Five: The Power of Collaboration
The United States has continuously evolved the process of governing itself.
One of the earliest evolutions was political parties, unanticipated in The Constitution, yet now a staple in our political life.
One hundred years later, the Industrial Revolution brought on Independent Agencies, called that because they were ‘agents’ of the Executive Branch. The first such Agency was the Interstate Commerce Commission, created in 1905 to regulate the burgeoning railroad systems that were spreading over all the United States in a chaotic way.
By the time of Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930’s, such agencies were popularly called ‘alphabet soup’ because they became known by their initials: the Civil Aeronautics Board [CAB], the Securities Exchange Commission [SEC], etc. Those agencies blanketed the nation, states, counties and towns, and an APA (Administrative Practices Act) followed to deal with inevitable disputes and issues.
By the 1990s, hundreds of federal agencies covered virtually every activity of business and citizens alike (for a complete list of federal agencies, visit <a href="http://www.usa.gov/Agencies/Federal/All_Agencies/index.shtml" target="_blank">usa.gov</a>. And the functions or purviews of many of these agencies are replicated in each state, with innumerable municipal variations increasing the overall presence and reach of government agencies to spectacular levels.
As the 21st century approached, however, it became apparent that size, number and reach were not enough. Government agencies, accustomed to exercising explicit authority in narrowly-defined areas, lacked the tools, expertise and resources to tackle problems that reached beyond their parochial boundaries, or that required approaches beyond the "bidding and contracting" that typify the work product of most agencies.
From this recognition, some new ways to handle the complexities of modern society began to emerge. One was the realization that managing modern society went beyond the capacity of government alone. The term ‘governance’ began to be used to reflect the fact that the management of modern society had to encompass a process that included government and the private sectors at the same time. The term Public/private cooperation began to be popular – for example partnerships between transportation departments and corporate sponsors to clean up and maintain highways.
As public/private cooperations grew in numbers, their constraints were revealed. The core problem was the limited time, resources and other commitments the parties could bring together, particularly profit-making companies that had economic limits on their investments in and for public good. Yet, the basic idea of the different sectors [government, profit and the not-for-profit] working together for the public good was accepted and began to take root. Some legal issues relating to church and state and government sponsored religion made it difficult for churches to do things they were eminently qualified to do, but even that problem seems to have been overcome.
Then something else that seemed to be new began across the country, generally on an ad hoc basis, in which communities concerned with school services, hospitals and regulation of drugs, prisons, parks and hundreds of other day-to-day communal, essential services experimented with more robust types of cooperation and partnerships between and among themselves and agencies of government. Those arrangements were more formal, with longer time horizons, more significant exchanges of resources and, very importantly, sharing of discretion. These new efforts were largely local and were developed to cope with the many problems that had previously bogged down their efforts to manage their world. There was little or no precedent, known [or at least recognized as such at that time] or sought or applied, for the players in those scenarios, so they used plain old fashioned American ingenuity to navigate the unknown.. Ultimately, those efforts manifest yet another evolution of governance, now being called collaborative governance.
As it happens in our history of institutional developments there have been a number of examples and precedents that might then have been described as collaborative governance. But, somehow that abstract aspect of their ‘being’ remained in most cases, even to this date, unrecognized. The Smithsonian in D.C. is a fine example of collaborative governance and has been so since 1846; it has both public and private trustees; it relies on both public and private resources, money, land and buildings; it has a permanent charter/contract; it has shared discretion between the sectors –Congress and the Executive Branch and private citizens.
Similarly, the New York Public Library since 1905 has had many of the same characteristics as the Smithsonian.
When you think about it, you might ask why those famous examples evidently failed to produce progeny in less prominent situations in everyday life, particularly with profit-making corporate partners. Well, in recent years there have been lots of examples mainly with not-for-profit partners– but they were never recognized as a general phenomenon worthy of a description.
That is beginning to change. More and more, academics, proponents of government reform and even government itself are recognizing the promise and potential of collaboration. The Obama administration, with its strong "government 2.0" sensibilities, has some bold thinkers in the area, including Beth Noveck, who's leading the administration's Open Government Initiative. There are similar standouts in the business, academic and non-profit sectors -- people who not only see the future, but are striving to make it a reality.
In 1945, physicists evolved a form of fusion that changed mankind. Now, others are evolving collaborative governance structures into a form of societal fusion which, in the best cases, can far exceed their component parts. That's what we mean when we say "2 + 2 = 5." Collaboration can change the equation.
It is my hope that the Collaborative Exchange will serve as a watering hole for this nascent movement; a place for thinkers, practitioners, proponents, and others to come together to share ideas, experiences, thoughts and strategies.