A Fork in the Road

Stone soup

Collaborative governance

Audio: We've been hearing from people about government becoming more collaborative. It's harder than it sounds, because governments are not set up to be collaborative or share information. Listen audio (runs 6:48)

Don LenihanDon Lenihan

Governments are at a crossroads - caught between voters' demands for lower taxes, on the one hand, and the demand, often by the same group, that the cost not be borne by cutting public services.

This week in our series, A Fork in the Road, we've been looking at a third way - of collaborative governance.

Collaborative government has been getting a lot of ink and attention in the world of policy-making and academics. But it's not easy to do, says Don Lenihan of Canada's Public Policy Forum in Ottawa.

"Governments are increasingly aware the world has changed," says Lenihan, "but not only are they not good at collaboration, and I mean what I am about to say - they are designed to prevent it."

From privacy concerns to accountability rules around government budgets, Lenihan says government is compartmentalized to eliminate sharing information or resources.

"If I'm responsible for spending a piece of the budget," says Lenihan, "I don't give it to the guy in the next cubicle to spend. I spend it, I report on it, and it's my piece of the pie. So we break everything up in little pieces and that's the way we run government."

But in an era of increasing complexity and diminishing public funds, Lenihan says it's no logner working.

The challenge for governments is to develop new tools that will allow departments to make decisions together to create more effective public policy and get the most mileage out of public resources.

The alternative, says Lenihan, is bleak. "We basically retreat. We say government can't do very much, and I think we start giving up on it, and we find there's less and less that government can do."

The alternative to giving up

Joe MihevcJoe Mihevc

Toronto city councillor Joe Mihevc encounters those obstacles in municipal government every day.

Government, by its nature, says Mihevc, is hierarchical and centralizing rather than collaborative. Efforts to work together are further hampered by the fact that, as Mihevc puts it, "an engineer in the Public Works department doesn't have the same vocabulary as someone in Public Health. And someone in Public Health doesn't speak the same language as someone in Parks and Rec."

And yet, collaboration is key not only for more effective public policy but for any municipal politician trying to win the necessary votes at City Council for a project in their own ward.

Mihevc says he learned the art of collaboration as a young theology professor at a multi-sectoral institute in Lima, Peru, working with marginalized people.

In an impoverished economy, says Mihevc, collaboration is born out of need and often begins with the church.

"The church is very often involved," says Mihevc, "because of the total absence of civic administration of any form of government whatsoever, except perhaps the military or the police."

Intense collaboration with groups representing the entire range of community interests often result, says Mihevc, because "nothing gets done without making sure the women's community - the moms - are part of it, or the students."

Stone soup development

Tony DeanTony Dean

Mihevc calls it "stone soup development". While no one group can pull off a project on its own, working together they may have the resources to pull off some good projects.

Difficult as it is for Western governments to adopt a more collaborative approach, Tony Dean, formerly Ontario's top public servants, writes, "There are clear trends emerging in Canada and abroad that signal what the future will look like."

Dean, former Secretary of the Cabinet in the provincial government says we can expect services to become more citizen and user-focused – services that citizens themselves will have been more involved in designing. Digitizing of information such as patient records will continue to grow and will help eliminate errors as health and community services begin to have access to real-time data.

The cost of online services will fall "from dollars to cents per transaction", and user satisfaction will also grow. Duplication of federal, provincial and municipal services will also be reduced.

Health, community and social services, in particular, will become more integrated, together with far fewer examples of people "falling through the cracks".

And finally, says Dean, those services will indeed not be provided by government alone - but by a network of public institutions, non-profit groups and increasingly, social enterprises.

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The story of stone soup

Stone Soup

A traveller came to a village, carrying nothing more than an empty cooking pot. Upon his arrival, the villagers were unwilling to share any of their food. The traveller filled the pot with water, dropped a large stone in it, and placed it over a fire.

One of the villagers became curious and asked what he was doing. The traveller answered he was making "stone soup", which he said tasted wonderful, although it needed a bit of garnish to improve the flavour.

The villager did not mind parting with a few carrots to help out, so that was added to the soup. Another villager walked by, inquired about the pot. The traveller told her his stone soup had not reached its full potential yet. The villager handed him a little bit of seasoning to help out. More and more villagers walked by, each adding another ingredient. Finally, a delicious and nourishing pot of soup was enjoyed by all. (source: Wikipedia)