Strategies for collaborating in fragmented governments

Swann_KimWilliam L. Swann and Seo Young Kim

Whether protecting a watershed, recovering from a natural disaster, or facilitating international trade, governments often need to collaborate to achieve policy goals. But resolving complex problems across fragmented jurisdictional landscapes involves overcoming significant collective action barriers.

Governments, like individuals, have an incentive to free ride on collective efforts and obtain benefits without contributing to the costs of public goods. For example, all governments in a region benefit from air pollution mitigation, but each government has an incentive to enjoy cleaner air without making the sacrifices to produce it.

Some governments also lack the capacity, competencies and characteristics to be effective collaborators and will impede the achievement of collective goals despite being well-intentioned. A lack of shared vision, leadership and resources are common detriments to collaborative effectiveness.

Thus, when working jointly to address problems, all governments face some degree of ‘collaboration risk’, or the likelihood that collaboratives will fail. The Institutional Collective Action (ICA) framework, developed by Richard Feiock and colleagues, has emerged as a useful lens for prescribing remedies for overcoming collective action barriers and mitigating collaboration risk.

One key contribution of the ICA framework is its taxonomy of collaborative mechanisms, ranging from informal, self-organising networks to imposed collaboration mandates from higher-level governments, to resolving collective action dilemmas. The ICA framework assumes that an optimal mechanism would maximise the autonomy of collaborators while imposing the lowest levels of transaction costs or uncertainty, given the complexity of the issue at hand. But prior policy research has not fully developed the idea of how policy-makers reduce collaboration risk to promote collaborations that place greater control in the hands of decision-makers closer to citizens and problems.

Our recent article on Practical Prescriptions for governing fragmented governments teases out practical lessons from the ICA literature for how governments can better collaborate in a self-organising way. One lesson is that policy-makers’ social networking facilitates collaboration. Collaborative networking strategies involving informal, frequent, face-to-face interaction reduce collaboration risk by increasing access to information and cultivating trust through reciprocity, helping to promote and strengthen collaboratives.

Another lesson is that public service characteristics (for example, how difficult it is to measure service delivery ouputs and outcomes, or how turbulent the policy environment is) should be considered when designing collaborative arrangements. Collaboration involving more opaque policy outputs and outcomes, such as social services, may require more restrictive arrangements such as third-party oversight, multilateral agreements and performance reporting.  On the other hand, collaboration in more uncertain, dynamic and complex environments, such as in emergency management planning, likely requires more flexible, adaptive and open arrangements.

Governments can also promote collaboration by developing their collaborative capacity incrementally, learning-by-doing and addressing lower-level problems involving information exchange before tackling higher-level problems such as governance reforms or resource exchanges.

Our article builds on a rich tradition in policy research examining better ways to collaborate and suggests several strategies (there are undoubtedly many more) for how governments may be able to better overcome collective action hurdles in a way that puts greater autonomy in hands of those closer to problems. While it is not a panacea, collaboration is an essential tool for policy-makers in fragmented governments; but, like any tool, it must be well-prepared and used appropriately.

You may read the original research in Policy & Politics:

Swann, William L; Kim, Seo Young, Practical prescriptions for governing fragmented governments, Policy & Politics, DOI: 10.1332/030557318X15230058720979

View the special issue full table of contents here. The whole issue is free to access until 31 May.


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