Networks and Collaboration


Networks have been a hot topic for several years and with good reason. Their widespread and varied uses have the potential to change the way business gets done, and those changes are having an impact on governance as well. In fact, the term “governance” is coming to mean the networking among public, private and nonprofit sectors to achieve public purposes. Collaborative governance – one of this blog’s key concerns – is virtually synonymous with networks of this type.

Unlike a number of innovative methods that have come into fashion in recent years, such as reinventing government, the formation of networks has come about spontaneously, not through the promotion of a new concept. In fact, theory, explanations and new terminology are only now catching up with a phenomenon already well entrenched in governance.

Networks are now responsible for such public functions as:

  • the delivery of social services,

  • construction of transportation facilities,

  • development of emergency response systems,

  • the functioning of the armed forces, and

  • efforts to manage widespread, even global, environmental threats.

These networks have emerged to meet needs of enormous scale that transcend the capacity of individual agencies. But they also pose a challenge to the existing institutions of government. That is because they devolve power among autonomous actors in a relatively “flat” structure. They cannot be controlled through the normal procedures of agencies that function through hierarchies, with power and authority flowing from the top down. There is a tension between the horizontal and vertical dynamic of power.

I believe that tension shows up in collaborative public policy efforts, whether they seek consensus for future plans or use mediation to resolve active disputes. Each collaboration has the potential to function as an effective network. The problem is that often no one realizes this – neither conveners, participants or, in some cases, the facilitator/mediator assisting the process. It is a paradigm that so far has been used to describe the result of a consensus building process after the fact rather than one all participants have in mind at the beginning of the effort.

There could be advantages in using the consensus building and network paradigms together, especially in educating conveners and stakeholders who have not yet experienced the process.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the public agency leaders who convene a collaborative can easily assume they will control the process in somewhat the same manner as they control other projects – through a hierarchical structure of authority. They certainly recognize the importance of getting the major interest groups together. They often assume, though, that they can set the agendas, control the facilitator through a contractual relationship and generally retain a role of first among equals, rather than participating on the same footing as the other stakeholders. For their part, the participants may well assume that the familiar rules apply and that the convener holds all the cards. Until these assumptions change, and a more collaborative mindset comes to prevail, the process can drag on in an atmosphere of suspicion.

The consensus building paradigm is critical in overcoming such obstacles, but it tends to focus everyone primarily on reaching agreement. When that moment of consensus arrives, it is the emotional high point of the process. This is an accomplishment that the stakeholders themselves have completed after a lot of hard work, and that is often unprecedented in the history of dealing with the problem. But implementation often seems like a separate event, a critical step that gives meaning to the agreement but one that will occur in the future.

If the consensus paradigm is reframed as a key element in the larger network paradigm, then the group is more likely to focus on implementation – their own action on the ground – as the primary goal. From the start the emphasis is on the stakeholders coming together to form a collaborative network that enhances the power of all members to make practical, measurable changes. Within that structure each interest group is an autonomous actor. No one controls the network, and, by taking part, each member agrees to accept responsibility to contribute whatever resources they can to carrying out action to address the common problem.

Agreement is the precondition but only one step in facilitating the concerted effort of the network. The commitment of the stakeholders is to function as part of the collaborative network to achieve a solution beyond the reach of any single actor within that voluntary structure.

That strikes me as a more concrete and understandable idea for stakeholders than the concept that empowerment comes from guiding a consensus process. The network focuses on the doing as the goal and not only the decision about what should be done.

I’m interested in your response to this suggestion. It’s one I’ll elaborate in future posts, but I’d like to know if you think it’s helpful and, if so, why.