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Public Collaboration in Maine: When and Why It Works

This is an excerpt from the article published in the Maine Policy Review by Diane E. Kenty, Ann R. Gosline, and Jonathan W. Reitman. Full article available here.

Maine people have a time-honored tradition of gathering to talk about community concerns— whether at town meeting, in the stands at the high school football game, or around the coffee pot at the store “in town.” In recent years, Maine policymakers have tapped this custom by adopting a collaborative approach to tackle a number of complex public issues.

This article addresses forms of collaboration that involve participation by one or more public sector entities and an issue or problem of keen public interest, for which we use the term “public collaboration.” Maine’s use of this tool is part of a national movement that has seen many states and regions turn to collaboration to solve problems through joint efforts of the business, government and non-profit sectors. It is consonant with increasing calls for broader civic engagement and citizen participation in government as a fundamental tenet of a healthy democracy (Leighninger 2006; Kemmis 1995; Susskind and Cruikshank 1989).

Public–private partnerships are not new. The evolution of networks connecting government with private and nonprofit sectors has been examined (Goldsmith and Kettl 2009). Many helpful examples of public–private partnerships have been documented (Susskind, McKearnan and Thomas-Larner 1999; Chrislip and Lawson 1994; Fosler and Berger 1982). Others have described the inner workings of the collaborative process (Chrislip 2002; Susskind, McKearnan and Thomas-Larner 1999; Gray 1989).

In this article, we examine five recent examples of public collaboration in Maine. We describe the features that distinguish effective collaborative efforts and discuss certain key elements in the case studies that affect the potential for success in public collaboration. We conclude with lessons for leaders who are considering a collaborative approach to solve community problems or shape public policy.

What Is Public Collaboration?
Public collaboration includes a variety of processes4 in which one or more public officials invite representatives from other sectors—business, non- profit, tribal, and civic—to work together to achieve pragmatic solutions to common problems that go beyond what any sector could achieve on its own. Often, multiple public agencies or departments are involved across local, regional, state and/or federal levels of government.

A collaborative approach to governing refutes the assumption that government is capable of, or should be expected to find workable solutions to every problem on its own. In Sirianni’s model, government should play the role of “civic enabler” of productive engagement and collective problem-solving among ordinary citizens, civic associations, and stakeholder groups (Sirianni 2009). Public collaboration reflects not merely a search for new policy answers or new ideas, but a search for new types of governance that meet the needs of the twenty-first century (Ruckelshaus 2010). It presumes that groups and individuals outside of government are capable of jointly developing strategies to improve joint outcomes, thereby moving outside the range of voting, political organizing, campaigning, and lobbying activities that typify a representative democracy. Community and elected leaders may need to work together to develop and share knowledge in certain areas, or a new vehicle may be needed to allow traditional adversaries to talk with one another on an informal basis, outside of traditional regulatory or administrative channels. Public collaboration encompasses both formal and informal systems and networks for decision-making and problem-solving.

Effective uses of public collaboration often have several features in common (Carlson 2007). While not uniformly present in every case, these features mark the most successful uses of public collaboration:
• Initial assessment: Before sponsoring a collaborative process, the potential sponsor evaluates whether the problem is sufficiently compelling to devote the time and resources to a collaborative effort, whether the time is right, and whether necessary resources can be found.
• Sponsoring agency or entity: A government agency or other public entity brings parties together across governmental, sectoral, and/or organizational boundaries to achieve integrative solutions.
• Convener: In addition to sponsorship by a public agency or other entity, a respected leader serves as the “convener.” By virtue of an office held, personal reputation, or leadership skills, the convener has the trust and credibility to bring differing or competing interests to the table. The convener may be assisted by a facilitator, a neutral third party who helps to assess, plan, organize, and manage the collaboration.
• Inclusive participation: Public collaboration takes place within, not outside, the democratic process and works best when all necessary interests are included. All participants have a voice and share responsibility for the process and outcome.
• Neutral forum: A neutral forum is created in which disparate views are respected and diverse parties can work together to solve problems and make decisions.
• Fair and reasonable procedural rules or guidelines: With the assistance of a sponsor and/or facilitator, participants define the scope of discussions and adopt ground rules for conducting meetings and making decisions.
• Gathering and sharing information: Participants share and verify information and, when needed, jointly develop ways to acquire and manage new information.
• Developing solutions: Participants work together to explore possible solutions and come to agreement on the best course of action.
• Implement result: When an agreement is reached, the sponsor and all stakeholders affirm their commitment to identified steps for implementing the agreement. A mechanism is established to effectuate the agreed-upon plan.
Public collaboration typically proceeds in three phases (Carlson 2007). In the first phase, the sponsor or planning group lays the necessary foundation by conducting an assessment to determine whether or not to initiate a collaborative process. The second phase, the actual course of collaborating, is the most visible phase. The sponsor works with a convener to identify and bring diverse interests to the table. Participants come together and jointly agree upon procedural rules, begin to develop and exchange information, frame and discuss issues, generate and evaluate options, develop mutually agreed-upon solutions, and secure the endorsement of all constituencies and authorized decision-makers. The third phase is implementation. Participants work together to implement their agreement, including formalizing the decisions, carrying them out and monitoring the results.

Despite generations of experience in talking about community concerns with neighbors or at town meeting, few people have experience working successfully in tandem with government officials and private organizations to develop responses to problems that transcend traditional notions of winning and losing. Collaboration can help to diminish divisiveness between citizens that occurs when polarizing issues are allowed to fester. It can also turn the focus toward future goals and a common vision. Public collaboration may be helpful to address longstanding differences. Most major public issues require involvement by more than one level of government…and more than the public sector alone.

Three trends are driving the increase in more public collaboration in Maine and nationwide. First, societal problems are growing more complex, and governance has become more challenging. Second, government simply lacks the resources to tackle problems on its own. Third, the population in Maine (and nationally) is becoming more diverse, and the populace increasingly expects to have a say in decision-making.

Increasing Complexity
In a global economy anchored by rapid technological change, Maine’s challenges aren’t getting any simpler. Most major public issues require involvement by more than one level of government (often local, regional, state, and federal), and more than the public sector alone. This is true whether the issue is planning for emergency management, public health, law enforcement and corrections, or social services.

Several precedents in Maine validate the complexity of problems and existing uses of collaboration. The Long Creek case study discussed below required multiple levels of governmental involvement. Gateway 1, a project that includes 21 communities along Route 1 from Brunswick to Rockport working with the Maine Department of Transportation, exem- plifies state and local collaboration. At a single level of government, two counties collaborated to consolidate their jails, and municipalities work together through several regional councils of governments in Maine.

Other collaborative networks in Maine involve private partners, along with government agencies. The regional planning coalition known as Mt. Agamenticus to the Sea Conservation Initiative in York County is one example. The latter stages of Mount Desert Island Today and Tomorrow also included both public and private partners. Similarly, the case studies discussed in this article all combined private sector involvement—whether business, non-profit organizations, or concerned individuals—with the public sector.

Decreasing Resources
Instances of inter-governmental cooperation at the local and regional level have emerged in Maine, but only to a modest extent. Maine has nearly 500 municipalities and 16 counties, and a strong tradition of “local control.” Demands on public resources are increasing, but those resources are dwindling. In most of the biennial state budgets adopted by the Maine Legislature since 2002, budget deficits have required substantial adjustments when anticipated revenues failed to materialize. State revenues have dropped sharply since FY09 and, for the biennial budget that will take effect in July 2012, the Maine Office of Fiscal and Program Review has estimated a structural budget gap of at least $800 million. Especially while the U.S. economy continues its slow rise from recession, Maine government lacks the resources to tackle problems on its own. The public and private sectors will need to tackle problems as partners and leverage all available resources.

Growing Diversity and Popular Expectation
Maine’s population is growing more diverse, and citizens increasingly expect to have a say in public issues According to recent demographic data from the 2010 U.S. Census, though the vast majority of Maine’s population continues to be Caucasian, approximately 77,000 residents are of other races. The increasing racial diversity of the population means a greater heterogeneity of perspectives and influences on gover- nance. The public increasingly expects to have a voice in decision-making, especially given the explosion of information available on the Internet. With hundreds of thousands of households in Maine connected to the Internet, and the rest of the population enjoying access through libraries and other community venues, citizens have never been in a better position to “get up to speed” on issues quickly. Online discussion about all kinds of issues has proliferated. Mainers increasingly register their opinions online in response to news stories, routinely read and write blogs, and are accus- tomed to receiving information electronically on public issues through municipal Web sites. Community leaders and ordinary citizens expect to be consulted and involved in finding ways to capitalize on opportunity and to solve problems.

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Jonathan W. Reitman

Jonathan W.  Reitman is a practicing attorney since 1978; full time mediator, facilitator and arbitrator since 1990. Practice concentrates on mediation, training, conflict resolution and consulting. Substantial experience (1000+cases) in the mediation and arbitration of a variety of complex civil disputes, including business, commercial and insurance matters; employment, labor relations… MORE >

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