Collaborative Governance


4th of July FireworksI spent part of my 4th of July weekend reading a new book by Beth Noveck, the White House staffer helping lead President Obama’s Open Government initiative.  The book, “Wiki Government: How Technology Can Make Government Better, Democracy Stronger, and Citizens More Powerful,” provides useful insights into both potential open government initiatives the new administration might undertake, as well as some possible underlying principles that may be reflected in the open government directive currently under development.  A quick note:  it’s not all about wikis!

She says:  ““. . . it is vital to have leaders committed to fundamentally redesigning the working of government and the relationship of government to the citizenry.”  She proposes that government institutions be dramatically redesigned, with a focus on collaborative governance that uses open technology, open standards, and innovative practices.

Distinguishing Between Representative and Collaborative Democracy.  While she advocates participative democracy (in contrast to direct democracy or representatives democracy) as an organizing principle, she makes a distinction between different types of participation: deliberative democracy and collaborative democracy.

“While both deliberation and collaboration may be group-based, deliberative democracy suffers from a lack of imagination in that it fails to acknowledge the importance of connecting diverse skills, as well as diverse viewpoints, to public policy.  Whereas diverse viewpoints might make for a more lively conversation, diverse skills are essential to collaboration.

“Deliberation measures the quality of democracy on the basis of the procedural uniformity and equality of inputs.  Collaboration shifts the focus to the effectiveness of decisionmaking and outputs.

“Deliberation requires an agenda for orderly discussion. Collaboration requires breaking down a problem into component parts that can be parceled out and assigned to members of the public and officials. . . . .

“Deliberation is focused on opinion formation and the general will (or sometimes on achieving consensus). Consensus is desirable as an end unto itself.  Collaboration is a means to an end.  Hence the emphasis is not on the participation for its own sake but on inviting experts . . . to engage in information gathering, information evaluation and measurement, and the development of specific solutions for implementation.

In the end, she notes: “Deliberation focuses on self-expression.  Collaboration focuses on participation.”

She concludes:  “If governance is thought of as a granular and focused set of practices, ways can be designed to delegate greater power to citizens to gather facts, spend money, and participate in making decisions.. . . by organizing collaboration, government keeps itself at the center of decisionmaking as the neutral arbiter in the public interest and also benefits from the contributions of those outside government.”

Putting Collaborative Democracy to Work. Later in her book, she raises ideas the Obama Administration might undertake based on collaborative governance principles, include policy “jams” and wikis, a “network braintrust” that would be a corps of experts to help develop agendas of new innovations, and creating “collaborative governance labs.”   Some of her ideas have already been put into practice, such as the President’s Open for Questions, where the public poses questions on-line that they then vote on and the highest rating questions are answered by the President.  These models are also being reflected among agencies, as well.

Related Writings.  Interestingly, I drafted a (little noticed!) white paper last year for the National Academy of Public Administration on potential directions the winning presidential candidate might take, depending on what philosophical values he or she might bring to the job.  I had noted that moving toward a more collaborative enterprise was one possibility, but that it would require 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 seems the Obama Administration is taking such steps.

Dr. Noveck is the only academic exploring the concept of collaborative governance.  Dr. Don Kettl’s book, “The Next Government of the United States” begins to build the case  for this approach.  In addition, Rutgers professor Charles Heckscher has explored this trend in private sector organizations.  He says that the collaborative approach challenges the values of both the hierarchical and market-based approaches to governance, but that:  “. . . . 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 – which is a value common among the Millennial Generation.

At this writing, the open government directive is still being drafted.  The third phase of citizen involvement, which allows citizens to draft and vote on each other’s proposals, ends today and White House staff will begin the drafting in earnest.  It’ll be interesting to see what direction they take!


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6 Responses to “Collaborative Governance”

  1. Mark Cleverley Says:

    Admirable – “leaders committed to fundamentally redesigning the working of government and the relationship of government to the citizenry” – especially for the time of year that celebrates a previous example of precisely that happening…

    However I won’t hold my breath – what was that old saw about turkeys not voting for Christmas? (I guess that’s a British aphorism, but you get the idea).

  2. Norman M. Macdonald Says:

    This sounds like the carry on of a number of efforts of the reinventing government team ten years ago. As a Forest Service member of the reinventing team we used the term collaborative steward ship. The land management agencies have over the years developed with their various fellow collaborators a number of excellent examples. Given that command and control is dying and is being replaced by collaboration with a big boost from the development of communications nets such as Web 2.0. This is like going from Newtonian physics to Chaos physics – from a rigid structure to free flowing networks.

  3. Lars Hasselblad Torres Says:

    Great to see that collaboration and deliberation have currency in the current administration. In particular, I am pleased that the very ideal of a “citizen” – informed, empowered, engaged – has subverted the formerly prominent “customer.”

    What worries me though is that “collaboration” and “deliberation” are pitted against each, both in Dr Noveck’s book and in the way the two are positioned in your blog post. Phrases like “lack of imagination,” “procedural uniformity,” and “orderly discussion” are far too derisive to be representative of the actual state of play in the field.

    What I think is more important than a review of the merits of public deliberation is clarification of basic premises here: deliberation plays a fundamentally different role in governance than collaboration, and so the comparison is something of apples to oranges.

    Deliberation constitutes a set of practices that clarify how the public thinks, and where its policy preferences lie. Collaboration defines a set of practices for translating those priorities into workable public policy.

    I hope in future conversations the two sets of practices can be seen as complementary toward producing more enduring and effective public policy as we continue to shape our union.


    • John Kamensky Says:

      Lars — I like your constructive contrast between the use of deliberation – to clarify how the public thinks — vs. collaboration — getting something done. I agree each has an appropriate role. I’m sure Beth Noveck would agree, as well.

  4. Lars Hasselblad Torres Says:

    Thanks John. One area I agree with Beth (from what I can learn here; I need to pick up the book) is the way deliberative processes have suffered by giving experts a “backseat” in public processes eg often informants to background materials or “presenters” set up as issue “framers” and context setters.

    The missed opportunity is for them to work with the public to deepen understanding, evaluate complex trade-offs, and even for them to get a window in on how the public thinks and wrestles with the issues.

    What collaborative processes tend to achieve is a more instrumental application of expert knowledge, in service of optimal policy design. Cheers.

  5. Norman M. Macdonald Says:


    I have worked with the collaborative concept at the field level I would say “It is a frame of mind based on respect and sharing,between sometimes opposing groups moveing toward a common goal.” The key is respect without respect it flat won’t work.

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