by Tessa Coombes, guest blogger for P&P conference
Collaborative governance: why, when and how? That was the question posed by Prof Chris Ansell, University of California, in the opening presentation to the Policy & Politics Conference 2014. Chris described himself as a ‘nervous fan’ of collaborative governance when used as an alternative to a more adversarial system. He discussed the need to be careful that we don’t over sell the concept and don’t use it as a generic strategy to do everything – wise words indeed.
So, what do we mean by collaborative governance? The definition offered by Prof Ansell was as follows:
‘Collaborative governance is a governing arrangement where public or private stakeholders engage in a multi-lateral decision making process, that is formal, consensus-oriented and deliberative, that aims to directly make or implement policy or manage programmes or assets.’
We were then taken through a discussion about why, when and how we should use collaborative governance:
The ‘why’ question was about managing conflict more fruitfully, creating collaboration amongst stakeholders and looking at real issues or problems. A process of taking us away from adversarial politics and into a more engaged and cooperative approach to governance.
The ‘when’ question focused on three fairly obvious conditions, including when resources are available, when discretion exists to enable participation and when joint processes of negotiation are necessary. A further three conditions were identified as potentially more restrictive and included, where the trade off between risk and gains is worth it, where there is positive mutual interdependence amongst stakeholders and where the process for collaboration is fair, inclusive and unique.
The ‘how’ question was about a facilitated social learning process. This process is about leadership and stakeholders learning from each other through an iterative process. It involves five stages from face-to-face discussions and trust building, to gaining commitment and joint ownership of the process and finally to intermediate outcomes. One of the key points here is why stakeholders come to the table, often for very different reasons and potentially even when they are not committed to collaboration, but at least they do participate.
One of the interesting issues to come out of the examples used by Chris, was why do people engage and what motivates stakeholders to take part in collaboration? Which is where issues about trust building and face-to-face engagement help to break down traditional barriers and potentially reduce tensions between stakeholders. But it’s also where it becomes clear that different stakeholders enter the discussion with different levels of advantage or disadvantage. Some groups are very organised, others less so, some have resources to draw on, whilst others don’t. It’s also the case that some may engage for negative reasons and may not be fully committed to the idea of a collaborative process, coming to the table with more of a watching brief.
One of the questions from the audience focused on why stakeholders engage and how their involvement is perceived by others. This was a particular issue for environmental groups where they are often accused of ‘selling out’ by involvement and collaboration rather than the more usual route of adversarial politics. For environmental stakeholders and lobbyists this often requires a delicate balance of assessing risks against the potential benefits of participation.
Another important question was about the key role of the facilitator – should this be someone with local knowledge, but who may also have a particular position to defend, or should it be an independent professional mediator brought in as a neutral facilitator, or can you use both? A critical point as facilitation is clearly crucial to the success of collaborative processes.
A further question was raised about how you measure and define success if the goals are not agreed at the beginning. Success has to be seen as more than merely yielding a group of happy stakeholders at the end of the process.
For me the key lesson was about how we use collaborative governance, mostly as a productive approach to sorting out political conflict, rather than as an answer to everything. A measured approach that which starts with thinking about what collaboration can achieve and when best to use it.
Tessa Coombes has just completed the MSc in Public Policy at Bristol University, is a former Bristol City Councillor and regularly blogs about policy, politics, and place.