“Who will make sure it doesn’t fall over?”
This was a question posed by someone in a workshop I facilitated, which brought together stakeholders (potential collaborators) who shared an interest in a water catchment.
It was a good question. In a collaboration, where equality between organisations is a value – and the pragmatic as well as philosophical truth is that everyone is only involved because they choose to be – what constitutes leadership? How do you avoid no-one taking responsibility because everyone is sharing responsibility?
If the collaboration stops moving forwards, like a bicycle it will be in danger of falling over. Who will step forward to right it again, give it a push and help it regain momentum?
Luxurious reading time
I’ve been doing some reading, in preparating for writing a slim volume on collaboration for the lovely people over at DōSustainability. (Update: published July 2013.) It’s been rather lovely to browse the internet, following my nose from reference to reference. I found some great academic papers, including “Collaborative Governance in Theory and Practice” by Chris Ansell and Alison Gash. This paper is based on a review of 137 case studies, and draws out what the authors call ‘critical variables’ which influence the success of attempts at collaborative governance.
It’s worth just pausing to notice that this paper focuses on ‘collaborative governance’, which you could characterise as when stakeholders come together to make decisions about what some other organisation is going to do (e.g. agree a management plan for a nature reserve ), to contrast it with other kinds of collaboration where the stakeholders who choose to collaborate are making decisions about what they themselves will do, to further the common or complementary aims of the collaboration (e.g. the emerging work of Tasting the Future).
Leadership as a critical variable
Ansell and Gash identify leadership as one of these critical variables. They say:
“Although ‘unassisted’ negotiations are sometimes possible, the literature overwhelmingly finds that facilitative leadership is important for bringing stakeholders together and getting them to engage each other in a collaborative spirit.”
What kind of person can provide this facilitative leadership? Do they have to be disinterested, in the manner of an agenda-neutral facilitator? Or do they have to be a figure with credibility and power within the system, to provide a sense of agency to the collaboration?
Interestingly, Ansell and Gash think both are needed, depending on whether power is distributed relatively equally or relatively unequally among the potential collaborators. It’s worth quoting at some length here:
“Where conflict is high and trust is low, but power distribution is relatively equal and stakeholders have an incentive to participate, then collaborative governance can successfully proceed by relying on the services of an honest broker that the respective stakeholders accept and trust.”
This honest broker will pay attention to process and remain ‘above the fray’ – a facilitator or mediator.
“Where power distribution is more asymmetric or incentives to participate are weak or asymmetric, then collaborative governance is more likely to succeed if there is a strong “organic” leader who commands the respect and trust of the various stakeholders at the outset of the process.”
An organic leader emerges from among the stakeholders, and my reading of the paper suggests that their strength may come from the power and credibility of their organisation as well as personal qualities like technical knowledge, charisma and so on.
While you can buy in a neutral facilitator (if you have the resource to do so), you cannot invent a trusted, powerful ‘organic’ leader if they are not already in the system. Ansell and Gash note “an implication of this contingency is that the possibility for effective collaboration may be seriously constrained by a lack of leadership.”
Policy framework for collaboration
I’m also interested in this right now, because of my involvement in the piloting of the Catchment Based Approach. I have been supporting people both as a facilitator (honest broker) and by building the capacity of staff at the Environment Agency to work collaboratively and ‘host’ or ‘lead’ collaborative work in some of the pilot catchments. The former role has been mainly with Dialogue by Design, and latter with InterAct Networks.
One of the things that has been explored in these pilots, is what the differences are when the collaboration is hosted by the Environment Agency, and when it is hosted by another organisation, as in for example Your Tidal Thames or the Brent Catchment Partnership.
There was a well-attended conference on February 14th, where preliminary results were shared and Defra officials talked about what may happen next. The policy framework which Defra is due to set out in the Spring of 2013 will have important implications for where the facilitative leadership comes from.
One of the phrases used in Defra’s presentation was ‘independent host’ and another was ‘facilitator’. It’s not yet clear what Defra might mean by these two phrases. I immediately wondered: independent of what, or of whom? Might this point towards the more agenda-neutral facilitator, the honest broker? If so, how will this be resourced?
I am thoughtful about whether these catchments might have the characteristics where the Ansell and Gash’s honest broker will succeed, or whether they have characteristics which indicate an organic leader is needed. Perhaps both would be useful, working together in a leadership team.
Those designing the policy framework could do worse than read this paper.