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Frank A. Weil

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The Best of Both Worlds: Collaborative Governance

Posted: 06/ 8/11 10:53 AM ET

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.

  • The Smithsonian Institution was begun in 1846 with a private monetary gift to the United States government from an English benefactor, James Smithson, and has been since then a genuine collaboration between both sectors, with an independent board, both public and private funds and shared decision-making between the sectors.
  • The Lewis and Clark expedition to explore the far West between 1804 and 1806 was a joint undertaking between private explorers and government's money, which opened the wonders of the West for the benefit of the whole country. It was a remarkably effective collaboration in which there was an abundance of shared decision-making.
  • The Manhattan Project in 1941 to 1945 harnessed skills and money from both the private and public sectors to collaborate in the research and development that led to atomic energy and atomic weapons. This later ended WWII and, in the opinion of many, has helped keep peace (of a sort) in the world since then. Also, atomic energy is also providing a lot of electricity today in many parts of the globe.
  • In 1905 the New York Public Library became a major institution with a public/private board and public and private financial support as well as shared decision-making.
  • Beginning in the early 1990s the great Central Park of New York was restored to its earlier glory and magnificence by collaboration between the city's parks department and a new private Parks Conservancy, again with shared resources and shared decision making.
  • More recently, charter schools have sprung up all over the country to make up for the failures in public school education with collaborations between the two sectors involving money, school buildings, standards and again shared decision-making.


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 Department of the Interior issues licenses for off shore drilling; the licenses are more or less where the government involvement ends. Perhaps there could/should be a collaborative process that begins with the license and moves into a collaborative phase where the drillers' experts would consult with the government experts to ensure that the requisite safety and environmental standards are under constant review to protect everyone's interests.
  • More and more hospitals, all of which rely in a major way on government funding through various insurance programs, are, whether they know it or not, practitioners of collaborative governance. If the collaborative dimension could be brought out of the closet and be better understood, more hospitals and more of health care in other respects might become more efficient AND provide better patient care.
  • Increasingly prisons are being privatized; generally that is seen as a simple contracting matter. Yet the people who administer those institutions have their hands tied in many ways and are frustrated at their inability to effectively manage their populations. If the need for a clarified collaborative governance process was better understood, prisons could become much more efficient and it might be easier to reduce those populations without creating risks.
  • Parks and recreational facilities would benefit across the country if they could access the know how developed in New York and other cities and towns. They are perfect candidates for collaboration because their user populations see them up close and generally like to be involved.
  • There are about 100,000 public schools in America; there are now about 5,000 charter schools and they are increasing at a rate of about ten percent a year. Some, but not all, charter schools do make a difference [see a Stanford study by Macke Raymond and the Office of Innovation and Improvement US Dept of Ed]; if there were more understanding of the relevance of schools' governance, and collaborative governance in particular, to the benefits of charter schools, there might be even more and better such schools. That could be big for the urgent national need to improve education to protect American competitiveness in the world.
  • Space and Defense research and development, a first cousin of the Manhattan Project of WWII, could well be a fruitful arena for shared discretion and collaborative governance.
  • Increasing numbers of humble 'one off' examples of collaborative governance are springing up everywhere. Interestingly, however, the people involved usually do not recognize that they are doing something original and different which is worthy of its own name/description. Nor are they aware that others throughout the country are also implementing public/private collaboration arrangements, some of which could inform their efforts. One of the goals is simply to get people thinking about the subject in these terms so they can at least consider the option of trying this model.


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:

  • Know the stakeholders. Get a clear handle on who all the potential public and private players are, or should be, and engage them all in trying to understand what their common goals and needs are. Show them how they might employ collaborative governance to advance their shared interests.
  • Focus on outcomes and stay flexible on process. Collective, collaborative long-term arrangements need well-thought-out rules and funding sources carefully focused on their particular objectives and must be mindful to not be too dogmatic too early about exactly how their case will be managed. Trial and error for a while may be desirable.
  • Recognize core competencies. Make sure all the necessary skills are in the same rooms at the same times: technical, financial, human and political, in an intricate, interdependently balanced process.
  • Establish benchmarks and milestones. There must be clear and well understood goals and standards by which all activities are measured, both before and after problems arise, in order to head off excessive expectations and false promises.


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.