Politics and Collaboration

  • Brian ShreckEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-31816-5_2521-1


Civic Engagement Deliberative Democracy Alternative Dispute Resolution Wicked Problem Democratic Legitimacy 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



For many, the word “collaboration” probably conjures some image of multiple parties working together to achieve some mutually desired end, a shared effort to achieve a goal in which each party has a shared stake. Indeed, this is largely consistent with what we talk about when we discuss collaboration in the context of public administration and public policy. Very broadly speaking, in public management, policymaking, and governance, collaboration is often used as a tool for organizing the efforts of multiple groups or individuals working together in a manner that is typically cooperative and deliberative, as opposed to adversarial and hierarchical. Choosing the exact terminology here can be problematic because there are so many different terms that have been used in the literature to describe collaboration in the context of governing. Common terms represented in the literature might include, collaborative governance/management, networked government/management, comanagement, cooperative federalism, negotiated regulation (RegNeg), stakeholder partnership, participatory governance, civic engagement, and others too numerous to name here.

Similarly, there are as many theoretical frameworks for defining and explaining the dynamics of collaboration as there are unique terms. Thus it would not be possible, or even useful, to recapitulate all of these varied frameworks here. With that in mind, this entry will focus on a very broad survey of the diverse ways in which collaboration is constructed in practice and in scholarship, drawing from a few of the most common models in the literature, and distilling them into a broad framework that will serve as a basic introduction to the topic while providing some possible directions for further reading for those who wish to gain a deeper understanding.

The next section outlines the background of collaboration in public administration and policy, situating it within the broader context of the tension between bureaucracy and democracy, highlighting the proliferation of collaboration in the literature over the past few decades and briefly introducing the theoretical frameworks that produced this movement, as well as the movement’s underpinnings in democratic theory. That section will be followed by one that explores the structure and dynamics of collaborative frameworks, focusing on questions related to who participates and how decisions are made.

Background and Basic Framework of Collaboration in Politics

Collaborative governance, policymaking, and management have proliferated in both the practice and scholarship of public administration over the past 20–30 years. Indeed, many argue that collaboration constitutes the new paradigm in democratic governance, particularly regarding regulatory policymaking, pointing to claims that collaboration has greater democratic legitimacy than the top-down, command-and-control alternatives. This is certainly true in particular policy subsystems, such as endangered species habitat management, which is now done almost entirely through collaborative partnerships between the federal government, state and local governments, private land owners, and conservation interest groups. The classic command-and-control style of regulating issues such as environmental and natural resources policy has long caused consternation among scholars and practitioners concerned about the consequences for democracy of unelected administrators exerting influence over matters of public policy (see, for example, Wilson 1991). At the core of collaborative concepts is the goal of uniting diverse groups of stakeholders – sometimes from historically opposing interests – to make public policy or manage public programs and resources in a way that is more cooperative and less coercive than traditional top-down command-and-control approaches through deliberative consensus building. The collaborative approach is frequently employed in an attempt to solve “wicked problems.” Rittel and Webber (1973) coined this term to describe their view that nearly all social problems are inherently different from scientific or technical problems and thus cannot be solved in the same ways. Wicked problems are those that can neither be neatly defined nor objectively solved. In contrast to “tame problems,” such as mathematical equations and engineering tasks, public policy problems are subject to multiple definitions and interpretations by multiple interested parties, making the identification of objectively correct resolutions impossible.

The nature of these types of thorny, complex problems in which varied interests are involved is that they frequently result in stalemate between the interested parties. In environmental and natural resources problems, for example, the result is frequently a prisoner’s dilemma, or a scenario in which perverse incentives to overuse or fail to protect the resource prevail. Garrett Hardin (1968) famously decried the resultant depletion of resources as the “tragedy of the commons.” He illustrated this point with an example of a common grazing field on which a group of local shepherds graze their sheep. Each shepherd is allowed to graze a particular number of sheep on the commons, and if each farmer complies with this agreement, the commons will be sustainable. However, without monitoring and strict enforcement, each shepherd has an incentive to graze additional sheep so long as she believes she will not be caught and punished. The result is that all of the farmers overgraze the commons and it is quickly destroyed, rendering it useless. Hardin, and contemporaries such as William Ophuls (1977), argued that the only means for preventing the tragedy of the commons was for central governments to implement rigid, top-down resource use regimes and to enforce them with their monopolies on the use of force. Implicit in these arguments are assumptions about human nature that have their roots in early modern political thought, particularly the social contract theory that emerged from the work of the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who argued that strong central sovereign authority is essential to avoiding perpetual violent conflict.

However, more recent influential work in political science and economics has challenged these assumptions by showing that there are alternative methods of breaking the stalemate of the prisoner’s dilemma that do not rely – or do not rely directly – on central authority. This work, which proceeds from two major theoretical frameworks in political science, has been the impetus for the collaborative revolution in public policy, administration, and management. First, Elinor Ostrom challenged Hardin in her influential book, Governing the Commons (1990), in which she argues and shows empirically that when small groups of users of common pool resources – such as Hardin’s grazing commons – communicate, deliberate, and make credible commitments, they can form self-enforced agreements that manage the resource sustainably in everyone’s best interest, without resorting to the necessity of the state to maintain order through threat of force. This work resulted in a theoretical framework that is used to analyze the structures and rules of the institutions that such agreements produce. This Institutional Analysis and Development (IAD) framework has served as the basis for much of the theory on stakeholder collaboration. For a more thorough review of the IAD framework, readers might refer to Ostrom (2007).

The other body of theory in which much of collaborative theory is based is the Advocacy Coalition Framework (ACF) developed by Sabatier and Jenkins-Smith (1993), which explains policy change over long periods of time as a process of learning and as a negotiated process among varied stakeholders inside a policy subsystem. ACF theory, particularly its components that have most heavily influenced scholarship on collaboration, is deeply rooted in the literature on alternative dispute resolution. One of its core elements is the idea of getting away from the idea that any dispute between opposing stakeholders is a zero-sum game, in which one player’s gain necessarily comes at the loss of the other.

While these two main frameworks have guided much of the empirical work that has been done on collaboration, the popularity of collaborative governance also grows out of the deliberative democracy movement in political theory (e.g., Sabel et al. 1999). Again this harkens to apprehension over the power of the bureaucracy in democratic governance and an effort to build democratic legitimacy into the process. For deliberative democrats, opportunities for citizens and stakeholders to participate in the process of governing in a way in which all reasonable voices are heard and no one individual or group dominates the process comprises the cornerstone of democratic legitimacy (see, for example, Dryzek 2000; Fishkin 1991). Collaboration, with its deliberative, participatory component, meets this criterion for these advocates of deliberative democracy. Where collaborative theory is influenced by more general democratic theory, however, it places an emphasis on the outcomes of collaboration and is critical of an approach that focuses on consensus as a goal in itself. It is also worth noting, however, that collaboration became popular amid the early 1980s conservative backlash and the Reagan era of American conservatism. As Layzer (2012) points out, American conservatives define themselves in opposition to the government intervention in markets that characterizes New Deal liberalism, preferring instead to align themselves with neoliberal principles that emphasize market-based solutions to public problems.

While collaboration has been most studied, and perhaps most used, in the setting of environmental policymaking and administration, such as local watershed management and other natural resources issues (e.g., Heikkila and Gerlak 2005; Leach et al. 2002; Lubell 2004; Thomas 2003), it has also been studied in many other substantive contexts. Agranoff and McGuire (2003) study public-private collaboration over local and regional economic planning. Nicholson-Crotty and O’Toole (2004) study the use of interagency collaboration in law enforcement. Provan and Milward (1995) study local and regional collaborative networks for the provision of mental health services. And these are just a few examples selected to illustrate the diversity of the policy arenas in which collaboration has been both used as a practical tool and analyzed by public administration and policy scholars.

The Structure of Collaboration: Who Participates and How?

Who participates in a collaborative governance endeavor varies greatly depending upon the context of the particular arrangement. In fact, some scholars of collaboration even define collaborative governance in ways that are contingent upon who is participating or who initiates the collaboration. For some (i.e., Ansell and Gash 2008), collaborative governance exists when one or more governments – or government agencies – engage with one or more nonstate stakeholders in an effort to make policy or manage public goods. By contrast, others (i.e., Emerson et al. 2011) do not make assumptions about who initiates the collaboration or who participates, instead articulating a much broader definition that might include nearly any combination of public and/or private parties.

In addition to variation in the composition of collaborative governance endeavors, there is also a great deal of variation in the structure of collaborative arrangements. This variation can be seen in the level of formality of the connections between various actors, the level of institutionalization that binds the actors together, and the level of formality of the outcomes. In some cases, the goal is to produce a decision that will have the force of law. In other cases, the outcome might be a legally binding contract between the involved parties. Alternatively, sometimes the agreement might be much less formal, backed by little more than a handshake, mutual trust, and perhaps some self-monitoring and self-enforcement mechanisms. Stakeholder collaboration in practice ranges from very informal collectives of interested parties coming together, as in a local watershed partnership or irrigation cooperative, to highly formal and institutionalized partnerships between federal agencies, state and local agencies, and various interest groups, such as in habitat conservation planning under the Endangered Species Act. With this kind of diversity in collaboration, it is easy to see why the field has struggled to produce one, integrative framework that explains it in all its forms.

However, one common element between nearly all collaborative governance endeavors is an agreement among stakeholders that the status quo is no longer tenable and that multiple perspectives must be taken into account in determining a solution in order to move beyond adversarial processes and produce an outcome that is acceptable to all relevant parties. This desire to set aside antagonistic relationships in order to build consensus incentivizes groups to compromise and make concessions in order to build consensus because one dissatisfied party can choose to affect the process from the outside by bringing litigation against the other parties. This is why the alternative dispute resolution (ADR) movement, which was built on the concept of resolving conflicts through mediation, has been so influential in the study and practice of collaboration (see Emerson et al. 2003).

Therefore, like any other attempt at policy change, attempts at collaborative governance begin with a problem, debates and negotiations over the definition of the problem, and a consensus that a change from the status quo is necessary, even if not all parties initially agree on what form that change should take. The next stage in the process is typically to identify all relevant stakeholders and invite them to participate in the collaboration. There are, of course, a few practical concerns here. First, there are practical limits to the number of individuals and groups that can effectively negotiate together. It is easy to imagine, for example, that there might be literally hundreds of individuals and groups that might wish to have a say in the crafting of something like a regional habitat conservation plan that will have important implications for the preferences of all sorts of people and groups, including local governments, conservationists and nature lovers, individual landowners, construction firms and other contractors, realtors, public interest advocates across the political spectrum, scientists, educators, and countless others. It is easy to see that a negotiation process among this many varied stakeholders could quickly become unwieldy and collapse under its own weight. For this reason, in practice individuals and groups are often chosen as representatives of broader interests, much in the same way that elected officials are chosen to represent the interests of larger constituencies. However, often in these situations efforts are made to ensure that all relevant interests are represented, for fear that a dissatisfied group that feels its voice was not heard might bring litigation against the final decision.

This of course comes with one important caveat. Groups and individuals deemed to be unreasonable are frequently intentionally sidelined. If a group is perceived as being unwilling to compromise or as making unreasonable demands, its participation will likely not be invited. One of the driving forces that is frequently listed as an important determinant of collaboration in analyses in the literature is the history of the relationships between the actors, which of course is a leading factor determining the level of mutual trust between them. Trust has been theorized to be one of the most important variables in fostering an environment in which successful collaboration can take place (e.g., Heikkila and Gerlak 2005; Lubell 2004). In addition to historical relationships between actors, other factors also determine this level of trust, such as norms of consensus, beliefs that the process is fair, and a belief that a failure to cooperate would result in mutual stalemate (Leach and Sabatier 2005). So, groups and individuals join a collaborative effort when there is some baseline of trust that the other parties are negotiating in good faith, that the process will be fair, and that their voices will be heard, and those who are perceived as not being able to live up to these requirements are frequently left out.

Another important component of collaboration that has received a great deal of attention is the role of scientific information in defining problems and evaluating alternatives (Heikkila and Gerlak 2005). In order to solve any policy problem one must first understand its causes. Similarly, in order to weigh alternatives for action one first needs to understand their effects. Scientific data thus constitute an integral part of any policy or management decision. The role of science features particularly prominently in studies of collaboration because one of the chief complaints about the classical regulatory approach leading to the proliferation of collaborative alternatives was that it lacks the flexibility to incorporate ecosystem-specific scientific data into the policymaking and management processes. Scholars of collaboration have shown that scientific information spurs policy action through increasing concurrence on problem salience (Heikkila and Gerlak 2005). In other words, good technical information helps stakeholder partners broadly agree on the importance of the problem at hand.


Collaboration has been an important tool for solving difficult social and political problems over the past few decades. Going forward into the future, its usage is likely to increase and broaden as more public and private stakeholders in all policy arenas seek new options for breaking old policy stalemates and solving new and increasingly complex problems. Collaboration can often be a useful tool for bringing varied interests together to work cooperatively and deliberatively to come up with solutions to problems on which the same parties have historically disagreed.

In the literature on collaboration in public administration and policy one will find dozens of different very specific definitions of collaboration and other terms meant to connote collaboration. One will find as many frameworks for describing how collaboration emerges and how the internal dynamics of a collaboration work. Covering all of these in any detail would be beyond the scope of this brief entry. Thus this entry has provided a brief introduction to the concept of collaboration and how it has been applied to public policy and administration problems. Ultimately, in the broadest sense, collaboration in this context is what occurs when multiple individuals or groups from various perspectives come together in a process that is deliberative, in which everyone has a voice and no one group or individual is dominant, and which seeks to find a consensus solution that all can live with. There are various forms that this might take in practice, ranging from very informal to highly formalized and legalistic. And there are sometimes limits placed on who is invited to participate and at what level. Who is invited to participate will be determined by multiple factors, including who might take legal issue with the final decision, historical relationships and mutual trust between parties, perceived levels of reasonableness of an individual or group’s demands, and efforts to appoint certain groups or individuals as representatives of a broader constituency with similar interests. Participants then deliberate and debate about the problem, possible alternatives for solving the problem, and the interpretation of scientific and technical data. For further reading on collaboration, or for a deeper treatment of any particular theoretical framework of collaboration, the reference list below would be a useful place to begin.



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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Texas Tech UniversityLubbockUSA