For most of the last 200 years either the public sector (government in some form) or the private sector (profit or nonprofit entities) dealt independently with most of the needs of society. When there was a need for both sectors to be involved, a range of methods was employed, from formal contracting for services, to independent philanthropy by the private sector, to supply the service.
In 1905 the first independent agency -- the Interstate Commerce Commission -- was created to provide rate management and regulation for the burgeoning and out of control railroad industry. Since then, mandatory, statutory regulation has blossomed at all levels -- federal, state and local -- to the point where virtually all private activities today have to deal with some form of regulatory management. While that regulation has provided society with an increasing measure of security and balance, it has also resulted in friction, costs and uncertainty that in many sectors have impeded innovation and growth.
The bigger, more complicated, and more broken modern society has become, the more it appears that, acting alone, neither the public nor the private sector, with or without regulation, is able effectively to fix many problems. And, even when the two have tried to act in concert, they often confront paralyzing indecision, shocking uncertainty and conflicting interests not easily remedied. One crucial reason why is an absence of any recognized or well developed system to enable those sectors to work together productively, other than in the original arms length contracting model noted above.
The old-fashioned and still dominant method of rigid and constrained contractual relationships between the public and private sectors -- with stupefying specifications, "cost plus" pricing, and a frequent and appalling lack of accountability for either party -- was traditionally the only acceptable way for the government and private players to work together. However, current events teach us almost every day that there must be a better way. And, indeed, in recent years a better way has emerged, one that is now reflected in a variety of activities throughout the country.
As it turns out, we have a long history of special case public-private collaborations, some better known and more successful than others. No one ever seemed to realize or bother to understand and explain what those experiences were and why they are worth examining. Following are a few examples of notably successful collaborations which existed in that sea of ignorance.
What is common among all these examples is that they all turned the historical model of an arm's length contractual relationship between the sectors on its head, and combined elements of both sectors in a way that has only recently begun to attract scholarly and practical research, but has yet to create any buzz in MBA programs or in the schools of public affairs that prepare students for public service. This collaborative model is hardly recognized at all at the federal level, but may be soon, as more people learn and understand what it can do for their lives.
The following list scratches at the surface of some of the realms where this model could make quite a difference:
The components of collaboration, in the historical examples noted above and in myriad cases emerging across the country, are simple enough: long term, formal contractual arrangements, shielding them from shifts in political or patronage whims; the sharing of important resources - physical, financial and human - according to a formal plan. And, in various ways sharing discretion (decision making) with the "other" players may be the trickiest and most important point. Tricky, because although private actors engage more actively and enthusiastically when they have a stake and say in how things are managed, inevitably it is the public officials who are also engaged, and they are the ones who most often catch the blame when things go wrong. Shared discretion may be the primary distinguishing feature of the model of public/private engagements that has come to be known as "collaborative governance."
These generalizations have been studied deeply at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard over the past six years, and a recently published book, Collaborative Governance, by Richard Zeckhauser and Jack Donahue (Princeton Press), richly explores these themes. In addition, the Collaborative Governance Resource Institute, of which I am a founder and board member, is seeking to collect and publish many more examples from across the country to enrich the body of experience and understanding and help illuminate and propagate the subject.
Given what is going on in the world -− with allegations of a broken modern society, with a desperate need for more job creation, with a need to untangle many regulatory strangulations and a growing desire across the political spectrum for change that matters −- the proposition that collaborative governance should become better known and tried at all levels of society seems all the more compelling.
The key lessons that the study of collaborative governance teaches prospective users are:
In conclusion, well-grounded innovation, providing a new model of collaboration which exists under our very noses, might just be able to point the way out of our allegedly broken society. If we fail to try more of it, shame on us all. The model does not require collaboration between competing political parties which we have seen recently is very hard to come by. All it requires is people of good will from both the public and private sectors at the "working level" to identify specific shared needs and a willingness to think about how their collaboration might help make the world around them work better.