SECTION 1: Definitions, Context, and Dynamics

In this section, we define collaborative governance and put it in a historical, legal, and behavioral context. We examine how collaborative governance is similar to and different from traditional governance structures and how it can play a role in a more democratic society. We also explore some of the behavioral and group dynamics that frequently play out in collaborative governance processes.

In chapter 1, we define collaborative governance, distinguishing it from traditional governance and other forms of collaboration and grounding it in six definitional norms. In chapter 2, we examine collaborative governance in a constitutional context and consider some of the foundational critiques of collaborative governance. In chapter 3, we introduce the three typologies of collaborative governance and begin to explore how the differences and similarities among them might be significant in designing and executing processes on the ground. Finally, in chapter 4, we walk through some of the fundamental dynamics of collaboration and how they play out among the participants in collaborative governance processes.

This section is the most theoretical of the three in this book, drawing on a variety of disciplines and traditions to locate collaborative governance both in time and in aspiration. Even so, our purpose for exploring the theoretical underpinnings of the field is primarily to inform and enrich the practice of collaborative governance. In the end, it is the practice that defines and describes collaborative governance and also determines whether collaborative governance lives up to its democratic potential.

Definitions and Descriptions


Because the field we have come to know as collaborative governance was born out of necessity and grounded in practice first, scholars are often playing catchup, attempting to define the term in a way that is consistent with political and administrative theory that also rings true to practitioners working in communities. Though the practices we would now identify as the fundamentals of collaborative governance began to spread in the United States as early as the 1970s, the corresponding theory has only started to fully blossom over the past couple of decades.

Our interest here is in defining and describing collaborative governance in a way that: (1) highlights the relationship to and differences from traditional governance structures and practices; (2) sets it apart from forms of cooperation or joint action less tied to public purpose; and (3) roots it in practices that confer democratic legitimacy, more satisfying and fair experiences for stakeholders, and improved outcomes for communities.

In order to dramatize some of the choices at stake, we offer an example from our own work here in Oregon—the Tillamook Bay Flooding Reduction Project. Tillamook County is a northwestern Oregon coastal community named for a band of the Salish people who lived in the region. The city of Tillamook itself lies just to the west of the Coast Range, near the mouth of Tillamook Bay. The economy of the area is deeply dependent on dairy farming and the manufacture and marketing of dairy products such as milk, cheese, yogurt, and ice cream.

Five rivers descend through the Coast Range—which separates the ocean from the Willamette Valley—and then converge in Tillamook County just before they spill into the bay and then into the Pacific Ocean. Combine all that water with nearly 200 inches of rain per year, and flooding—sometimes catastrophic flooding—becomes a regular occurrence. Between 1996 and 2000, Tillamook County—with its population of 25,000 people—suffered $60 million in flood damage. Then, in December 2007, two typhoons met up over the central Pacific before they slammed into the Oregon Coast. Tillamook County was deluged with nearly seven inches of rain over two days, blocking access to the county from three sides and causing power outages that lasted for nearly a week in some communities. The county suffered $26 million in damages from that storm alone.

Over the years, a number of agencies deployed traditional flood management tactics. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, for example, constructed and maintained jetties and spillways as part of its mission to “deliver vital public and military engineering services ... and reduce risks from disasters” (“Mission”). But the cycle of storms and flooding continued, causing millions of dollars in damages and leaving the community increasingly frustrated with government’s lack of effective response. In previous years, other federal agencies had tried to work with local stakeholders to address the problem in a more holistic way, but those unsuccessful efforts were seen by many local leaders as a federal intrusion on local autonomy and actually worsened working relationships.

As a result, in 2006, the governor of Oregon asked a state senator and a local county commissioner to convene a multi-sector collaborative governance group1 to consider how better to mitigate flooding and its effects in the Tillamook Basin. He also invited our center (NPCC) to serve as a collaborative platform and provide facilitation staff. The goal of the group was “to develop and implement a plan to reduce flooding and the adverse impacts of flooding while incorporating environmental, social and economic values in the development of short- and long-term solutions” (“Tillamook”). The group included representatives from five federal agencies, seven state agencies, and several local governments, as well as team members from the nearby community college, the county farm bureau, several associations focused on environmental concerns, and representatives from the dairy industry.

As the group began meeting, there were many different opinions about how best to address flooding in the region. Though some team members openly expressed cynicism about the possibility of success, the collaborative governance group brainstormed almost twenty possible projects to reduce impacts of flooding in the region. Through an iterative year-long process in which the team worked together both in committees and as a full group, the team eventually agreed on nine projects to address flooding, which led to a $1 million appropriation from the Oregon Legislature to support their efforts. Once the collaborative governance group had agreed to the projects, they entered a second phase that focused on working together to implement them. Eight of the nine projects were eventually implemented, culminating most recently in a large-scale flood relief and habitat restoration project, which demonstrably reduced flooding impacts and restored thirteen miles of coho salmon habitat.

The experiences in Tillamook and other case examples set out in this book illustrate the breadth and depth of collaborative governance on the ground. Here we seek to explore that breadth and depth without struggling too much with definitional strictures. Others have done an excellent job of attempting to pin down working definitions in order to avoid some of the sloppiness and inconsistencies born out of a rapidly evolving field.

Chris Ansell and Allison Gash, in their groundbreaking 2008 article, “Collaborative Governance in Theory and Practice,” defined collaborative governance somewhat narrowly, placing government in the center. Collaborative governance, as they defined it, is “a governing arrangement where one or more public agencies directly engage non-state stakeholders in a collective decision-making process that is formal, consensus-oriented, and deliberative and that aims to make or implement public policy or manage public programs or assets” (544).

More recently—and more broadly—Kirk Emerson and Tina Nabatchi defined collaborative governance to be “the processes and structures of public policy decision-making and management that engage people across the boundaries of public agencies, levels of government, and/or the public, private, and civic spheres to carry out a public purpose that could not otherwise be accomplished” (2).

Though we find both of those definitions theoretically and philosophically helpful, for our purposes, the most important definition of collaborative governance ultimately resides in how it is practiced. On the surface, collaborative governance often looks like a group of public-spirited individuals sitting around a table staring at a flip chart. As a result, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish collaborative governance from many other forms of cooperative human activity. Subtle distinctions are meaningful, and the quality of the design and deliberation make a big difference in whether the work of the group meets its promise as an innovative democratic practice or whether it bypasses accountability measures to jeopardize the group’s legitimacy or whether it is just an ineffective and frustrating set of meetings with no clear purpose and fuzzy outcomes. Small decisions really matter.

Throughout this chapter and the ones that follow, we distinguish between three types of collaborative governance processes: (1) agreement seeking, (2) collective action, and (3) collaborative systems. While any given group may engage in multiple types of collaboration, there are certain characteristics of each type that are helpful in defining and describing—and distinguishing between—particular collaborative governance groups. We go into greater detail about the collaborative governance typologies in chapter 3, but we offer a brief description here to clarify some of the distinctions we make later in this chapter. First, agreement-seeking processes stem from what is sometimes known as multi-party dispute resolution. Although not all agreement-seeking collaborations involve high-conflict issues, those projects typically look and feel the most like multi-party consensus processes. Second, in collective action cases, the desired action or set of actions has more or less been agreed upon by the group, but no one agency or entity can implement the strategy on their own. The collaborative group is convened to determine both how the project will be implemented and what each stakeholder will contribute to the implementation. Finally, sometimes there is a need for a longer-term venue for collaborative problem solving. That group can be focused on agreement-seeking or collective action or both. We refer to these types of groups as “collaborative systems.”

In this chapter, we take a prismatic approach to defining collaborative governance in an effort to avoid rigid definitions while also dramatizing some of the choice points that collaborative governance groups frequently face. First, we explain why we think it is important to distinguish between true collaborative governance and other less publicly oriented forms of collaboration. Second, we set forth the six definitional norms that are both aspirational and rooted in practice. Finally, we examine the role of the “collaborative platform” and take on the question of “neutrality,” which has traditionally been considered a hallmark of legitimate collaborative governance but has the potential to replicate institutional racism and other injustices.

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