Collaborating in a Hierarchical World

What are the key issues facing collaboration-minded managers in government? Two thoughtful academics identify what they think are the Top Ten and offer some advice on areas for future research.

Drs. Rosemary O’Leary and Nidhi Vij presented a paper at the recent annual conference of the American Society for Public Administration, “Collaborative Public Management: Where Have We Been and Where Are We Going?” They surveyed the literature (so you wouldn’t have to) to find the most important issues facing the field, at least from the perspective of academia. They identified ten that kept surfacing in the literature:

1. Competing definitions of collaboration. “there is considerable confusion in the literature regarding the distinction between collaboration, coordination and cooperation. . . these concepts are different because ‘cooperation’ and ‘coordination’ do not capture the dynamic, evolutionary nature of ‘collaboration.’” An important challenge is “to make sure that there is a shared definition.”

2. Changes in the environment of public management that have encouraged the growth of collaborative public management. “. . . [T]here have been many changed in the environment of public, private, and nonprofit organizations that have encouraged the growth of collaborative public management.” These include: (1) major public challenges are larger than what any one organization can address, (2) outsourcing has grown as a strategy, (3) the pressure for greater effectiveness encourages public managers to innovate, and (4) technology has become a great enabler of greater collaboration.

3. “Thinking DaVinci” – use of lateral thinking and interdisciplinarity. “Da Vinci’s genius stemmed from his mastery of lateral thinking . . .. taking knowledge from one substantive context or discipline and applying it to an entirely different one.” Approaching a public challenge with this mindset encourages cross-disciplinary collaboration.

4. The management challenges of working in networks. Understanding the paradoxes and complexities of the motivations to collaborate are important to network leaders. Some participants collaborate in order to increase performance and better serve the public. Others collaborate in order to be free-riders and obtain benefits to their organization without sharing their own resources. Understanding and managing these potential motivations is important.

5. The paradox of balancing autonomy and interdependence. Collaborative managers must recognize the inherent paradoxes of working in a collaborative environment. They must be willing to work both with autonomy and independence, have common and diverse goals, work with a fewer number – and greater variety – of groups. They must be both partcipative and authorative, balance advocacy and inquiry, and see both the forest and the trees.

6. Factors to consider before collaborating. Engaging in collaboration is context-specific, there is no one-size-fits-all recipe. The context dimensions include: purpose or mission, member selection and capacity building, motivation and commitment of members, structure and governance of the group, powers and accountability mechanisms, communication mechanisms , perceived legitimacy and trust, and the availablity of technology tools to facilitate collaboration.

7. The importance of the individual in a collaborative arrangement. Collaboration is more between individuals, than it is between the organizations they represent: “collaboration is deeply dependent on the skills of officials and managers . . . to be effective collaborators.” These skills include being able to think strategically, be able to facilitate groups, solve problems collaboratively, and be effective in conflict management.

8. Leading when you are not in charge. “. . .[C]ollaboration and collaborative governance shift the emphasis from the control of large bureaucratic organizations and the bureaucratic way of managing public programs to enablement skills [which include] negotiation, facilitation, collaborative problem solving, and conflict management.’

9. Weaknesses in collaborative public management research. The authors say “there is a need for a consistent overarching theory. . .what we have is a piece-meal approach.’ They also observe that the field lacks depth, has not understood how collaborative initiative unfold over time, how mandated vs. voluntary collaborative ventures work, and how the field of collaborative public management lacks a distinct identify as an area of academic inquiry.

10. The missing link between theory and practice. The authors also observe: “Research seemingly does not inform or influence the world of practice at large. . . The knowledge that is produced is not widely read, and so has little relevance to scholarly and academic readership, as well as practitioners.”

Their conclusion? “. . .[T]the study and practice of collaborative public management is generally fragmented with low level of consensus.. . . To advance the study and practice of collaborative public management the authors urge (1) agreement on definitions of commonly used terms, beginning with the term ‘collaboration,’ (2) agreement on pressing collaborative public management challenges and substantive research and practice questions; (3) more precise theoretical models of behavior; and (4) agreement on the measurement of relevant variables.”

My sense is that practitioners have a more upbeat view of the whole field of collaborative governance and are less concerned with developing definitions than they are with sharing practices that work.

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