Collaborative Governance 2.0: Building Buy-In Through Context and Transparency

Governance is a process through which decisions are made and implemented on a particular project or plan. Good governance is characterized by accountability, transparency, responsiveness, inclusiveness, and is consensus-oriented. But, it involves what some have called "an initial contradiction," that is, those who seek out a governance structure inherently hold more power and more information. 

But this contradiction is why participatory collaborative governance is critical to success.

In our work with clients on any number of projects, the dynamics of each team have varied greatly. But there are clear patterns that emerge, as well as clear challenges.

The vast majority of teams suffer from a lack of context and a lack of direction. They also lack the power and responsibility to make necessary changes. As such, buy-in is hard to come by, and as a result, outcomes suffer. 

Good governance is particularly necessary when multiple, independent organizations work together to achieve a common purpose, such as a collaboration or strategic alliance. In such an arrangement, it is unlikely that a single, central authority can effectively identify, understand, acknowledge, and address all of the different organizations’ varying needs, capabilities, priorities, or preferences.

We've also come across the occasional team who says, "Wait! We've got an effective self-governing team." 

To that we'd say, "Not so fast."

In any team, there are people who have power, and that power is what one author so aptly called "lumpy and consensual." 

"Authority comes as a role, not as a job; it is temporal and consistently re-evaluated. This means that the question of distributing power or “installing self-governance” is not only relevant for initiatives seeking to transition, but also for healthy self-governing teams where power needs to be re-distributed on a regular basis (which, in a healthy self-governing team, is pretty much all the time)."

In any governance structure, every team member needs context. They need experience. They need enough information to be genuinely empowered and feel an unwavering sense of ownership of the project, and more importantly, the outcomes. After all, as someone once said, "True consensual ownership is an evolutionary process, not something you install." 

Consensual ownership is not just about power. It's also not just about responsibility. The key is distributing both quickly... but not too quickly.

But, if you do that too fast, people will object, citing a lack of context, direction and leadership. (Power and responsibility distributed without context is perhaps better than some alternatives, but tends to take the group backwards, cause frustration and drop out, repetition of mistakes, resentment, and a sense of abandonment. Let’s presume the goal is to avoid this). On the other hand, if you distribute power too slowly, then you trend towards the problem above, of reinforcing authority.

You also need people who are wiling to receive this power. Collaborative responsibility (“taking ownership”) requires that people opt in, that they consent to this responsibility. This requires context, or how could they know what they are consenting to. This also requires participation.

But if not too fast, how fast?

The best advice we've heard is this: "Distribute power as quickly as you can distribute context and transparency." 

So how do you do it and do it well to ensure improved relationships and operations among the multiple organizations, as well as improved communication and confidence among stakeholders, as well as better decisions, better cooperation, and better outcomes?

You formalize a proven, thoughtful collaborative governance process rooted in shared responsibility, context, transparency, and consensus.  If a collaborative governance process is designed to assure meaningful participation, is inclusive of stakeholders, has clear ground rules, is conducted with transparency, and assures accountability, it will allow the organizations to build trust, cooperation, improve communication, and result in successful outcomes.

When designing a collaborative governance process, it is necessary to fully understand the dynamics that exist among the multiple organizations, identify the drivers of those dynamics, and design a process to address those. Organizations need to identify the important elements and outcomes to assure the process is designed to achieve them.

It is also necessary to identify and acknowledge the factors that could prevent a successful collaborative governance process. These include addressing any concerns that the collaborative governance process is intended to limit or prohibit the independent activities of a partner organization or concerns that decisions will not really be made in a collaborative fashion. It may also be necessary to educate participants on the dynamic under collaborative governance. This may be especially necessary if participants are used to operating in a hierarchical decision-making framework.

Collaborative governance requires investment in the process. This includes not only time commitment by participants, but also financial and administrative support and project management.

A final note: collaborative governance is dynamic. It is not a single process to put in place, not something to “install” and walk away. It’s something to continuously cultivate, something that will always be evolving and changing with the members of your community.