Compound Collaboration

Chris Ansell
Chris Ansell

Chris Ansell, from the University of California, Berkeley, and co-editor of the current Special Issue of Policy & Politics introduces his article on collaboration.

Complexity theorists talk about “networks of networks.”   Engineers talk of “systems of systems.”  My article in Policy & Politics is essentially about “collaborations of collaborations.”

Large-scale efforts to address multi-faceted problems that mobilize many independent stakeholders often take the form of compound collaborations.   The collaborative Everglades Restoration Program in the U.S. includes over 80 restoration projects, each requiring collaboration.  The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is a complex effort aggregating the outputs of thousands of scientists collaborating in different tasks forces and working groups. And UNAIDS, the Stop TB Partnership, and the Roll Back Malaria Partnership–the subjects of my article–are international collaborations of national collaborations to halt the spread of major global diseases.

Our stock of knowledge about collaborative governance has grown significantly in the past decade.   But we still know relatively little about the leadership and organizational challenges faced by large-scale compound collaborations.  A single team or steering committee can represent a challenging collaborative task.   What happens when we scale it up to accommodate a collaboration of collaborations?

UNAIDS, the Stop TB Partnership, and the Roll Back Malaria Partnership are three relatively successful examples of compound collaboration.   My article takes advantage of the fact each of them has received at least two major evaluations of their activities.   These evaluations explore the challenges faced by these global campaigns as they developed institutional processes and structures to eradicate global diseases. What can learn from these evaluations about compound collaboration?

One lesson is that all three groups have struggled to manage the tension between “loose” and “tight” coupling.  Compound collaborations begin their lives by not asking too much of their members, purposefully leaving membership responsibilities vague.   This strategic ambiguity helps them build wider initial support.   However, compound collaborations soon discover that this loose coupling has liabilities. Coordination suffers, members become frustrated, and a vicious cycle of conflict and disengagement can follow. The evaluation studies reveal that compound collaborations tend to respond to these liabilities by formalizing of processes and roles, though this formalization is inevitably limited by membership autonomy. If this tighter coupling works well, as it eventually did in each of these cases, it can build a virtuous cycle of deeper cooperation and greater membership engagement.

A second lesson is that the secretariat for each of these compound collaborations played a key role in their success.   This finding is not really news to international relations scholars, but the generic finding has perhaps not been fully appreciated.    Secretariats serve as focal points that align and bridge the efforts and demands of different stakeholders.  In essence, they help to manage the tension between the autonomy and interdependence of stakeholders. To do this, they engage in shuttle diplomacy that arguably becomes more prominent as the scale and complexity of collaboration increases.  However, if the secretariat remains simply a hub in a wheel of disconnected stakeholders, this shuttle diplomacy will consign the secretariat to a reactive leadership role.  This reactive role can reinforce a vicious cycle of conflict and disengagement.

A third lesson is that the focusing and bridging role played by the secretariat can become more widely institutionalized in compound collaboration.  Focal points can be organized at different levels.  Lead organizations can be designated.  Liaison roles can be articulated.    Regional coordinating bodies can be created.  Integrated work plans can be developed. The logic of focal points can be generalized throughout the compound collaboration.  This institutionalization of focal points goes significantly beyond the bridging role of the secretariat, though these focal institutions may be organized by and through the secretariat.

Compound collaboration is likely to become even more prominent in the future. Environmental problems are notoriously cross-scale or multi-scale phenomena.  Natural hazards require transboundary cooperation and complex social and political problems often demand both large-scale mobilization and local customized response.   Understanding collaborations of collaborations can better prepare us to address these vexing issues.

You can read Chris’s article in full at

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