Defining Success

What does success look like in a collaborative governance process? As Emerson and Nabatchi have noted, evaluation of collaborative governance has measured both substantive accomplishments and the relationships that arise out of the processes (185). This approach conforms with Robert Bales’ conclusion that successful groups exhibit behaviors that attend to both the task and to relationships (or process). Keeping both task and relationship in mind, our four criteria for success include: (1) real public benefits, (2) equity and fairness; (3) process-focus and efficiency; and (4) improved relationships.

We should emphasize that success in a collaborative governance context is not binary. There are degrees of success (or failure). However, while a collaborative process that accomplished only one of the four criteria might not be considered a failure, neither would it be much of a success. Achieving all four criteria should be the goal of any collaborative governance process.

Real Public Benefits

As set forth in chapter 1, a governance group must be seeking to achieve a public purpose in order for their work to be collaborative governance. In the case of agreement-seeking, this means the collaborative governance group reaches an agreement on the key policy issues. In the case of collective action, it means cocreating an outcome, project, or program that is bigger, better, faster, or cheaper, and one that would not have come about without the collaboration. The results should be real and tangible, the more specific the better.

In the case of collective action, what constitutes real public benefits can be deceptive. Too often, groups exhibit interaction patterns that are akin to the behavior in young children known as “parallel play.” When very young children start to play with others, often they are able to play in the same sandbox, but one is building castles, while the other is playing with a truck. They share the space and get along, which is good, but they are not collaborating. The next stage is more like “integrated play,” where one child might build a tunnel or a bridge in the sandbox for the other child to use for the truck, thereby enhancing the experience of both.

Parallel activity in collaborative governance is when parties come together and share what each is doing on a certain problem or issue, but their relative contributions are disconnected, the impact is cumulative rather than integrated. The resulting public benefit may be measurable, but it is not particularly collaborative. Nobody is really doing anything different than they would have done otherwise, and in many cases, the outcomes might well have occurred without the collaborative process. This is not to say that sharing information about what everyone is doing is inherently unproductive. It certainly can serve to spur later integrated actions and can help build relationships, but it is only a starting point if the goal is to gain the full value of collaboration.

In a collective action process, the work of the collaborative group becomes more integrated when the parties seek to identify what we refer to as “complementary assets.” These are resources that when combined, produce a result that is better than the sum of the parts. It is only through this integrated work that the real synergistic potential of collaborative governance can be realized, a potential we will explore further in chapter 10.

In addition, the public benefits of collaboration are real only as long as they are sustained. A collaborative governance process will be successful to the extent that agreements hold over time. Indeed, it is this staying power that many argue is one of the key advantages of collaborative governance. Agreements made collaboratively are far less likely to be reversed in the next election cycle, and the transparency of commitments that are made by people sitting across from one another in a public setting adds to this staying power. Taking steps to retain what might be called the collaborative memory of the group, for example, by posting agreements on a website or reconvening the group periodically after the project is completed, is important for ensuring the continuity of those public benefits.

We have observed collaborative processes where no agreement on the key issues was reached or no substantive public benefit was gained, but participants still pointed to improved relationships as a successful outcome. We believe this stretches the definition of success, and that tangible public benefits should be the primary goal of any collaborative governance process.

Equity and Fairness

The second substantive criterion for success is a fair and equitable outcome. While the definitional norms we presented in chapter 1 emphasized the fairness and equity of the process, here we look to the outcome to define success. We have previously described collaboration as an exchange between parties (of resources, information, benefits, and so forth). Fora collaboration to be successful, particularly in the long term, the distribution of costs and benefits among stakeholders needs to be fair and equitable and perceived as such. If it is not, then a collaborative agreement is unlikely in the first place, or at least will not build social capital for future exchanges.

Considerable research has identified fairness as one of the principal motivations that influence interactions with interdependent others (Eek and Biel 197). This concern for fairness helps explain why some parties act in ways that are different than would be expected if they were only looking at their own short-term self-interest. That is, they will often accept an outcome that is less beneficial to them in order to achieve a more equitable outcome for the group. Conversely, parties will sometimes walk away from a deal that would benefit both sides if they perceive the distribution of benefits is unfair or inequitable (Rand et. al. 2581).

For groups involved in agreement-seeking, this sensitivity to fairness manifests itself as an often unwritten (and unspoken) goal that there should be relative symmetry in the degree to which the parties “move northeast.” In a collective action process, for example, Eek and Biel suggest that a fair distribution of contributions to the public good takes into consideration both the ability to pay and the level of interest (198).

In our classes, we utilize a variation of a game described by Nowak and Highfield (209). In our variation, a group collectively invests in a fund to combat climate change, while still trying to conserve funds for other societal needs. The object of the exercise is for players to conserve as many of their own resources as possible, while still adequately addressing climate change. If the group’s combined investment in the climate fund does not reach a certain threshold amount after ten years (with years represented by rounds of the game), every player loses all funds (presumably because climate change brings catastrophic costs that wipe out everyone’s treasury).

As one group of students played the game, they needed a substantial investment in the last round in order to avoid catastrophe. One participant, though he had given liberally in earlier rounds of the game, chose to give zero dollars in the last round. As a result, the group failed to reach the minimum threshold in the fund and he (and everyone else) lost everything. We were a bit puzzled and asked his reasoning. He replied, somewhat indignantly: “I already gave my fair share earlier.”

It should be noted that perceptions of what constitutes a fair outcome will quite often vary among parties (Raiffa 268), and the definition of fair is often not synonymous with equal. In the levee repair project we have referred to before, several jurisdictions decided to share costs for a major engineering study that affected them all. However, some jurisdictions were much larger than others, so splitting the costs of the study equally did not seem particularly fair. After a brief deliberation, the group members agreed to each contribute between $100,000 and S500,000, depending on their relative size and perceived degree of benefit. As mentioned before, the discussion of what constituted a fair distribution got more serious once the stakes got higher. Before the project could move to the next phase, the group spent months negotiating a more precise and complicated cost-distribution formula. They were ultimately able to move forward, but only after each party felt the distribution was fair.

Although there are many factors that drive fairness and perceptions of fairness, we note that collaborative governance processes often intersect with systems that are historically discriminatory and inequitable. In the United States, for example, Black people, Indigenous people, and other people of color may be asked to collaborate with institutions that play a part in systemic racism. A collaborative group may well need to consider that history in attending to the fairness of its outcomes, as well as to the process itself.

Toward this end, the concept of “targeted universalism” may be useful in settinggoals and measuring outcomes: “Within a targeted universalism framework, universal goals are established for all groups concerned. The strategies developed to achieve those goals are targeted, based on how different groups are situated within structures, culture, and across geographies to obtain the universal goal” (powell et al. 4). In the case of collaborative governance, it means that the group must not only be attentive to the shared goals, but also to how those goals will play out for each subpopulation in the group. The targeted universalism framework allows decision-makers—including collaborative governance groups—to disaggregate the needs of communities and demographic groups and make decisions accordingly. That kind of disaggregation allows collaborative governance groups to respond to the needs of historically underrepresented groups, and it applies in a variety of other contexts, as well. As we mentioned in chapter 5, a group of small towns and residential areas on the Oregon Coast have been working together to address a recent surge in the local elk population that has created safety concerns. All of the towns share the goal of better management of the local elk population, but each town is not affected equally by the problem, nor should the solutions or the financial resources allocated to the problem be applied equally. The solution needs to take each local area’s situation and needs into consideration for the outcome to be fair.

Process-focus and Efficiency

Collaborative governance can often be challenging and time-consuming. Not letting the process drag on unnecessarily is a way of improving its value to stakeholders. Process-focus and efficiency is, therefore, a third criterion for success.

By bringing stakeholders together, collaborative governance actually reduces what economists refer to as transaction costs for parties who would otherwise still need to interact. The collaborative group interactions replace otherwise sequential interactions, reducing time to complete certain tasks (Jones et al. 921). Further, the trust and reciprocity produced by repeated face-to-face interactions, as was discussed in chapter 4, also help bring about collaborative agreements more quickly and easily. That trust and reciprocity help prevent the group from having to renegotiate the agreement every time the balance of power shifts.

Nevertheless, collaborative governance usually demands a substantial investment of time for the participants, sometimes involving months or even years of work, not to mention actual investments of money or other resources. The transaction costs can be particularly burdensome for low-income communities and organizations with limited resources. For the collaboration to be seen as worth the effort, the benefits need to outweigh the costs. And, while participants rarely, in our experience, perforin an actual calculation of those costs and benefits, they are constantly weighing the fundamental question in their minds: Is the time spent in these meetings worth the effort?

The point here is that the whole team needs to take a rigorous approach to the process in order to reduce unnecessary transaction costs. By utilizing best practices, groups can avoid endless meetings or discussions that seemingly lead nowhere. A prime example of the difference that process-focus and efficiency can make is the Lower Columbia Solutions Group, mentioned in earlier chapters. Before they entered into a formal collaborative governance process, some of the members of that group had been trying for years to resolve their differences, but like a lot of groups, were more focused on defending their positions than finding shared solutions. Consequently, little progress had been made on the issue of where and how to deposit dredged sediment. They finally decided to invest in one intensive multi-day session, professionally facilitated and co-con-vened by the Oregon and Washington Governors’ Offices. Using the principles and best practices of collaborative governance, they were surprised at the results. “We made more progress in three days,” said one political leader, “than we’ve made in the previous ten years.”

Efficiency and efficacy also help lead to a more equitable process. Black people, Indigenous people, other people of color, and other historically underrepresented communities are often asked to donate their time to represent their communities or to stretch the resources of small organizations in order to participate in processes that are adjacent to the organizations’ core missions. For many such organizations, time and capacity are at a premium. A focused and efficient process might make it easier for grassroots and culturally specific organizations to participate. On some occasions, collaborative governance groups have also offered stipends for participation for smaller organizations or individuals or have created other ways for those organizations to stay connected to the process, even if they are not able or do not want to participate as group members.

Efficiency aside, there will be occasions when a collaborative governance group simply needs to invest the time to get everyone up to speed on critical information, ensure broad participation, build trust, or explore creative solutions in order to move the process forward. In difficult circumstances, finding “northeast” can take time, and that investment of time at the front end is necessary to reaping efficiency dividends later on when agreements are implemented. We are not suggesting that these important investments of time be eliminated.

However, the group dynamics discussed below are specifically designed to reduce unnecessary transaction costs (that is, time spent in meetings) without sacrificing either substantive or relational outcomes. When best practices are not used, groups can become mired in endless meetings and unproductive, drawn-out processes. Indeed, if a process drags on and on without much progress, the commitment of the parties wanes, the relationships suffer, some stakeholders are no longer able to participate, and substantive agreements can actually become more difficult to achieve. Apprehension over these transaction costs is, in fact, often a barrier to parties deciding to pursue a collaborative approach.

Improved Relationships

We are all familiar with public policies forged through court decisions or legislative actions that have come at the expense of the relationships between the affected parties. In a collaborative governance process, the substantive public benefits can and should be gained while actually improving relationships and increasing social capital, ultimately improving stakeholders’ capacity to work together on future-related issues and perhaps even their willingness to work across divides in other unrelated public settings.

What does it mean to improve relationships and increase social capital? In its aspirational form, it means that each party feels heard, understood, and respected by the other parties, even when there are divergent interests or opinions. It means that the parties understand the underlying interests and values of others and where those converge with and diverge from their own. It means that the parties are comfortable expressing and working through differences of opinion with each other. And it means there is an atmosphere of trust and reciprocity, with a sense that the process was fair.

As set forth in previous chapters, the beginning of the collaborative governance process involving the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge was rife with distrust. The participants began tentatively, suspicious of each other because of a history of acrimony and legal action. Then, discovering they shared a common concern about invasive fish species in Malheur Lake, they built upon that issue to slowly and steadily increase levels of trust. That improved relationship had a spillover effect on subsequent issues, as ranchers, federal agencies, and environmental groups all continued working together to solve other problems and issues, including undertaking a collective response to a major range fire a few years later. This social capital and collaborative capacity came into even sharper focus during the community’s response to a group of outside protesters who took over and occupied the Malheur Wildlife Refuge (ostensibly in support of local ranchers). The community’s rejection of the protesters’ approach is well documented by Peter Walker in his book, Sagebrush Collaboration: How Harney County Defeated the Takeover of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge.

As it did in Harney County, collaborative governance should not just solve the problem at hand, but should also enhance the community’s collaborative capacity, in other words, its ability to solve the next problem, by improving working relationships between stakeholders.

Real public benefits, fairness, process efficiency, and improved relationships—those four criteria are the standards of success we look for in collaborative governance. Let’s now turn our attention to the attributes that enable groups to meet those standards.

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