“If there is any term I could use to define new leaders, it would be ‘collaborative’ because it’s a question now of getting outside our comfort zone and discussing issues with provincial governments, the private sector, volunteer sectors and civil society.”
– Wayne Wouters, Clerk of the Privy Council of Canada
Rarely now can government, on its own, successfully address issues on behalf of Canadians. And there can be no doubt that the head of Canada’s federal public service believes that the organization must adapt to the changing realities of more distributed knowledge, resources and power by becoming more collaborative.
But saying we should be collaborative and being collaborative are two entirely different things, especially given the legacy of hierarchy, control, fear and leadership that so prevail in the public service. The shift amounts to ending the hegemony of the paternalistic, Hegelian “State,” whose adherents religiously believe the “State knows best” and has a special claim to divining society’s shared values. In its stead a self-organizing system of coordination is emerging where (a) nobody is fully able to “take charge,” and (b) there are no shared values agreed to by all stakeholders.
The old big “G” Government approach to decision-making (hierarchical, centralized, authoritarian, coercive) is giving way to a small “g” governance (more pluralist, participative, horizontal, experimentalist), one that is better equipped to cope with the challenge of polycentric coordination, and more capable of reconciling a variety of interests and belief systems in the process of developing concerted action. Yet unlike big “G” Government, small “g” governance regimes are dominated by the dynamics of cooperation and social learning.
This has many implications for large, tradition-bound governments. The first is that there is no generalized organizational understanding of what collaboration is or how to affect it. What is not yet appreciated is that our old notions of management, administration and leadership were developed for an environment that is merely a subset of the world in which we live, one dominated by change, uncertainty, the coexistence of opposite logics and by people who are unique, contradictory and unpredictable.
While collaboration and co-governance are mechanisms for adapting to this larger reality, the public service has little to no institutional understanding of collaboration theory or the basic tools, skills and affordances to affect collaboration in practice. Hence, collaboration is frequently seen as an act of desperation, “an un-natural act between non-consenting adults.”
On the other hand, collaboration is not too hard nor too difficult. It’s just that we don’t understand how to do it, so we don’t do it well. Mostly we indulge in fantasies. We believe that collaboration will come forth automatically, without clearly explaining why, or what mechanisms might be used to catalyze, reify or sustain it. We engage in collaboration believing that we don’t have to change; that as partners we can be first among many; that we can compel people to voluntarily collaborate; that effective collaboration means eliminating conflict; that failure won’t happen; and that contracts will save us.
As Jocelyn Elders, the former U.S. Surgeon General, once identified, “we all say we want to collaborate, but what we really mean is that we want to continue doing things as we have always done them while others change to fit what we are doing.” Such thinking reflects a significant degree of cognitive dissonance that occurs as we attempt to shoehorn our collaborative behaviour into a management paradigm that is not only inappropriate but counterproductive.
For instance, management and public administration are obsessed with leadership, but when no one is, or can be, “in charge,” too much leadership is usually the problem. Here I don’t necessarily mean individual leaders but the very concept of leadership itself. Think of the attributes usually associated with good leaders – their confidence in their own judgment, their “take charge” attitude, their willingness to whip people into line, their dominance – but these prized attributes almost guarantee that collaboration fails. What’s needed in collaboration is not leadership but stewardship; and not personality-based stewardship but process-based stewardship, what my colleagues and I refer to as an “inquiring system.”
The cultural change in the public service implied by the need to become more collaborative should not be underestimated. It is huge. But it will not be achieved by leaders imposing a new system top down. That’s part of the old model being supplanted. It will be achieved largely through the grass roots efforts of public servants taking ownership of situations where they believe they can serve Canadians better. Shared ownership is therefore key, as is a willingness to “scheme virtuously,” experiment, and share one’s experience.
The first step in solving a problem is in identifying it – and that the Clerk has done. Plus he has given clear cover for all those who would like to experiment with collaboration, even as he has lent legitimacy to GCpedia as a mechanism to share those experiences widely across the federal public service. The next steps then depend on public servants themselves.
Christopher Wilson is a Senior Research Fellow with the Centre on Governance at the University of Ottawa.