Collaborative Governance

July 8, 2021 Jaskiran Gakhal, Participedia Team
August 19, 2020 Jaskiran Gakhal, Participedia Team
September 26, 2019 Scott Fletcher Bowlsby
June 18, 2018 Lucy J Parry, Participedia Team
February 25, 2018 Ed Pastore
February 7, 2010 Ed Pastore

Collaborative governance in its most general terms is a process which engages state and non-state actors to address an issue, whether they are public or private organisations, or individual citizens [1].

Problems and Purpose

Collaborative governance is most broadly defined as a process involving state and non-state actors jointly addressing an issue, be they civil society, public or private organisations, or individual citizens [1]. Collaborative governance is relatively new and still emerging as a practice and field of study; there are a variety of more precise definitions that are contested and overlap in academic debate. 

Ansell and Gash (2008) provide six criteria for identifying collaborative governance which are useful in helping distinguish it from other approaches:

  • the process is initiated by a public agency or institution
  • includes participation of non-state actors
  • participants are not only to be consulted — they have decision-making power
  • the forum is a formal process and organised formally
  • decision making is consensus-oriented
  • the focus is related to public policy or public management [2]

More recently, Emerson and Nabatchi (2015) have defined collaborative governance as "the processes and structures of public policy decision making and management that engage people across the boundaries of public agencies, levels of government, and/or the public, private, and civic spheres to carry out a public purpose that could otherwise not be accomplished." [3]

Collaborative governance is sought when the management of a sector requires more technical, analytical, and/or financial power than is possessed by one party. Collaborative governance is often pursued as a solution to the principal-agent dilemma and the local knowledge problem. The principal-agent problem occurs when one person is responsible for making decisions on behalf of another; this can result in conflicts of interest and legitimacy problems. By including a full range of stakeholders, collaborative arrangements may mitigate this. The local knowledge problem refers to the distribution of specialised knowledge which means that a central decision-making authority does not have access to all the relevant knowledge to make an informed decision. Again, collaborative governance may help meet this challenge by bringing together those with local knowledge and sharing decision-making power.

Beyond this, collaborative governance has an important normative basis. It responds to the failures of top-down policymaking and implementation processes. It also provides an alternative to adversarial and interest group-driven approaches to governing; collaborative governance may follow a more consensus-oriented mode of decision-making [2]. However, consensus may not always be achieved in practice. 

Collaborative governance may be suitable for tackling different types of policy problems. On the one hand, long-running problems may be easier to solve within a small group of stakeholders. On the other, ‘wicked’ policy problems may find more feasible solutions when addressed by a broader range of perspectives [4].

Origins and Development

Cases of collaboration between public and private actors are not a new phenomena. However, the past two decades have witnessed an increase in collaborations between state and non-state actors and the emergence of collaborative governance as a distinctive approach [2].

Collaborative governance ‘bubbled up from many local experiments, often in reaction to previous governance failures’ [2]. One early example of the somewhat organic development of collaborative governance is described by Ansell (2011). In the 1980s, the Desert Tortoise was unexpectedly listed as an endangered species in the United States, following pressure and a court case from environmental groups. The listing presented a significant challenge since the habitat of the Desert Tortoise was at the site of rapid development and urban expansion in the area around Las Vegas. As an endangered species, any alteration to this habitat would be prohibited and presented significant challenges to developing the area. Local governments and developers initially challenged the ruling in court but lost, and looked for alternative approaches. Eventually a collaborative process emerged involving all the affected stakeholders and agreement was reached between the different parties on developing a Habitat Conservation Plan. This example points towards a pragmatist approach and ‘shows that even under conditions of bitter social conflict, collaborative governance can lead stakeholders to identify mutual gains’ [5].

Ansell and Gash (2008) suggest a further number of reasons for an increasingly collaborative approach, such as providing an alternative approach to other governance approaches [2]. Managerialism, for example, considers that generic management skills can be used to manage diverse organisations and issues — rather than requiring specific knowledge and skills. It also encompasses an ideology based around the superiority of managers and can exclude the knowledge and expertise of others [7], resulting in a lack of accountability [2]. Collaborative governance has emerged as an alternative, which takes into account all affected stakeholders, sharing decision-making power and responsibility.

Another reason cited for the emergence of collaborative governance is the increasingly complex and interdependent issues and situations that governments are required to deal with. At the same time, knowledge has become more specialised. This creates a greater need for collaboration to adequately deal with such issues in an effective way [2].

Participant Recruitment and Selection

Who participates in a collaborative governance process will largely depend on the issue or problem being addressed. In the case of the Desert Tortoise outlined above, participants included local government, environmentalists, developers and other stakeholders such as landowners. Participants will usually be invited by whoever initiates the collaborative process, usually a public agency, although some stakeholders are likely to already be involved in some way. Having invited participants could leave a process open to a legitimacy deficit if certain groups are excluded. Thus, it is essential to ensure that the full range of relevant stakeholders and interest groups are able to participate [4].

Consideration of who participates is not only important for legitimacy, but can also shape the scope and agenda of a collaborative governance arrangement, given the diversity of perspectives on a given issue. A further consideration for participants are the power dynamics and context in which a collaborative process takes place, which can affect stakeholders’ willingness to participate, how they communicate with each other, and can shape decisions and outcomes [6].

Collaborative governance for the most part will involve organisations and stakeholders rather than the general public, alongside public or government agencies. However, it can involve individual citizens as well as organised groups, as was the case in Geraldton 2029 and Beyond, a deliberative process in Western Australia that incorporated collaborative governance.

Ansell and Gash (2008) note that public agencies often collaborate with each other, but this is not considered collaborative governance because it must involve all affected stakeholders or interest groups, which will inevitably include outside organisations [2].

How it Works: Process, Interaction, and Decision-Making

Central to the concept of collaborative governance is the point that all stakeholders have influence over actual decision-making. Collaborative governance is not consultative. The reality of this may vary in practice; a final decision may rest with a public agency but other parties must be directly involved in the decision-making process [2].

The precise activities that take place during a collaborative governance process are highly likely to vary in practice, with no two processes being alike [9]. They may encompass a range of other participatory methods and tools such as workshops, roundtable discussions, different forms of dialogue and decision-making activities, and multiple stages. In addition to this, collaborative governance arrangements are both time and resource intensive, require active management, require trust, commitment and reciprocity from all parties, and can be fragile [9]. Collaborative governance arrangements are likely to be long term, and may in fact demand continuous revision and re-assessment in light of the developing nature of the challenge. This may be the case for forums where stakeholders cannot participate, such as future generations [4].

The Sacramento Water Forum is a collaborative arrangement that provides a more tangible example of the conditions and process that might be present [8], although this should be viewed with the sui generis nature of collaborative governance arrangements in mind [9]:

  • Inclusion of a full range of stakeholders
  • A task that is meaningful to the participants
  • Participants who established their own ground rules for behavior, agenda setting, making decisions, and many other topics
  • A process that begins with mutual understanding of interests and avoids positional bargaining
  • A dialogue where all are heard, respected, and equally able to participate
  • A self-organizing process that is unconstrained by conveners in its time or content and that permits the status quo and all assumptions to be questioned
  • Information that is accessible and fully shared among participants
  • An understanding that consensus is reached only when all interests have been explored and every effort has been make to satisfy these concerns [8]

Since a single definition of collaborative governance is somewhat slippery to pin down, various practices may be viewed as collaborative governance by some but not by others. For example, Wanna (2008) outlines collaborative relations between different government agencies [9], whereas this would not be considered collaborative governance by Ansell and Gash (2008).

Influence, Outcomes, and Effects

The outcomes of collaborative governance arrangements have been documented in a wide range of academic literature. Due to the somewhat nebulous and ‘untidy’ [2] nature of this literature, it is difficult to draw any general conclusions on the influence and outcomes of collaborative governance. In their meta-analysis of collaborative governance, Ansell and Gash (2008) found it was not feasible to find out whether collaborative governance was more effective or had better governance outcomes than adversarial or managerial approaches, as the studies they looked at did not seek to address this question. Instead, numerous studies have sought to understand the conditions in which stakeholders are willing to collaborate and the nature of that collaboration [2].

There are numerous examples of both successes and failures in collaborative governance. An example of the latter is described by Diane Smith (2008) who recounts how a three-year long collaboration in Australia’s Northern Territory between an Aboriginal (Binninj) community and local government was disastrously undermined by an unexpected media release from the Federal government announcing that it would take control of large number of Aboriginal communities and impose a number of control measures. The local government had been unaware of this announcement and it served to undermine several years of collaboration and cooperation. This is further compounded by the historical failures of Australian policy and governance to serve the interests of Indigenous communities, which creates significant challenges for collaboration given the lack of trust and confidence in government [10].

A successful case of collaborative governance is seen in the Community Planning Framework in place in Scotland. This process involves a plethora of actors including citizens, businesses, local government, and non-profit organisations. This is a complex arrangement involving multiple stages and tiers of decision-making. Whilst the initiative is relatively new, it appears to have had a positive influence over the national government who have increased funding for community planning initiatives and led to the government pursuing more interaction and involvement with small citizen groups.

The examples above give an indication of the diversity of collaborative governance initiatives and the difficulties of drawing singular conclusions regarding their influence and efficacy.

Analysis and Lessons Learned

As discussed above, the breadth and depth of collaborative governance arrangements varies widely. There is a range of academic literature that analyses various aspects of collaborative arrangements which is better placed for a detailed overview. Wanna (2008, p.9-10) provides some useful considerations of advantages and disadvantages, outlined below.


  • Can lead to better policy decisions through the inclusion of a broader range of perspectives, meaning a decision is more likely to be accepted.
  • Can lead to innovation through opening up policy problems to a wider range of contributions, leading to new ideas.
  • Allows non-state actors to understand the processes of government better.
  • Can benefit all parties involved through mutual learning and capacity building.
  • Can make governments and public agencies more effective at policymaking through sharing responsibility and combining skills and knowledge.


  • May be difficult to engage public agencies with the notion of collaborating due to reluctance to cede some control or fear of increased risk.
  • Blurring accountability: when more parties are involved, who is accountable for decisions becomes more complex. This is exacerbated when things go wrong.
  • Non-state actors are not bound by the same rules and accountability as public agencies. Governments may seek to censor them; non-state organisations may choose to disrupt processes and are not accountable for final outcomes.
  • Challenges will arise when parties have different preferences or objectives in mind and there is no common objective.
  • Collaboration may not always be genuine; as with other participatory processes, it can be used by governments to try and sell a decision that has already been made or to promote the government’s existing position or policy [9]

See Also

Ecosystem-based Management 

Collaborative Design 


[1] Donahue, J. (2004). On Collaborative Governance. Corporate Social Responsibility Initiative Working Paper No. 2. Cambridge, MA: John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. Available at:

[2] Ansell, C., & Gash, A. (2008). Collaborative Governance in Theory and Practice. Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, 8, 543-571.

[3] Emerson, K., & Nabatchi, T. (2015). Collaborative Governance Regimes. Georgetown University Press, Washington,DC.

[4] O’Brien, M. (2012) Review of collaborative governance: Factors crucial to the internal workings of the collaborative process. Research Report, New Zealand Ministry for the Environment. Available at:

[5] Ansell, C. (2011) Pragmatist Democracy: Evolutionary Learning as Public Philosophy. Oxford Scholarship Online. DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199772438.001.0001

[6] Fung, A. (2006) Varieties of Participation in Complex Governance. Public Administration Review. 66(1), pp. 66-75. DOI: 10.1111/j.1540-6210.2006.00667.x

[7] Kilkauer, T, (2013) What is Managerialism? Critical Sociology. 41(7-8). Available at:

[8] Booher, D. (2004) Collaborative governance practices and democracy. National Civic Review. 93(4), pp. 32-46. DOI: 10.1002/ncr.69

[9] Wanna, J. (2008) Collaborative government: meanings, dimensions, drivers and outcomes, in O’Flynn, J. & Wanna, J. [Eds] (2008) Collaborative Governance: a new era of public policy in Australia? Canberra: ANU Press. Available at:

[10] Smith, D. (2008) From collaboration to coercion: a story of governance failure, success and opportunity in Australian Indigenous affairs in O’Flynn, J. & Wanna, J. [Eds] (2008) Collaborative Governance: a new era of public policy in Australia? Canberra: ANU Press. Available at:

External links

University of Waterloo Doctoral Thesis on Collaborative Water Governance: