Collaboration as the new normal?

Tessa Coombes
Tessa Coombes

by Tessa Coombes, guest blogger for P&P conference

Our first session this morning on the second day of the Policy & Politics conference was a fast and furious presentation from Prof Helen Sullivan, University of Melbourne, covering a wide range of issues relating to collaboration. The presentation sought to cover why collaboration can be seen as the new normal, a better framework for understanding collaboration, and the challenges this presents for policy makers and practitioners.

For many collaboration is inevitable to meet policy challenges, whilst others are waiting for the trend to disappear. Whatever the case, collaboration is more accepted as the ‘new normal’. In her presentation, Helen defined collaboration as “a more or less stable configuration of rules, resources and relationships; generated, negotiated, restricted, and reproduced by diverse interdependent actors”. A deliberately vague or open definition, that goes beyond our understanding of partnerships and cooperative relations, that brings with it a set of emotions.

The normalisation of collaboration has developed as a response to the Global Financial Crisis, which led to the view of austerity as a collaborative affair involving non state actors and citizens. Helen then identified a number of  trends in collaboration which have seen the primacy of the collective replaced by the primacy of the individual:

  • New Public Management has evolved beyond marketisation
  • Globalisation and governance rescaling, creating elasticity of public policy across boundaries
  • Co-governance, reconnecting citizens to governing institutions
  • Innovation and the increasing importance of digital and social media

These trends together make collaboration more difficult, with human agency at the centre of collaboration emphasising the need to understand what motivates individuals to act. Helen proposed her own framework for how we might seek to better understand this concept, with the aim of directing attention to the more neglected aspects of collaboration. This framework has three dimensions: political, material and cultural, where the role of ideas, rules and emotions are particularly important.

The challenge for policy makers in all this is to understand collaboration, in terms of mood, practice and instrument where the role of power, interests, structure and agency are central to making sense of policy processes. With collaboration as the new normal, it can also be seen as a disruptive force for intervention, leading to improvements and new ways of doing things. The point was also made that public policy analysis needs to see the whole as well as the parts in order to develop a full understanding.

For me, and others in the audience, this feels like a huge agenda requiring interdisciplinary activity and understanding, but as a framework it enables you to think about those different aspects in an interconnected way.

Tessa Coombes has just completed the MSc in Public Policy at Bristol University, is an ex-City Councillor and regularly blogs about politics, policy and place.

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