Business of Government Stories
Tuesday, August 4, 2020
“Many of the most important problems we face simply do not match the institutions we have created to govern them,” said public administration scholar Donald Kettl more than a decade ago.

And the governmental response to the COVID-19 pandemic seems to bear out his observation.

Over the years, he has observed that many challenges—such as responding to disasters, organizing the delivery of services to disabled individuals, and orchestrating a response to climate change—have no single organization in charge. As a result, the traditional bureaucratic institutions defined by hierarchical agencies and programs that were so successful in the past are no longer adequate for challenges today that span across organizational boundaries.


What are the key components of collaborative governance? John Kamensky explains.





Fortunately, a number of the foundational elements for collaborative governance have quietly evolved over the past three decades. The urgency of the coronavirus pandemic may provide the impetus needed to accelerate their use.

Background.  The concept of “collaborative governance”—that is, working jointly across the traditional boundaries of governmental agencies, and between the public and private sectors—has proven an effective strategy for implementing selected policy initiatives over the past three decades. The descriptive terms for this approach vary: networks, collaborations, partnerships, horizontal government, boundary spanning, joined up government, and more. However described, the key components include:

  • Providing a unified response among players with independent power bases, such as in our federal system of shared power and responsibilities.
  • Using formal or informal networks as opposed to reorganizing existing bureaucracies and hierarchies.
  • Using different collaboration models, depending on the situation.Some are organic, voluntary bottom-up networks.Others are entrepreneurially-inspired agency-based networks.While others are statutory, top-down networks.

These components and models have evolved over the years beginning with a series of pilot efforts during the 1990s as part of the Reinventing Government movement. More recently, statutory authorities have helped legitimize their use, and led to the creation of governance institutions, administrative routines, and staff capacity.

Piloting Bottom-Up and Agency-Based Networks in the late 1990s, the National Partnership for Reinventing Government (NPR) piloted the use of collaborative mechanisms to demonstrate their value.  These early efforts could be characterized as “bottom up” partnership networks – that developed more organically based on the interest of participants.  These were organized as communities of practice and were relatively small in scale with 35-40 “nodes,” or communities, involved.  For example, the Boost4Kids community of practice, which was organized by NPR staffers Pamela Johnson and Bev Godwin, focused on improving results for kids, such as school readiness, health insurance, and better nutrition. Network participants included not only a range of federal agencies, but also a number of foundations and nonprofits. Thirteen localities pioneered the community, and each brought state, local, and nonprofit partners to the table, as well. Each locality also developed a “performance partnership” with a federal agency champion to help measure results and cut red tape. At the time, the technology was not sufficiently advanced to scale these networks larger, and when the individuals involved left, the network gradually faded.

The reinvention effort also saw efforts at interagency collaboration.  For example, several land management agencies agreed to share staff and resources in common geographic locations.  For example, in Colorado, the National Park Service, the US Forest Service, and the Bureau of Land Management attempted to work across geographic boundaries but found statutory and budgetary constraints to being able to collaborate.

Other agencies undertook collaborative efforts, as well, to advance their specific missions.  For example, James Lee Witt, the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, launched “Safe Construction” networks – bringing together the developers of building codes, the insurance industry, and states and localities – to reduce the scale and cost of natural disasters such as flooding in low-lying areas. However, after the end of the Clinton administration, this effort was abandoned when the champions left government.

So, while there were a number of pilots during the 1990s to demonstrate the value of collaborative governance arrangements, they were not sustainable over longer periods of time because of their inability to scale, changes in leadership and priorities, and administrative and legal barriers.

Development of Top-Down Approaches in Early 2000s. The Bush Administration didn’t set out with an agenda to use collaborative governance approaches.  In fact, it undertook major agency reorganizations in the intelligence community and the created the Department of Homeland Security as its approach to achieving greater cohesion and coordination in the area of counter terrorism.

In general, the Bush Administration’s approach to collaborative governance was more top-down in nature. And its focus was more on national security and counter terrorism rather than the coordination of social services. For example, it formalized collaborative approaches for addressing time-bound incidents, such as natural disasters, via the incident response command system. While this approach was developed decades earlier to fight forest fires, it was institutionalized as the preferred response approach to other forms of disaster.

The Bush Administration also supported cross-sector collaborative approaches via the use of national strategies, such as the National Cybersecurity Strategy (updated in 2018) and (ironically) the 2005  National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza.  These strategies were national, not just federal, in scope and were used as a way to bring together all sectors to address a common challenge.

In addition, the Bush Administration experimented with hybrid organizational approaches such as the use of the heterarchy model at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, by its director, Julie Gerberding.  This model allowed staff and resources to be shifted from the individual Centers in an emergency response to a rapid response team – and after the incident, resources would shift back to their traditional home units.

In most cases, except for the Incident Command System, these various efforts faded after their leadership champions left at the end of the Bush Administration. However, the lessons learned from these approaches were applied in coming years.

Institutionalized Governance via Use of Priority Goals. Early in his administration, President Obama’s Open Government initiative placed a premium on the use of collaborative approaches. This led to the institutionalization of several specific initiatives, most prominently the creation of cross-agency priority goals.

The Government Performance and Results Modernization Act of 2010 directed the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to “work with agencies to develop federal government priority goals that aim to improve performance and management across the federal government.” Congress also authorized the designation of cross-agency goal leaders and required quarterly tracking of progress of a limited number of long-term cross-agency priority goals that would be updated or revised every four years, because Congress recognized that such goals “will require sustained focus over a period of time.”

Subsequently, the Obama Administration developed a set of 15 cross-agency priority (CAP) goals, under the leadership of OMB’s Beth Cobert and Lisa Danzig, to comply with this new law and put a governance structure and interagency teams in place to implement them. The subsequent Administration, under the leadership of OMB’s Margaret Weichert, developed a set of 14 CAP goals and these are currently being implemented.  Examples include: improving customer experience with services provided by the federal government, reforming the governmentwide security clearance process, and modernizing infrastructure permitting. OMB is also supporting the development of staff capacity for these goals, with individuals skilled in working across organizational boundaries.

In addition to the CAP goals, legislation in different policy areas has incorporated the use of collaborative governance approaches.  For example, a 2009 law created networks providing a continuum of care for homeless. These networks are comprised of multiple community-based or self-organized organizations representing the public, private, and nonprofit sectors that work together to address homelessness within their communities. A number of these networks pre-existed the federal program, but they were able to expand as a result of the program. In 2014, about $1.8 billion in funding was provided to nearly 400 networks involved in planning, providing, and tracking the effectiveness of a range of services to eliminate homelessness.

What’s Next?  The institutional structures are largely in place to expand the use of collaborative governance approaches, but they tend to be more robust in time-bound situations, where a collaborative initiative has a defined end point. Models still need to be developed that will sustain collaboration over time for non-time-bound issues, such as the delivery of person-centered social services.

Interestingly, we are seeing some institutionalization of non-time-bound networks via use of platform models to organize and delivery internal government services.  The most prominent example is the development of shared service networks. Platforms are electronic business models that have become a foundation for virtually frictionless transactions and interactions between “many-to-many”—like eBay, Facebook, Airbnb and Uber. Digital platforms may presage the future of how collaborative governance evolves. The lessons offered stem from the experiences of the many pioneers in the field of collaboration.

The National Academy of Public Administration’s recent recommendations propose a number of steps to expand the use of collaborative governance in targeted areas such as Integrated service delivery, helping veterans transition to civilian life, helping the homeless, overcoming opioid addiction, and protecting vulnerable children. Its report envisions the federal role to be more of an orchestrator, defining portfolios of services, programs, and strategies.  It also identifies ways the federal government could reduce barriers to collaboration by changing its programmatic approaches to support blending and braiding of federal dollars and data.


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Business of Government Stories

The past 30 years provides important lessons both for today’s leaders and for those of future administrations. Little has been written about the role leaders and teams have played in the evolution of management reforms. We are starting a series called “Business of Government Stories” where we will narrate the stories of many of the most influential events that have shaped government over the past generation. Our series will focus on the people behind this management evolution and feature a podcast with reflections on the stories behind these reforms.

Learn more about our stories and read previous posts.