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Collaborative Governance Consensus Building

Collaborative Implementation of Consensus Agreements

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Collaborative agreements often come together after seemingly endless sessions of hard negotiation. When reached, they may well represent a breakthrough achievement, finally getting long-time adversaries to agree on the toughest issues dividing them.

After that triumph, though, implementation may require continuing collaborative work for years. While there are many examples of success, others produce disappointing results. Why does that happen? How can it be avoided?

Once I had the opportunity to observe a collaborative group that had been working well for several years as an ongoing policy forum. Its focus was a large area of public land devoted primarily to recreation and managed by a dozen federal, state and local agencies. The signature achievement of the group had been a collaboratively negotiated management plan that was now a couple of years into the implementation phase. The meeting I attended was a progress review of the plan’s recommended action steps.

A large spreadsheet listed the 50 or so projects prioritized under the plan, and I wondered why the agenda only devoted a short time to such a massive review. It soon became clear, though, that little time was needed. A quick succession of speakers said more of less the same thing. The agencies responsible for most of the projects had no funding to carry them out. Yet each of these agencies had been full partners in the agreement and signed the final document.

As is not uncommon, implementation depended on the commitment of each of the group’s member organizations – both private and public – to take action on specific projects under the plan. Even though the commitments had been made in good faith, no connection had been established between the plan and budgetary processes. A few years into the implementation phase, most of the agencies seemed to lack incentive to push the necessary projects higher on their internal lists of funding priorities.

The problem this group ran into highlights a central aspect of collaborative policy groups. They are voluntary associations convened ad hoc to address specific issues. They have no authority either to make binding decisions or to enforce agreements.

As Donald Kettl puts it in his book, The Next Government of the United States, when discussing such cooperative systems: there is no overall coordination, and no one is in charge.

It is all the more remarkable, given the lack of centralized control, that so many collaborative agreements have been carried out effectively to meet ongoing needs. For example, collaborative implementation through public-private networks of independent agencies sustains the delivery of many social services, provides emergency response teams and creates joint management for large recreational areas.

There are many factors that can determine the success or failure of collaborative implementation. William Leach has provided an excellent summary (continued in this post). Potapchuk and Crocker also have an extensive discussion in Implementing Consensus-Based Agreements (The Consensus Building Handbook. These review the entire consensus building process to assess potential problems at each stage that could later undermine implementation

One factor is especially important in determining the outcome of a collaborative implementation process. That relates to institutional self-interest of parties to an agreement and their incentive to keep commitments.

The process of reaching consensus agreements often depends on defining joint gains for the participants through interest-based negotiation. A central tenet of this process is that all the interests around the table need to achieve at least some of their priority goals. So long as implementation of the agreement continues to meet the shared interests of the collaborating agencies, they all have a strong incentive to sustain their commitments to action.

That’s the case with most emergency response networks. Each agency shares public accountability for effective performance and finds the collaborative arrangement the best way to ensure this.

But there are also many cases where implementation depends not on the coordinated action of all working together in a single time frame but on a sequence of steps carried out by different agencies acting in turn over a long period of time.

For example, a complex agreement on habitat protection and urban development might involve the near-term approval of regulatory permits to allow construction of new housing projects based on time-sensitive investments and loans. Habitat conservation, however, is a long-term goal and may depend on private land transactions years in the future that are supposed to observe buffer areas between protected lands and urban development. Changes in market conditions over time may remove incentives for the developer to follow that part of the agreement. Threats of business failure, for example, may create new incentives that work against the interests of the conservation organizations trying to protect unique habitat areas. Collaborative implementation begins to fall apart.

This can happen even if the parties structure their agreement as a formal contract with mechanisms to ensure follow-through on commitments. If voluntary tools like mediation don’t work and the only recourse is to litigation, filing a lawsuit only confirms a breakdown of the collaborative implementation process.

Ultimately, every collaborative enforcement mechanism depends on the voluntary commitment of the independent entities that are parties to the agreement. If good faith and incentives for sustained involvement disappear, by definition no one can compel collaboration. The crucial preventive measures, then, need to take place before agreements are finalized.

That makes it all the more important to focus on the interplay of interests over time. One of the critical steps for avoiding later problems is to negotiate a structure of incentives that equally reinforce the commitments of all participants.

That will be the topic of the next post in this series.

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