Collaboration as an approach towards good governance: experiences from China and the USA

Karen N. Eggleston, John D. Donahue and Richard J. Zeckhauser. 2020. The Dragon, the Eagle, and the Private Sector: Public-Private Collaboration in China and the United States. 311 pp.

Engaging non-governmental entities in public affairs has become a growing global trend in the recent decades (Bryson et al., 2006; Ansell & Gash, 2007). Inspired by the rapid development of public–private collaboration in the practice realm, public administration scholars are paying increasing attentions towards the topic of collaborative governance, making it one of the most prevalent research foci in the academia (Emerson et al., 2012; Lopes & Farias, 2020). Hence, Karen Eggleston, John Donahue, and Richard Zeckhauser (2020) bring us their new book The Dragon, the Eagle, and the Private Sector: Public–Private Collaboration in China and the United States, which is a great effort to enrich the academia’s knowledge about collaborative governance by providing an insightful theoretical framework and a detailed comparative study about China and the United States.

The three authors begin their discussion in the book’s first part with a conceptualization of collaborative governance. They contend that the core of the particular term is sharing discretion among the public, private, and tertiary sectors. This feature distinguishes collaborative governance from the other governance approaches and requires public agencies to deliberate their decisions whether to start a collaboration or not. In the second part of their work, the authors make an attempt to extract some common rationales from their observations about the two largest economies’ public–private collaboration practices in five typical fields, including railway transportation (Chapter 3), real estate development (Chapter 4), hosting the Olympic Games (Chapter 5), education (Chapter 6), and health care (Chapter 7). Transparency, as the most significant finding from the comparative study as well as a promising means to address problems in collaborative governance, is highlighted in the last part of this book.

A major contribution of this book is repositioning collaborative governance in the large public administration toolkit. In fact, it could be observed that more and more public agencies and researchers have a tendency to deem public–private collaboration as the core part of the governance theory (e.g., New Public Governance, see Sørensen & Torfing, 2017) as well as the nearly ultimate solution for most challenging societal problems in this Post-New Public Management era (Duit & Galaz, 2008; Sørensen & Torfing, 2011; Ansell & Gash, 2018). This kind of opinion might be encouraged by a series of academic investigations about the effects of collaborative governance. In some fields like environmental protection and urban management, empirical evidences have shown that public–private collaboration did bring diverse benefits for domestic governance nationally and locally, including creating more feasible, flexible, valid, and efficient policies (e.g., Scott, 2015; Ma et al., 2018), intensifying public trust in government (e.g., Liu & Xu, 2018), and endowing policy implementation with more legitimacy (e.g., Scott & Thomas, 2017; Mosley & Jarpe, 2019). In this context, Eggleston, Donahue, and Zeckhauser offer a great reminder for people to rethink the role of public–private collaboration in public governance and urge the academia to go back to the fundamentals of collaborative governance. Although collaborative governance has been observed to have merits for social welfare, the three authors argue that collaboration is essentially an optional governance approach adding to the “menu” of public administration rather than an ultimate solution for achieving good governance. The book establishes a spectrum of public–private interaction and puts collaborative governance at the very middle position on the spectrum, while the other two approaches, pure control by government (includes strict contracting indeed) and complete delegation towards non-governmental entity, occupy the two opposite ends of the spectrum.

Then, a question inevitably arises about which approach among the aforementioned three is most suitable for a specific public governance scenario. Throughout the authors’ discussion in this book, they keep emphasizing that public decision-maker has the obligation to consider this issue and compare all optional approaches before forging a public–private collaboration, as most practitioners and researchers overlook the necessity of this particular analysis before. The book proposes that the comparative advantage of government predominance in public service is the administrative agency’s strict attachment towards public value, namely the publicness. This feature of government makes it a right choice to supply the public goods with significant externalities directly by administrative organizations (probably through contracting under tight control without discretion sharing). By contrast, a complete delegation towards non-governmental entity, far from the other end of the governance approach spectrum, is superior in productivity efficiency, because the private and tertiary sectors usually have an abundance of expertise, deftness, and information for dealing with complicated public issues. Obviously, collaborative governance, at the middle position of the spectrum, represents a kind of attempt to combine both the comparative advantages of government control and volunteer philanthropy. Nevertheless, the authors establish an analyze, assign, design, and assess cycle model for public decision-makers to evaluate which governance approach should be selected in a particular scenario.

Besides, there is no gain without a loss. Integrating public and private provision of public goods into one governance approach creates a much more complex circumstance for government to face. The book asserts that all public–private interaction arrangements in governance process involve a principal–agent relationship and, inescapably, entail a principal–agent problem. It is also implied in the discussion of the book that discretion sharing among sectors adds to the difficulty of administrative agency to tackle the principal–agent problem in collaboration. Though the three authors do not explain explicitly why discretion sharing amplifies the principal–agent problem, the causality between them is accessible. The arrangement of collaborative governance, in which public agency is obliged to exchange their discretion for necessary information from non-governmental entities, produces greater information asymmetry compared with the other situations under government’s total control. Moral hazard in principal–agent relationship exactly stems from information asymmetry. Eggleston, Donahue, and Zeckhauser repetitively remind us of a reality that private collaborator always has a natural inner motivation to abuse the discretion that government shares to promote the private benefits. Without effective restraint from the government, non-governmental collaborators may utilize their discretion to pursue their private goals instead of public goals by “diverting payoffs to themselves from the public” and “substitute their own preferences for those of the overall community” (See Chapter 2). This goal replacement usually leads to a high probability of collaborative governance failure.

Eggleston, Donahue, and Zeckhauser use the second part of this book, including five chapters of comparing the public–private collaborations in China and the USA multidimensionally, to explore the potential solution for the principal–agent problem in collaborative governance. Comprehensive and exhaustive analyses in five disparate fields show dissimilar choices of China and the USA in selecting collaborators, adapting to institutional arrangements, handling legitimacy issues, and sharing discretion. However, most importantly, the three authors propose that from the experiences of both countries, transparency might be the universal key to ensure the success of collaborative governance regardless of domestic economic development or political institutions (see the third part of the book, i.e., Chapter 8). The authors believe that transparency could empower the citizens to have free rights of choice, support people’s interactions with non-governmental entities, and enable responsible criticism from the majority. Transparency also helps to transform public service into the ones which could be more easily monitored and assessed by government and citizens, making government more capable of urging its private collaborators to focus on creating public values. As the consequence, the information asymmetry in public–private collaboration could be weakened when government engages citizens in through information disclosure. According to the implications of the book, adequate information provision through open government data and other feasible means supports public agencies not only in avoiding their agents’ moral hazard issues but also in replicating successful collaboration experiences.

To conclude, the three authors have completed a great piece of work to revisit the intellectual foundations of collaborative governance and to develop the knowledge of this well-received topic. Though it meticulously compares and contrasts the collaboration stories in China and the United States, this book is more of a demonstration about the generic rules of the development of collaborative governance than an advocacy of ineradicable heterogeneity between the two countries. Especially for the readers from the western world, this book offers some excellent explanations about the administrative logics in China. For an instance, Eggleston, Donahue, and Zeckhauser insightfully link the two countries’ history with their choices in selecting collaborator and reveal the reason why Chinse government tends to cooperate with state-owned enterprises when the US government favors NGOs. The authors contend that both the two countries made their optimal choices of collaborator to seek legitimacy for public–private collaboration. This book could also inspire further discussions on potential factors besides transparency for handling the principal–agent problem in collaborative governance. Altogether, practitioners and researchers, regardless of their backgrounds, could all benefit from reading this new book.


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This work is sponsored by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (Grant No. 72004158) and Art, Humanities and Social Sciences Research Project of The Ministry of Education (Grant No. 20YJC630044).

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Correspondence to Yefei Hu.

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Hu, Y. Collaboration as an approach towards good governance: experiences from China and the USA. GPPG (2021).

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