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WHAT IS THE VALUE OF CONTINUED RESEARCH IN COLLABORATIVE GOVERNANCE? WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
In this brief note, I would like to make two quick observations on the concept of collaborative governance.
First, in the governance landscape, all levels are important but the local level (i.e., community) is the key. This is the level at which governance arrangements, interventions, and outcomes take shape and impact most, both primarily and/or ultimately. I view the local level as the abode of governance. This is the level where governance comes to life, interfaces with real world challenges that it needs to address, gains momentum if nurtured and recognized, and thrives to move forward into other spheres (i.e., levels ranging from state, regional, national and global, and covering political, societal, economic, environmental and cultural realms) to create networks of multi-scalar relationships, collaborations and linked governance arrangements.
Second, governance is best understood within a human-environment context. If that is so, can human-environment connections be used as a measure of collaborative governance? I would argue that ‘yes, it should be considered so’ and for good reasons. Connection between the components of the environmental and human systems is characterized as a relationship between ecosystem services and human well-being, and this needs to be maintained. Inversely, human-environment disconnection results from the destruction of the physical, psychological, economic, and political relationship between people and their environment as well as among each other. Can collaborative governance foster ‘connections’ and help eschew ‘disconnections’. These questions place human-environment connection (or disconnection) at the heart of governance. A true governance arrangement is one that can imbibe the stewardship of the human-environment connections. A responsible researcher can offer helpful ingredients for the upkeep of that stewardship and its core values.
Collaboration continues to be viewed as an appropriate mechanism for policy development and implementation by practitioners. Rhetoric surrounding collaboration with respect to participation, knowledge inclusion and principled debate appeal to our popular democratic sensibilities. However, collaboration has largely failed to shift traditional, entrenched hierarchical decision-making patterns, except in situations where all actors are truly out of other options.
Over the past two decades, voices questioning whether or not the time and effort invested in collaboration will yield measurable differences in environmental conditions have grown in number and volume. The better, more implementable, environmental solutions that were predicted have proven elusive. However, collaboration is producing significant social benefits which, when measured over longer time scales, may have the potential to shift cultural values and support a broad push for changes in environmental conditions through traditional electoral systems. At the same time, it may prove that collaboration is exactly what its critics claim: a mechanism for quieting critics through a veneer of participation that masks ongoing elite-level decision-making.
If collaboration is going to continue as a favoured policy solution, and there is no reason to suspect that it won’t, continued research on collaborative governance should move beyond examining how to craft the perfect collaborative process and begin to examine how collaboration is nested within the broader political economy. It is only by determining how collaborative outcomes are fitting into the larger policy landscape that we will be able to determine how collaboration is being used and whether or not it is worth the significant investment of time and resources that it demands.
Collaboration – it seems that everyone is doing it these days. Collaboration is in favor with many governments, international donors, environmental non-governmental organizations and multinational corporations. For that reason, I think there is value in researching collaborative governance.
What is all of the fuss about? In general, collaboration is a form of governance that involves some combination of government, industry, non-governmental organizations and/or members of the public in decision-making. Membership and process can vary significantly. Some forms of collaboration use deliberation and consensus to develop public policy while others emphasize information sharing and aligning strategic organizational goals. Collaboration is often described as being ideally suited to situations in which no sole actor possesses the relevant authority and expertise to tackle a given challenge, such as complex environmental problems related to water, climate change, fisheries and forestry governance.
There are few studies that systematically evaluate the actual environmental outcomes of collaboration. As such, it is difficult to determine whether collaboration furthers sustainability – the overarching goal of environmental governance. That is a significant problem considering that collaboration is often suggested as ideal for complex environmental governance challenges. Assessing the kinds of environmental outcomes that collaboration yields or applying some form of sustainability assessment to collaboration, paying attention to longer-term outcomes, so that we can answer that question, is one path forward. That collaboration is in favor with such a diverse set of actors, yet little is known little about whether collaboration contributes to sustainability, is another puzzle that warrants some attention.
In the context of climate governance “… all the purposeful mechanisms and measures aimed at steering social systems toward preventing, mitigating or adapting to the risks posed by climate change” (Jagers & Stripple, 2003, 388) collaborative approaches are an important part of this steering process. This is particularly true in cases where there may be intransigence by those institutions with formal rule-making authority to actually exercise power and authority. Collaborative risk governance is a way to engage in sense making, power sharing, action, and learning (May & Plummer, 2011). Collaboration can occur within a polycentric approach which uses any of four different governance styles – rigid, robust, fragile, and flexible, as appropriate (Duit & Galaz, 2008). A blended approach may actually increase overall adaptive capacity.