How can governments better collaborate to address complex problems?

Swann Kim

This is a guest post by William L. Swann (left) and Seo Young Kim (right), discussing how to use insights from the Institutional Collective Action Framework to think about how to improve collaborative governance. The full paper has been submitted to the series for Policy and Politics called Practical Lessons from Policy Theories.

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Many public policy problems cannot be addressed effectively by a single, solitary government. Consider the problems facing the Greater Los Angeles Area, a heavily fragmented landscape of 88 cities and numerous unincorporated areas and special districts. Whether it is combatting rising homelessness, abating the country’s worst air pollution, cleaning the toxic L.A. River, or quelling gang violence, any policy alternative pursued unilaterally is limited by overlapping authority and externalities that alter the actions of other governments.

Problems of fragmented authority are not confined to metropolitan areas. They are also found in multi-level governance scenarios such as the restoration of Chesapeake Bay, as well as in international relations as demonstrated by recent global events such as “Brexit” and the U.S.’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement. In short, fragmentation problems manifest at every scale of governance, horizontally, vertically, and even functionally within governments.

What is an ‘institutional collective action’ dilemma?

In many cases governments would be better off coordinating and working together, but they face barriers that prevent them from doing so. These barriers are what the policy literature refers to as ‘institutional collective action’ (ICA) dilemmas, or collective action problems in which a government’s incentives do not align with collectively desirable outcomes. For example, all governments in a region benefit from less air pollution, but each government has an incentive to free ride and enjoy cleaner air without contributing to the cost of obtaining it.

The ICA Framework, developed by Professor Richard Feiock, has emerged as a practical analytical instrument for understanding and improving fragmented governance. This framework assumes that governments must match the scale and coerciveness of the policy intervention (or mechanism) to the scale and nature of the policy problem to achieve efficient and desired outcomes.

For example, informal networks (a mechanism) can be highly effective at overcoming simple collective action problems. But as problems become increasingly complex, more obtrusive mechanisms, such as governmental consolidation or imposed collaboration, are needed to achieve collective goals and more efficient outcomes. The more obtrusive the mechanism, however, the more actors’ autonomy diminishes and the higher the transaction costs (monitoring, enforcement, information, and agency) of governing.

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Three ways to improve institutional collaborative governance

We explored what actionable steps policymakers can take to improve their results with collaboration in fragmented systems. Our study offers three general practical recommendations based on the empirical literature that can enhance institutional collaborative governance.

First, institutional collaboration is more likely to emerge and work effectively when policymakers employ networking strategies that incorporate frequent, face-to-face interactions.

Government actors networking with popular, well-endowed actors (“bridging strategies”) as well as developing closer-knit, reciprocal ties with a smaller set of actors (“bonding strategies”) will result in more collaborative participation, especially when policymakers interact often and in-person.

Policy network characteristics are also important to consider. Research on estuary governance indicates that in newly formed, emerging networks, bridging strategies may be more advantageous, at least initially, because they can provide organizational legitimacy and access to resources. However, once collaboratives mature, developing stronger and more reciprocal bonds with fewer actors reduces the likelihood of opportunistic behavior that can hinder collaborative effectiveness.

Second, policymakers should design collaborative arrangements that reduce transaction costs which hinder collaboration.

Well-designed collaborative institutions can lower the barriers to participation and information sharing, make it easier to monitor the behaviors of partners, grant greater flexibility in collaborative work, and allow for more credible commitments from partners.

Research suggests policymakers can achieve this by

  1. identifying similarities in policy goals, politics, and constituency characteristics with institutional partners
  2. specifying rules such as annual dues, financial reporting, and making financial records reviewable by third parties to increase commitment and transparency in collaborative arrangements
  3. creating flexibility by employing adaptive agreements with service providers, especially when services have limited markets/applications and performance is difficult to measure.

Considering the context, however, is crucial. Collaboratives that thrive on informal, close-knit, reciprocal relations, for example, may be severely damaged by the introduction of monitoring mechanisms that signal distrust.

Third, institutional collaboration is enhanced by the development and harnessing of collaborative capacity.

Research suggests signaling organizational competencies and capacities, such as budget, political support, and human resources, may be more effective at lowering barriers to collaboration than ‘homophily’ (a tendency to associate with similar others in networks). Policymakers can begin building collaborative capacity by seeking political leadership involvement, granting greater managerial autonomy, and looking to higher-level governments (e.g., national, state, or provincial governments) for financial and technical support for collaboration.

What about collaboration in different institutional contexts?

Finally, we recognize that not all policymakers operate in similar institutional contexts, and collaboration can often be mandated by higher-level authorities in more centralized nations. Nonetheless, visible joint gains, economic incentives, transparent rules, and equitable distribution of joint benefits and costs are critical components of voluntary or mandated collaboration.

Conclusions and future directions

The recommendations offered here are, at best, only the tip of the iceberg on valuable practical insight that can be gleaned from collaborative governance research. While these suggestions are consistent with empirical findings from broader public management and policy networks literatures, much could be learned from a closer inspection of the overlap between ICA studies and other streams of collaborative governance work.

Collaboration is a valuable tool of governance, and, like any tool, it should be utilized appropriately. Collaboration is not easily managed and can encounter many obstacles. We suggest that governments generally avoid collaborating unless there are joint gains that cannot be achieved alone. But the key to solving many of society’s intractable problems, or just simply improving everyday public service delivery, lies in a clearer understanding of how collaboration can be used effectively within different fragmented systems.

1 Comment

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One response to “How can governments better collaborate to address complex problems?

  1. Pingback: Practical Lessons from Policy Theories | Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

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