Can Government Solve Big Problems Collaboratively?

Commotion of Arrows

Stefan Rajewski – Fotolia.com

The Open Government Initiative of the Obama Administration has given high priority to increasing the use of collaboration in the federal government. Yet many federal offices have not in the past encouraged the sort of collaborative mindset that is necessary for meaningful efforts in this direction.

As William Eggers and John O’Leary have noted, it’s often the failure to work inclusively that leads to disappointment or even disaster, as they discuss in the fatal tunnel collapse of Boston’s Big Dig project. If We Can Put a Man on the Moon draws lessons from many other examples of what can go wrong when government tries to solve the big problems.

What I want to look at in this post, though, is one of the major positive cases they cite: the successful effort to reform the healthcare system in Massachusetts. Their summary of key steps in that process nicely defines the elements that characterize good collaborative work to solve a critically important public problem. It’s a useful example for federal officials to keep in mind as they move ahead with the Open Government Initiative. Although this case occurs in a legislative context, the model can be effective in most public policy settings.

Here are the major steps they single out:

  • High Level Leadership: Governor Mitt Romney made a priority of reforming the health care system in Massachusetts and defined a set of principles to guide the effort. When he turned to the state’s health staff for proposals, however, he found they were too narrow in scope and tied too closely to the existing system.

  • Outside Team: In a controversial step, the Governor brought in a team of outsiders who could bring new ways of thinking to the problem. It was their task to develop proposals for fundamental change. He made clear they had his complete support by locating their office close to his own.

  • Consultation with Key Players: After a false start when the team’s proposal, prepared without input of the Legislature, was rejected, they regrouped and changed their approach. They set aside their own work and began a process of regular consultation with all the key players. This collaborative approach ensured that no one would be surprised and that everyone could feel satisfied that their concerns were being addressed.

  • Collaborative Mindset:Turning to a collaborative process required an important change in thinking about the team’s own role. Instead of acting as the experts who would analyze data and design their own reform policy, they realized they needed to keep an open mind and consider a wide range of alternative proposals, including many they disagreed with. Switching from a technical to a collaborative mindset was itself a remarkable adaptation. Most expert consultants practice either one approach or the other, but this team realized they had to respond to the situation before them instead of following their customary practices.

  • Collaborative Leadership: Even more important was the Governor’s adoption of this same approach. Instead of presenting his plan to the Legislature as a definitive position, he gave speeches describing what the team was finding and what he and the Legislature need to consider. In this way, he demonstrated his willingness to propose the ideas of other leaders and to share credit with them for the ultimate decision. That’s an important quality in a collaborative leader – the use of power, in Mary Parker Follett’s terms, “with” others rather than “over” them.

  • Collaborative Decision-Making: Eggers and O’Leary praise the collaborative approach in contrast to a collective one based on consensus, or unanimity, of all the major interest groups. They see the typical “blue ribbon committee” process as an attempt to bring dozens of representatives of different interests together in a room to reach agreement among them all. That’s a formula for gridlock. They see the essence of the collaborative approach as drawing on the ideas of the key groups without expecting the impossible of total agreement. The Governor was seeking fundamental change, they point out, and that comes hard. Inevitably, some groups will resist and try to slow down or kill the process.

  • I would add that there are many techniques available to move beyond gridlock or the seeming impossibility of producing agreement from a large number of groups represented around a single table. Mediators and facilitators typically describe a collaborative process as consensus-seeking precisely because they understand that a complicated process shouldn’t be held hostage to the demand of one or two groups. To deal with that problem, they have devised alternative decision strategies when unanimity is not possible. One of the most authoritative references which closely examines this issue is The Consensus Building Handbook: A Comprehensive Guide to Reaching Agreement.

  • Design: Once the proposal got to the Legislature, the Governor and leaders of the Assembly and Senate maintained a pragmatic approach to produce a final package that represented a balancing of the different interests. As a Republican Governor with only a small base in the Legislature, Romney had to work collaboratively with the Democratic leadership, and they responded in the same spirit.

  • Adoption: As a result of this collaborative work, the Legislature adopted a bill that had included them as partners in its design. Every agreement, whatever the form it takes, faces this test of formal adoption, often in a political forum. Success requires the satisfaction of major interests in order to prevent or minimize significant opposition that can kill the whole thing.

    It’s important that following such an achievement there be a public celebration of some sort that recognizes the leaders and the groups they represent for their ability to work collaboratively. In the case of major legislation, like this one, that usually means a formal signing ceremony. This reaffirms and publicly demonstrates the shared credit for the result of the process as well as the collaborative commitment that made the agreement possible.

  • Implementation:

  • Since the program includes major changes in the health care system, it will be a long time before its full impact will become clear. Doubtless, that process has been greatly complicated by the recent storm of controversy over national health care reform and the sharp ideological divisions it brought to the forefront of policy debate.

    Changing political attitudes and electoral trends, however, are always a factor in implementing any new collaborative agreement over the long-term. Whether collaborative approaches can survive the present atmosphere of sharp ideological division is an open question. That is also the crucial question in the case of Massachusetts health care reform.

The collaborative model that emerges from Eggers and O’Leary’s accounts of numerous examples follows most of the steps defined in the practice and writings of professional mediators and facilitators. These steps include the roles and functions that need to be carried out by collaborative leaders and those who serve as technical experts and facilitators.

While many practitioners in the collaborative public policy field like to point out their unique expertise in helping leaders convene and manage these processes, the fact is that public officials with the skills of collaborative leaders most often carry them out. They may use outside expertise to gain a fresh perspective, as Romney did in this case, or they may assemble a collaborative working group that draws together the key players and interest groups. There are many ways to get the job done, but the principles remain the same.

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