Collaborative governance may sound like little more than a buzz phrase, but it can be a valuable tool in bringing about effective urban regeneration.

It was about four years ago, and the concept was pitched in a blog I was reading at the time – something about community engagement. I moaned. The word governance, in my view, has always been tossed around in our planning and urbanism-related banter somewhat loosely, whether it be with regard to corporate sustainability, urban development, or stakeholder engagement circles. Furthermore, in most cases, the term “governance” is preceded by the words “lack of.”

After three years of research (including numerous webinars, six books, a plethora of blog articles, and about 20 scholarly articles) and two and a half years of practice, it turns out that the term “collaborative governance” is a ‘stayer’ for me. It seems it’s been around for a very long time, but we (or maybe just I) didn’t know it. It is, in my humble opinion, the key to unlocking a more collaborative, transparent and successful approach to urban regeneration.

It’s been behind many successful projects delivered over the years (such as Millennium Park in Chicago), and I am currently 12 months into shepherding a cohort of North American redevelopment projects through a collaborative governance process based on a new tool kit we will release next year.

If you’re a newcomer to collaborative governance, here’s my “Collaborative Collaborative Greatest Hits” – a collection of informative tidbits, sound bites, and clippings from my own head-first journey into the topic.

Let’s start with some classic definitions of collaborative governance, with the first coming from Chris Ansell  and Alison Gash’s 2007 paper Collaborative Governance in Theory and Practice. Ansell and Gash describe the concept as “a governing arrangement where one or more public agencies directly engage non-state stakeholders in a collective decision-making process that is formal, consensus-oriented, and deliberative and that aims to make or implement public policy or manage public programs or assets.”

John D. Donahue and Richard J. Zeckhauser more recently described collaborative governance as “carefully structured arrangements that interweave public and private capabilities on terms of shared discretion” in their 2011 book Collaborative Governance: Private Roles for Public Goals in Turbulent Times.

However, my favorite definition heralds from the land down under from John Dengate, Max Hardy, Vivien Twyford and Stuart Waters in their book The Power of Co: The Smart Leaders’ Guide to Collaborative Governance:

“Collaborative Governance demands the sharing of both power and trust. It also requires a belief in people and their strengths, clear leadership and inclusive processes,” they wrote, adding that it is “…in essence, appreciative, informative, deliberative and iterative.”

And to the nature of this beast?

According to Ansell and Gash, collaborative governance “has developed as an alternative to the adversarialism of interest group pluralism and to the accountability failures of managerialism.” They also describe the emergence of collaborative governance “as a response to the failures of downstream implementation and to the high cost and politicization of regulation.”

That last comment really made my antennae stand up, as this speaks to my world of urban regeneration, and the complex and challenging process of having stakeholders share ownership, commitment, and resources in delivering strategies that build more sustainable neighborhoods, and ultimately sustainable cities.

Urban regeneration is at times very adversarial. It can be led by top-down decision-making, a barrage of rules and regulations, and industry mindsets that are reluctant to change. So you can see why my interest in collaborative governance is as high as it, as the merits “frequently identified include broader participation, more deliberation, mutually beneficial conflict resolution, trust-building among participants, and better balance among diverse interests” according to Peter J. Robertson and Taehyon Choi in their 2009 paper Self-organization and Responsiveness: A Simulation of Collaborative Governance.

When it comes to decision-making, “the process of public decision-making in collaborative governance is self regulating in nature” according to Carl Folke, Thomas Hahn Per Olsson and Jon Norberg in their piece Adaptive Governance of socio-ecological systems, first published in the 2005 Annual Review of Environnment and Resources. That concept is something many public agencies are freaking out about, I am sure.

Donahue and Zeckhauser clearly highlight that collaborative governance is not for everyone.

“When well applied, the collaborative approach can be a powerful lever for creating public value,” they wrote. “But it is often misunderstood – confused with conventional contracting or charity, or merged with wooly conceptions of public-private partnership – by policy makers and the public alike.”

In their study into self organization and responsiveness within collaborative governance arrangements, Robertson and Choi posed a fundamental research question, wondering “whether participants in collaborative governance can reach collective decisions while reconciling the conflict between responsiveness to the constituents they represent and responsiveness to the general public.”

So whilst on paper collaborative governance may seem an ideal approach to project development, it can be done wrong. My friend Christopher Ansell from University of California, Berkeley, identifies what might be considered as some process thresholds, those fundamental conditions that need to be understood and embraced, namely:

  • Stakeholders agree to come to the table
  • Stakeholders recognize other stakeholders as legitimate interlocutors
  • Stakeholders have a commitment to the collaborative process itself
  • Stakeholders develop a sense of “joint ownership” of the process.

And on a practical framework for collaborative governance, well, it’s hard to go past the five-step model articulated in The Power of Co – The Smart Leaders’ Guide to Collaborative Governance, which presents the following process:

  • Commit to collaboration – by exploring the prevailing mindset, illuminating existing strengths and opportunities, and signing a statement of collaborative intent
  • Co-define the dilemma – by identifying stakeholders, scoping the dilemma, issue or problem together and describing success from all the diverse stakeholder perspectives
  • Co-design the process – by sharing process options, considering context and resources and co-designing an appropriate and workable governance structure and engagement process
  • Co-create solutions – solutions by exploring options, evaluating impacts and deliberating decisions
  • Co-deliver actions – by determining governance structure for implementation, agreeing stakeholder roles, responsibilities and accountabilities.

My close friend Wendy Willis, from Kitchen Table Democracy out of Portland, Oregon, regularly reminds me that collaborative governance is only effective in context, and that it represents “a set of processes and structures for communities to address public problems that can’t be easily solved by one organization or sector alone.”

As for some final thoughts, I finish with Donahue and Zeckhauser:

“Collaborative governance harnesses all of America’s capacity – public and private, for-profit and nonprofit, employee and volunteer – to the pursuit of the common good. And it unleashes the unpredictable resourcefulness of an entrepreneurial people to improvise fresh, flexible solutions. It encourages private engagement in public missions, and is optimistic – but not naive – about the potential for sharing responsibility while ensuring accountability.”