Table of Contents:

Collaborative Systems

In broad terms, we refer to the third type of collaborative governance processes as collaborative systems. The defining features of collaborative systems are: (1) they involve ongoing work that extends beyond a single decision or project, and (2) they fulfill the need for ongoing relationships and repeated interactions between the parties over time. Some collaborative systems are initially formed as a short-term collaborative governance group focused on either agreementseeking or collective action. As the group progresses, the participants discover additional decisions or projects that would benefit from a collaborative approach, so they band together to create a more long-term system. Other collaborative systems are created by a formal authority such as a state legislature or an administrative agency, and the process must be designed to meet the formal requirements.

Our version of collaborative systems is similar to Emerson’s and Nabatchi’s notion of “collaborative governance regimes.” As they define it, a collaborative governance regime is “a system for public decision making in which cross-boundary collaboration represents the prevailing pattern of behavior and activity” (10). The authors go on to provide a comprehensive overview of how collaborative governance regimes function, with a particular emphasis on how they are initiated and the implications of those beginnings for the collaborative governance regimes.

For our purposes, we draw a distinction between collaborative systems and the other types of collaborative governance processes for two reasons:

First, collaborative governance systems are more likely to be a hybrid of the other two types of collaborative governance processes. In other words, it is more typical for a collaborative governance system to undertake both agreementseeking and collective action over its lifespan. Watershed councils are some of the most enduring collaborative systems in Oregon. There are fifty-nine community-based watershed councils, funded by state government and charged with developing and implementing a watershed action plan (Oregon Revised Statutes, sec. 540.910). Each watershed council is made up of residents, landowners, environmental organizations, scientists, government representatives, and other relevant stakeholders. The purpose of each council is to address watershed health “from ridgetop to ridgetop.” Together, the participants first use a collaborative agreement-seeking model to develop a watershed plan and then use collective action principles to implement that plan, often engaging many community members beyond those on the council, including school groups and other volunteer organizations. They complete the cycle by monitoring watershed conditions and adjusting the plan and the implementation accordingly.

Second, we distinguish between collaborative systems and the other two types of collaborative governance groups because collaborative systems can sometimes require a more formal decision-making structure or even a new legal entity. The biggest challenge in a collaborative system is loss of focus and integrated action. Once the initial decision is made or project is complete, the group may want to continue to meet, but the purpose of the group can drift. Once a group drifts from a clear purpose, meetings can become a tedious round of informationsharing rather than a robust forum for ongoing collaboration. In addition, there is a secondary risk that the collaborative system can become so habituated and ossified that it becomes another bureaucratic layer that lacks the trademark nimbleness and responsiveness of collaborative governance.

In order to reduce the risks of a collaborative system becoming either unfocused or ossified, it is important that participants revisit their interdependence and the values driving their collaboration. It is also helpful to create a structure that touches on the following components:

  • • The group’s purpose;
  • • The appropriate entity type;
  • • The powers and duties of the group;
  • • The form and function of a governing body for the group;
  • • The structure, purpose, and rules for any committees;
  • • The method for making decisions and for resolving disputes (Johnson et al. 5).

Though many of the components are similar to the components of an ordinary, shorter-term collaborative governance process, it is important for the participants in a collaborative system to revisit earlier decisions regarding how they do their work and either reaffirm them or alter them to better suit a collaborative system.

As part of that review process, it is essential for participants in a collaborative system to determine what type of entity the group will become. If the collaborative system is a continuation of a group that meets regularly to discuss issues and occasionally act together, that system can probably function as a loosely structured committee or task force. If, however, more external accountability is required or the group needs an ongoing fundraising mechanism, the group may need to draft an intergovernmental partnership or even form a nonprofit organization or intergovernmental agency. In general, the more complex the decision-making and the more necessary external accountability is, the more formal the structure will need to be (Johnson et al. 13-19).

Once the entity is formed, the participants can better determine how the collaborative system should be structured and how it will do its work. For example, if the group forms a nonprofit corporation, there will be formal governance requirements that will not be required of a less formal coalition or committee of participants. By attending to structural issues first, the participants in a collaborative system can mitigate the tendency toward either drift or ossification.

There is one final distinction regarding collaborative systems. Because collaborative systems often have no set endpoint, it is important for the group to periodically evaluate their work and the efficacy of their framework. As Emerson and Nabatchi noted, collaborative regimes have “life cycles” that require adaptation and perhaps eventual disbandment (19). The collaborative governance group should stay attentive to that life cycle. Upon review, it may be that either the purpose of the group has evolved or the group has outgrown its original structure. The group should then go through another process to determine the right entity type and resulting governing system. The group should also stay alert to the possibility that a collaborative system may have served its purpose and run its course.


A deep dive into the intricacies of each of these collaborative governance types could span an entire book. But for our purposes here, we see these types as interlocking categories of practice grounded in theory, and throughout the following chapters, we continue to illustrate how and when the practice of collaborative governance might differ depending on the type of process at hand.


Emerson, Kirk, and Tina Nabatchi. Collaborative Governance Regimes. Georgetown UP, 2015. Fisher, Roger, and William Ury. Getting to Yes: Negotiating an Agreement Without Giving In.

Arrow, 1991.

Johnson,Jim, et al. Building a Collaborative Governance Framework: A Five-Step Process. National Policy Consensus Center, Portland State University, 2020.

Olson, Mancur. The Logic of Collective Action Public Goods and the Theory of Groups. Harvard UP, 2012.

Ostrom, Elinor. Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action.

Cambridge UP, 1990.

Sirianni, Carmen. Investing in Democracy: Engaging Citizens in Collaborative Governance.

Brookings Institution Press, 2009.

Susskind, Lawrence, and Jeffrey L. Cruikshank. Breaking the Impasse: Consensual Approaches to Resolving Public Disputes. Basic Books, 1989.


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