Power differences among members of a collaborative effort – whether conceived as a network or a consensus building process – have long been a major concern of observers and stakeholders alike. One of the basic characteristics of these groups is their voluntary, non-coercive nature and the equal voice accorded to each participant. The fear is that the use of power by major players could become coercive and destructive of trust.
At the same time, though, the existence of power disparities and the use of power by the more influential participants are also essential to successful collaboration. That may seem like a paradox, but it’s no surprise. The collective power of a network of stakeholders grows out of its diversity of skills and types of influence. In fact, one of the major incentives for participation is the benefit of having access to influence and resources that individual members lack.
The more powerful stakeholders are exactly the ones who play critical roles in securing institutional support and resources to turn paper agreements into practical results. The problem, then, is how to ensure that these differences have beneficial rather than destructive effects.
This applies equally to collaborative networks and to consensus building processes. Many researchers have characterized consensus groups as one form of collaborative network, and, as mentioned in an earlier post the two share many characteristics. The unequal distribution of power is a fact of life that can undermine or enhance each one.
Both work with a “flat” rather than hierarchical structure. Power is shared rather than concentrated in the hands of a dominatant authority.
Each attempts to achieve results that individual members could not achieve on their own.
Both are self-organizing and voluntary: the participants agree to a common set of purposes and groundrules, including the definition and responsibilities of membership.
Collaboratives generate commitment to participation through shared meaning, mutual purposes and access to the benefit of pooled skills and resources.
They create an atmosphere that lends itself to generating new ideas and options as well as establishing support for potential outcomes.
They are open to broad inclusion of concerned stakeholder communities.
Each operates informally with no legal authority or permanent organization.
Because of their informality, they can adapt to changing conditions much more rapidly than legally chartered, hierarchical institutions.
If misused, disparities in resources and influence can easily undermine each of these key characteristics. The essential flat structure of equal participation can yield to domination by a few major stakeholders over several aspects of the process: setting purposes and groundrules, selecting and rejecting members, controlling the availability of expertise and limiting the choice of options for implementation.
In other words, the most powerful groups can manipulate and distort the whole idea of collaboration. As Robert Agranoff, one of the leading researchers in this field, describes the problem in Collaborative Public Management, one of the weaknesses of current research methods is the inability to shed light on the subject of power. The measures so far developed “do not capture the level of power and influence that various players may possess, thus masking the possible existence of coercive behavior in collaborative management.”
While researchers may have trouble measuring the role of power, stakeholders, conveners and facilitators involved in collaborative efforts are keenly aware of its potential dangers and benefits. One way in which a well-designed process channels power into productive purposes is by getting agreement of participants on which problems need to be addressed. The incentive of the stakeholders is to focus precisely on the ones that have proven incapable of unilateral solution in the past. Members of the group recognize that they need a joint effort to resolve the problem and to reach their goals. The incentives, then, work in favor of cooperative efforts among stakeholders. In these circumstances, the more powerful players well understand that attempts to coerce or dominate will only lead to breakdown of the effort.
Another method recognizes that while shared need and interdependence may exist regarding the problem before the group, the same participants may be fighting over other issues in different forums. The stakeholders have to agree to keep these sharply contrasting relationships, one collaborative, the other adversarial, completely separate. Stakeholders are asked to “live in two worlds,” by focusing on the benefits of collaborative work in one context and reserving the adversarial use of their resources for litigation or lobbying campaigns.
These two approaches, among many others, are integral to a well-designed collaboration and are essential conditions for harnessing power differences for the good of the process. Both, however, run into a problem over the long term. Agreements and groundrules to protect collaboration only capture conditions at the they are made. Things change during the course of collaborative work. Power may shift in ways that remove incentives to share resources with other stakeholders, and coercive methods may seem more promising.
There is no easy answer to that larger problem, and everyone involved in public policy collaboration has to be alert to the need for adaptive strategies. Fortunately, the informal and self-organizing nature of a collaborative process is well suited for responding to rapid change. The hope is that adaptation to power shifts can result in continuing benefit to the group as a whole rather than its undoing.