In the last ten years or so, collaborative governance has emerged as a term to fit the general idea of collaboration more specifically to the public policy field. Use of the term, though, is not that common. I still get a lot of blank stares when I use the phrase and even bemused cracks about yet another bureaucratic term – and that’s from folks who’ve always worked deep within bureaucracies. So what is collaborative governance?
I remember about 20 years ago discussing public policy mediation with a colleague, and when I described what I thought we were aiming for, he balked. “Now you’re talking about what government is supposed to do. That’s governance, not mediation!”
At that time, most people thought about governance as the business of governing by the public authorities. In this context, public policy mediators attempted to resolve specific disputes about decisions under the authority of a single agency – such as the siting of a facility, the distribution of funding, the writing of regulations, setting of rates, and similar issues. The boundaries of each problem in need of resolution seemed clear.
Over time, though, interest groups and the general public demanded governmental action on problems of enormous scope that affected multiple sectors of the population. These ranged from immigration to budget reform to health care and even extend to global problems like climate change. Government alone was not able to do manage issues of such complexity on its own. Accustomed to exercise specific authority over limited areas, public agencies dealt with much narrower issues defined in relation to existing legislative requirements.
Such broad and complex problems required collaboration among government, business, public interest organizations, community groups and others – often to respond to issues that had resisted solution for years. Large numbers of stakeholders needed forums to be able to work together effectively. A planning process could be convened by government agencies, but those agencies could not manage them in the usual way though decisions flowing from a hierarchy of authority.
Collaboration required a sharing of power in the effort to reach agreement. The public sector leadership had to adapt to a new context for defining policy. Mediators and other practitioners skilled in consensus building techniques were helping to create problem-solving forums that simply didn’t exist in government operating procedures. Collaborative governance has become a term designed to embrace a variety of consensus-building methods to address these cross-sector problems.
There are many implications of this new trend toward collaborative governance, some of which touch on the central ideas of democratic participation and institutions. This will be a continuing topic on this blog, and I welcome your suggestions and experience about this expanding dimension of public policy collaboration.