Government Reform: Collaborative Perspective

John Kamensky, Senior Fellow, IBM Center for The Business of Government

John Kamensky, Senior Fellow, IBM Center for The Business of Government

A fourth perspective of what constitutes good public management, is what I dub the Collaborative perspective.  It is growing in practice and is increasingly reported in the academic literature as a new way of thinking about how large enterprises, or institutions, work. For an adherent to the Collaborative perspective, good public management would mean developing a clear set of common purposes and developing the institutional mechanisms to engage organizations and individuals in “peer-to-peer”-types of arrangements. It does not fit neatly in any of the three more accepted models described earlier.

As described by Professor Charles Heckscher, a “collaborative enterprise” is comprised of both a formal hierarchical network and a relatively formalized peer network. It operates both within a market and within a network of alliance relationships that are much like those that can evolve in the Civil Society perspective – extended relationships that cross hierarchical boundaries. In the public sector, this perspective has been developed in Canada as part of its “horizontal government” initiative and in the United Kingdom under its “joined up government” initiative. In the U.S., agencies like the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control are pioneering the Collaborative approach.

Part of the reason for the slow adoption rate of the Collaborative perspective in the U.S. has been the need to be responsive to diverse accountability and funding agents (e.g., the Environmental Protection Agency is accountable to more than 70 congressional committees and subcommittees). Also, the career track of those who engage in collaborative efforts is still vague in comparison to the career track of employees who engage in traditional bureaucracies.

Collaborative organizations are centered on the knowledge and skills needed to address flexible tasks that are hard to define in advance. In contrast, the traditional hierarchical organization is product-oriented and addresses standardized and routine tasks that are predictable in nature.

The principal characteristics of a collaborative approach include:

  • * People who are interdependent with one another and are intolerant of those who do not pull their own weight.
  • * People who see “performance” as the most important attribute of contribution where the important question is not position or status but “what can you contribute to the mission?”
  • * Trust being based on the belief that everyone is working toward a collective goal.
  • * The central organizing principle is seen as the mission or collective purpose, not the agency or hierarchy.
  • * Flexible boundaries between levels of government, as well as between government private, and non-profit organizations, are good.

Central values in a collaborative approach to governance include:

  • * A focus on the capability for contribution, not an individual’s formal position in an organization.
  • * Dialogue and openness.
  • * Helpfulness towards others, often demonstrated by the transparent, or free, sharing of information
  • * Openness to the outside
  • * Embracing diversity of capabilities.

There are three sets of practices that help create a collaborative social infrastructure:

  • * Creating shared purpose, building and maintaining a unifying sense of purpose by fostering one-way and two-way dialogue – similar to the Civil Society perspective – and creating shared vision and value statements.
  • * Organizing and formalizing peer or associated relationships by creating linking roles between organizations; providing information transparency; using explicit, not implicit, processes and common platforms; developing negotiation skills and systems within agencies; and replacing informal personal relationships with systematic process management skills focused on performance and capability.
  • * Connecting these systems to the outside world by increasing planning and sensing efforts, developing planning and priority-setting approaches, and combining sensing and planning efforts.

Heckscher says that the collaborative approach challenges the values of both the hierarchical and market-based approaches:

“. . . . those who hold the value of democracy as primary will be dissatisfied with the collaborative model: it does not imply equal rights to power or processes of majority rule. . .. .it does involve a radical challenge to hierarchy.”

The use of power must be justified on the basis of common purpose, not position. The collaborative model is also not the same as meritocracy, because that implies that those with the most merit rise to power. Collaboration minimizes the concept of “position” and doesn’t have much use for the concept of general merit – it focuses instead on contribution.

Options the Next President Might Consider for Achieving
“Good Public Management” From a Collaborative Perspective

A president who subscribes to a Collaborative perspective might support initiatives such as:

  • * Continuing the development of the Lines of Business, shared services, and enterprise architecture initiatives to ensure a common administrative and technical backbone to support cross-organizational collaboration.
  • * Using the Key National Indicators Initiative as an impetus for identifying, creating consensus around, and organizing Administration priorities around outcomes.
  • * Extending the use of Presidential National Strategies as a way to articulate a government-wide focus on key priorities. National strategies are currently being used by the current Administration as a tool for pursuing outcomes that reach across federal agencies, as well as states, localities, and non-governmental organizations. A president in a future Administration would use them as the organizing building blocks for acting collaboratively on these strategies. For example, he or she might create a new White House Council – such as a National Performance Council – to guide nationwide outcome achievements in key national areas such as housing, healthcare, or environment. Its operations might be based on an adaptation of Baltimore’s Citi-stat or the Washington State “Government Management Accountability and Performance” system.
  • * Encouraging the use of Web 2.0 tools as a way of creating communities of practice and grass-roots action networks inside government, across agency boundaries, much like the Intelligence Community is doing today.

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