groups working with a single problem-solving perspective.

Identity Diversity

When it comes to convening a collaborative policy group, though, diversity usually refers to cultural, ethnic and gender balance. Identity diversity, as Page sees it, satisfies the crucial need for fairness and equity, but, by itself, doesn’t ensure better problem-solving. Again, the picture is complicated because there are many forms of identity diversity – culture, gender, age, socio-economic status, among others. The evidence of this study points to cultural diversity as having the most significant impact. Read more »


How Voluntary is Public Policy Consensus Building?

Image Credit: Ewe Degiampietro –

Voluntary participation is an essential dimension of mediation, consensus-building and the many other forms of collaborative public policy – at least in theory. But even with so basic a part of the concept of collaboration as its voluntary nature, the realities of practice can depart sharply from the ideal.

Julia Wondollek, co-author of Making Collaboration Work, has taken a close look at this issue in her recent article at Conflict Resolution Quarterly, A Crack in the Foundation? Revisiting ECR’s [Environmental Conflict Resolution's] Voluntary Tenet. She traces the evolution of practice from its early days in the mid 1970s, when the emphasis was primarily on mediation, to the present expansion of the field to include many other forms of collaborative work. She argues that as these changes occurred, the principle of voluntarism often slipped to the background.

Practitioners know how true this is, and anyone trying to understand collaborative practice needs to look carefully at the experience Wondollek summarizes. When the public policy field consisted primarily of dispute resolution practice, voluntary participation was an essential part of the type of case deemed most appropriate for the use of mediation. It’s useful to review that ideal while recognizing that it applies these days to a relatively small percentage of cases that use consensus building techniques.

The Model of Voluntary Environmental Conflict Resolution

In the classic environmental mediation scenario, parties have been engaged in disputing activities, usually litigation, for some time and decide on their own to try mediation. Litigation costs have been mounting, a record of judicial outcomes has produced mixed results, the decision in this case seems unpredictable – and perhaps the parties agree that it’s time to get a costly problem out of the way and move on.

The parties agree to mediate entirely for their own motives and in hope of achieving a better or at least more timely resolution than litigation can provide. Ideally, they also agree on a cost-sharing formula and a joint process for selecting a mediator.

The issues in dispute have been refined and narrowed over time, and the parties necessary to agreement are all at the table. Consensus is the only decision rule possible because resolution requires agreement among all the parties in order to achieve finality and end the litigation.

That model provided an ideal of practice, but mediators and facilitators gradually took on many assignments that required a much different approach than that of classic mediation. The basic methods of building consensus were applied in settings like planning, visioning, dialogue on policy formulation and collaborative approaches to public participation. Public agencies and influential leaders frequently convened these processes, many of which dealt with broad policy questions rather than the more narrowly defined issues associated with mediation and dispute resolution.

The Spectrum of Choice

As Wondolleck describes it, there is a spectrum of participation choices, one that embraces more than the simple opposition of voluntary vs. mandatory. Although she devotes a lot of her paper to the contrast between voluntary and mandatory participation, the most common situations fall in between. This is the range she describes – and I’ve elaborated on some of the scenarios based on my own experience. Read more »


Why Certify Public Policy Mediators?

Image Credit: Arcady –

In his keynote address at the 2009 conference of the Association for Conflict Resolution, Wallace Warfield discussed the difficulty of attempting to certify mediators when the role itself has become a moving target. Pinning down a set of qualifications and certifying competence based on a single definition of practice could have the effect of stifling innovation in a dynamic field.

Numerous models of practice have evolved, each redefining the practice and emphasizing different skill sets. There are evaluative and facilitative styles of approaching dispute settlement, problem-solving and transformative models, as well as methods for dealing with identity-based and cross-cultural conflict, to mention just a few.

Mediators in the public policy field have adapted the practice not only to new thinking within the profession but also to new demands from conveners, stakeholders and the wider public. From an initial focus on mediation of isolated disputes, practitioners moved to policy formation, rule-making, planning and the facilitation of collaborative approaches to complicated regional, even global problems.

While basic elements of the impartial mediator role persist through all these adaptations, the field has also embraced influences from many other sources. Public involvement, participatory planning, organizational development, change management, among many others, have provided techniques for reaching agreement and finding common direction among stakeholders on larger scales through innovative group processes, like Open Space Technology, Future Search and Appreciative Inquiry. Mediation and conflict resolution practitioners have also added new dimensions of understanding to these fields. There is a rich exchange going on among them that will continue to serve as a source of innovation in the field.

Many mediators may find such changes and influences completely irrelevant to their work, and that’s to be expected. The world of conflict and agreement-seeking looks very different to a mediator handling hundreds of court-referred cases a year, each demanding resolution in a single session, and a public policy mediator who might be managing a handful of projects, each involving dozens of parties, extensive public participation and lasting six months to a couple of years. Read more »


Collaborative Leadership

Innovative Thinkers on Collaborative Leadership: Mary Parker Follett

Innovative Thinkers on Collaborative Leadership: Mary Parker Follett

Varina Patel – The ideas of collaborative leadership discussed in the previous post seem quite new, and often appear as part of the “paradigm-shift” toward learning organizations and open government. In fact, one of the most innovative thinkers in this field developed and wrote about all this 80 years ago, from 1918 to the […]


Consensus Building

Moving Toward Agreement from the Extremes

Moving Toward Agreement from the Extremes

Image courtesy of Nihat Dursun – In the last post, I summarized different ways of thinking about the effect of extreme beliefs on efforts to resolve conflict and solve problems. Elizabeth Bader approaches the mediation context in terms of personality and psychoanalytic theory, while Eggers and O’Leary describe how government solutions to major issues […]