In collaborative governance, policy matters to everyone and everyone matters in policy

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 September, 2015, 11:15am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 September, 2015, 11:15am

Public problems in modern societies are often complex and “wicked”, characterized by blurred causalities, multiple stakeholders, ambiguous boundaries, and complicated feedbacks. To cope with these problems often requires effective collaborative efforts straddling the divides between the public, corporate and social sectors. 

In combating poverty, for example, government, with its control of the public fisc and authority, has the capacity and mandate required for providing safety nets; it can also promote social mobility through education and social policy. However, when it comes to nurturing social innovations, identifying social needs, and engaging with the community, the nonprofit and social sectors are probably better suited to manage the tasks.  The corporate sector, on the other hand, has the flexibility and networks to leverage financial and other resources, often through corporate social responsibility and donations, to fill the gaps that the government safety nets have failed to cover.

Effective public policy has to take into account the importance of collaborative governance, and be able to provide the incentives and frameworks for collaboration.  From the perspective of collaborative governance, the locus of public policy formulation is not so much about what the government can or should do, but what kinds of collaborative efforts need to be in place to resolve the problem and how these efforts could be effectively fostered.

The recent Uber saga is a case in point; so far the government has largely framed the problem as how to define and regulate “commercial vehicles”.  Yet in the light of collaborative governance, perhaps the policy discourse should focus on how the available transport capacity of the city can be best utilized so as to provide maximum mobility to its citizens.  Instead of seeing itself as “the” public service provider or regulator, government should recognize its role as a facilitator harnessing collaborative governance.

While one can easily see the benefits, and in fact the inevitability, of collaborative governance, embracing and acting upon the idea is easier said than done; it requires a change in the mind-sets of leaders in the public, corporate and social sectors. 

Government officials need to develop a more realistic understanding of the strengths and limits of using public fisc and authority to bring about policy changes; they also have to acquire the necessary skills and knowledge to work effectively with leaders in other sectors, and to engage with citizens.

More importantly, government officials have to recognize that government can no longer set the policy agenda single-handedly.  Whether they like it or not, problem-solving takes place in different domains of social and economic life, sometimes initiated by sector leaders and sometimes by ordinary citizens.  These seemingly local or parochial problem-solving efforts often give rise to repercussions with wide social impacts, capturing public attention and changing policy agendas. 

To embrace collaborative governance, corporate leaders need to change their mind-set too.  Instead of perceiving themselves as passively responding to the broader policy environment which is often thought to be determined by some ulterior forces beyond their control, they should recognize that their decisions and actions collectively constitute at least part of the policy environment in which they find themselves; they are key players in collaborative governance. 

Being actively engaged in public problem-solving is not merely charitable deeds; it is how corporates could foster a policy environment conducive to their operation and growth, and align their economic activities with the wide policy concerns of the community.

Social entrepreneurs aspire to bring about social changes through creative destruction—the creation of social values through rearranging the allocation and utilization of social and economic resources.  Effective nurturing and implementation of social innovations is possible only if a facilitating “ecosystem” is in place that provides necessary incentives and freedom for generating innovative ideas, adequate resources for turning innovative ideas into workable programmes, and sustainable support for scaling up successes. 

Government and the corporate sector are not only key components of such an ecosystem, they affect the way the ecosystem is structured and operates.  Instead of perceiving their social endeavors to be “innovative” alternatives to “banal” government action or “ad hoc” corporate social responsibility, social entrepreneurs should be able to see and leverage the complementarity across sectors, and to integrate social entrepreneurship into collaborative governance and public policy.  


Dr. Wai-Fung Lam is Associate Dean (Innovation) of Social Sciences and Professor of Public Administration at The University of Hong Kong. This opinion article is prepared for the academic conference about "Why public policy matters and how it works in the fast-changing world" to be held on HKU campus on September 15, 2015.