Collaborative Leadership

Who Controls Collaboration?


Who controls collaboration? That might seem a contradiction in terms since the process itself requires joint decisions by the participants. But the issue of control doesn’t go away so easily.

Several months into policy negotiations with a large collaborative group, I arrived at the last planning session for a critical meeting that was to take place in two days. At the previous meeting, the members had set the key agenda items, and I was checking in with the deputy director of the convening agency to make sure that everything was ready to go.

As soon as I sat down with him and the technical team, he handed me what he said was a revised agenda.

“Revised?” I said. “Everyone’s already agreed on the agenda.”

“Issue X is off the table. That’s from the top here. We’re not dealing with it.”

I just looked at him, handed back the agenda, and said, “You can’t do this.”

switchoffIt took a lot of work inside this agency, but finally the leadership agreed to go ahead with the original agenda. Despite all the early discussions with this convener about what the agency would have to do to help the process succeed, and despite their repeated verbal commitments to collaboration, this incident showed that in a critical moment they could still fall back on a more familiar way to handle a problem – by unilateral decision.

Of course, this shouldn’t happen – but it does, even in carefully organized collaborative projects. Every book on the subject rightly says that the stakeholders need to be in charge. If the process is to work, the convening agencies have to share power to formulate policy with the diverse interests they have called together. The way the participants come to believe in fairness and openness is to make the decisions that shape the groundrules and outcome of the collaboration – as well as the meeting agendas. And you’ll find excellent examples of conveners who understand the process perfectly in the videos here and in the sidebar.

But there are several reasons why conveners may step back from collaboration or even act in ways that can undermine the process, even without intending to. And each of these can cause them to attempt to exert control in damaging ways.

  • Misunderstanding. Because the language of collaboration has become so widespread in recent years, the words and general concepts can often be used without a real understanding of what they imply. In many settings, it has become the norm to talk about the importance of involving stakeholders. But real understanding takes time, training and experience to achieve.

  • Mindset. It can be hard – very hard – for influential leaders and public managers to give up the control they are so accustomed to exercising. It’s not necessarily a question of intention to mislead or manipulate but of the difficulty in switching out of deeply ingrained *mindsets* about power to welcome a fully collaborative approach to decision-making.

  • Institutional Structure. Public agencies are organized legislatively to function through a hierarchy of authority. At each level, directors control the sphere assigned to them and tightly manage the problems they are responsible for solving. The institutional structure rarely creates a recognized decision space for collaboration.

  • Personal Risk. When officials are handed complex and highly controversial problems to resolve, their reputations within the agency may well be on the line. Successfully resolving a problem on your watch is a step up; if the problem remains, you may be seen as unable to handle the tough ones. Given the risk, officials have to make a huge leap of faith to share problem-solving with a roomful of restive stakeholders. Even though they may understand that the support of a diverse group of influential activists will produce a stronger decision unlikely to be challenged, there remains the possibility that the process will break down, with personal consequences for them.

  • Institutional Risk. A collaboration that fails to make any significant progress in resolving the problem at hand may cast a bad light on the agency. Not only would the problem remain. But a lot of staff time and other limited resources would have been expended for little or no tangible result. That can look especially bad to elected officials who control the agency’s budget, particularly if they’ve been called upon to appropriate special funds for the project. To forestall such a possibility, a convening agency may well feel it has to take a more directive role.

These are some of the problems that can bring the issue of control to the center of collaborative public policy. Each one needs to be considered up front, when possible, but that may be hard to do. Conveners themselves may offer assurance of their full cooperation but start to backtrack when the going gets rough. Those leaders attempting to convene a process of this type not only need to consider the problems involving other participants but also take a long look within their organizations – and within themselves.