Christopher Wilson & Assoc.

My Photo
Location: Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Facilitating Contingent Cooperation: What are the mechanisms?

In my work, I keep bumping up against the same big issues time and again, including:

  • the difficulties people have in sustaining multi-stakeholder, cooperative initiatives for any length of time;
  • the difficulty in achieving horizontal coordination within any level of government (let alone between levels!) even with apparent political will and resources available;
  • the difficulty P3s have in achieving goals that may be more complex than simple vendor-supplier relationships (here in Canada, almost all relationships between government and the private or civic sectors have been redefined as ‘partnerships’ even when no partner relation exists); and
  • the huge gap between stakeholder positioning on issues and their willingness to resolve problems.

In all of these you will most likely recognize the thread of the collective action problem (also known as social traps, prisoners’ dilemma, etc.) – i.e. how to get people/organizations to act in their collective interest when their individual interest may suggest less fruitful actions or actions that are even collectively harmful. This collective action issue has come up again and again in my own work as I’ve explored how groups of stakeholders try to accomplish together what they could not do alone. I know that the starting place for cooperation is the “can’t do it alone” realization and that this should lead the participants to undergo some form of collective learning. I know that champions are essential, that trust building is necessary, and that ongoing assessment was important as well. Technology could be helpful but was not in itself sufficient. What I was missing, until recently, was a key that put all these pieces together.

The key seemed to appear in an interview I did with a regional development officer in Windsor, Ontario last winter who was a leader with a collaborative community portal initiative. The person indicated that they would not have taken on the leadership of a certain taskforce without knowing that others like him were doing similar tasks which would also benefit his organization. He knew the other prominent leaders were contributing from his involvement in the steering committee and from frequent conversations with the project facilitator.

I don’t know how many times I had heard a similar story before, but that time his comments connected to something Howard Rheingold said in Smart Mobs a few years back, about contingent cooperation and monitoring. Suddenly, many of the coordination activities I had observed in various partnerships and collaborations over the years (what most funders consider as overhead) made a lot more sense. These were all ways for the contingent co-operators to reaffirm their commitments by verifying the ongoing contributions of the other partners. In retrospect, when partnerships got into serious trust problems, it was because these tit-for-tat contributions could no longer be confirmed or they became unclear, a consequence of ineffective monitoring. (more thoughts on contingent cooperation on my blog)

One of the most puzzling and sometimes troubling things I’ve observed is seeing a group of dedicated, knowledgeable, well-meaning people get together for a specific purpose only to find in the end that they will not do the things they know need to be done. Now I can understand that this was not some sort of esoteric aberration of human nature but the mundane consequence of ineffective monitoring. As you yourselves have probably observed, good intent is never enough.

So I’ve been on a bit of a hunt of late for mechanisms that can help move groups beyond their well-meaningness into sustained collective action. I drafted a template of some things groups could do and posted to my website. The angle of contingent cooperation and its requirement for monitoring suggests that the tools/ techniques that are needed should increase information flow among the partners but in a trusted way.

This is a long winded way of getting around to asking -- has anyone thought to prepare or know of any kind of inventory for the mechanisms groups use to satisfy their contingent cooperation? I keep wondering if I’m forgetting about something. I’m talking about things like:

  • the use of facilitated meetings that involve joint activities like learning, reframing, or prioritizing;
  • the use of a partner coordinator/ facilitator/ trusted broker who constantly goes around talking to people;
  • the undertaking of joint research or assessment to identify and share the knowledge of benefits;
  • the use of online forums/ groups/ threaded discussions to share knowledge and expertise;
  • the use of social gatherings to strengthen trust;
  • the use of annual MOUs to define contributions and gauge progress;
  • the use of email newsletters for quick updates;
  • the use of media announcements to celebrate success and strengthen moral contracts; and
  • From one partnership I learned that they secured a group price discount on Billberry’s and then directed it to the mangers in their partner organizations to encourage them to comply in a more timely way with their partnership reporting needs.
  • Other creative ideas??

I know this may sound like pretty basic stuff but most practitioners are only vaguely aware of the information obligation imposed on them by cooperation. They know they have to do certain things with certain budgets and certain timeframes but they don’t know they need to keep telling everyone about their progress. And they are usually only marginally interested in what others are doing, until, of course, the trust starts to break down. Partnerships may do some information sharing in ad hoc ways in response to events, or even just out of politeness, but rarely by design from the outset. Nonetheless, information sharing is crucial to maintaining partner trust.

I feel that the more these types of mechanisms can become a credible part of a practitioner’s toolbox, the more likely it will be that they are seen as a central function of maintaining healthy partnerships and receive the resourcing they deserve. Also, the more they can be understood as integral parts of the job description for partner management, the more they’ll be used routinely.

You can email me at

Additional Links:
Synergize Workflows
by Sam Rose at Social Synergy Wiki

Monday, September 18, 2006

Public Service Renewal is not just Re-Branding

Responding to the Clerk’s call for higher levels recruitment in the public service

September 18, 2006

On September 15, 2006 Kevin Lynch, the Clerk of the Privy Council, addressed the Dalhousie School of Public Administration with a presentation entitled "Why Public Service Renewal Matters". In it he discussed the direction of the Government’s latest round of public service renewal and the need to ensure that the public service reflected excellence and leadership.

However, the federal government’s recruitment challenge goes way beyond trying to brand the government as a nice place to work. When talented creative people have many opportunities open to them, the government not only needs to pay reasonably well, but it also needs to be a place where people’s skills and decision making abilities are respected and where their abilities can be seen to make a difference. To solve the government’s recruiting problem, Mr. Lynch will have to have to fundamentally reform the way the government does its business and its relationship to citizens. The scope of this work has been identified in each of the 30+ PS renewal initiatives that have occurred in the last forty years but avoided in practice, so from an historical standpoint the odds are against him of making much of a difference.

Mr. Lynch suggested that technology is fundamentally altering how government does things. I think the best response to this that technology is and isn’t changing things. It may be altering some things – how information is stored or how it is transmitted -- but in many other instances technology appears to be having little impact. In particular, the government doesn’t seem to be able to handle the requirements for the business process reform and organizational change that the new technologies demand. Take the previous ‘Government On Line’ initiative. Rather than deal with setting new rules for the exchange of information between departments and with citizens, the deputy ministers opted for the much easier ‘Common Look and Feel’ and then declared success. The latest effort to provide integrated e-services is floundering for the same reason – there is no mechanism to resolve the competing interests of the departments.

The Clerk pointed to a shift in public expectations for public service. This is quite true. Canadians are becoming more sophisticated and less willing to defer to governments when they are self serving. For routine types of interactions most citizens want at least the same quality of service delivery from the government as they receive from the private sector. In times of need, however, they want government services that are quick to respond, helpful and efficacious. The sort of stuff we saw with the SARS outbreak is just not acceptable.

I think most people would perceive that the visible public services -- things like the reliable delivery of pension and insurance cheques, the provision of policing and border patrol, and the collection of taxes -- are well handled. Do citizens passionately care whether their monthly pension cheque comes reliably in the mail or by direct deposit? I think not. (My dad would but that’s a different story!) The big service issue occurs when someone has a problem and when there is a divergence from the government’s service script. Either the citizen can’t find the person they need, or no one will respond to them, or they need to supply details in quadruplicate to many departments, or worst of all they are regarded as guilty felons.

Take tax collection, for example. I admit some people do try to evade paying their taxes but many people just make mistakes in filling out a tax form or have new information come to them later. Being an honest citizen doesn’t pay. I hear the CRA has a quota system and since it’s much easier for them to 'catch' the people who turn themselves in than it is to look for the bad guys who don’t want to be found,they’ll make your life hellish if you bring a ‘mistake’ to their attention. One accountant I know of is horrified by the recent increase in the number of people who are being harassed by the CRA and the equally large number of honest citizens who are being encouraged to be less than forthcoming by CRA’s tactics. These tactics are, in effect, breaking down the level of trust and willing compliance in the payment of taxes. In this kind of environment, why would any normal person with options want to work there?

In a recent Fortune edition, an article described a bank where someone came in asking for something the bank didn’t offer. The bank’s response – “we don’t do this but we’ll take care of you anyway.” The bank’s policy was to own the customer and that started with whomever was in front of an employee. Can you imagine asking someone in government to do something that wasn’t explicitly in their job description? Can you imagine them adopting an attitude of trying to use every opportunity for personal contact as an exercise of citizen building? The Canadian public service is not typically a helping environment. Therefore, for anyone who really wants to help others the kind of service style typical of government is profoundly discouraging. I remember talking to a former ADM who at one time was considered ‘one of the best and brightest’ but left the PS despairing of ever being able to make a difference. He thought he just needed to get higher in the ranks until he got to the top and realized the mistake of his assumption.

Canadians do want more accountability, as Mr. Lynch suggested, but more importantly they want results. It’s only when those results are not forthcoming, that they want those people who were making the decisions to be accountable -- that is, to explain to them in clear, common sense language why the anticipated results did not appear. This is not the same as the childish finger pointing and ‘blame-games’ that are typically engaged in politically and bureaucratically. That’s not the kind of accountability Canadians want. Where no school would tolerate the type of behaviour demonstrated in Question Period, why should citizens? And this has contributed to a PS culture that is fundamentally afraid of being exposed to its citizens. Over the last few years, we have seen ever more restrictions to Access to Information, more outright obfuscation, and more avoidance of direct accountability. When was the last time you saw a Minister take responsibility for his department’s actions and resign? (Actually it was Sinclair Stevens in the Mulroney Government in 1986. It’s been even longer since we’ve seen a Deputy Minister stand up and resign over a conflict between public and political interests). Addressing better accountability will require the Clerk to do more than prepare a good ad campaign that says ‘it isn’t so’.

The Clerk said that Canadians want better management of tax dollars. I disagree. I think that Canadians aren’t as concerned about the better management of revenues as they are about paying fewer taxes, largely because they don’t perceive sufficient value for the money they contribute and because of what they may perceive as others not paying their fair share. “Increase the number of tax collectors,” you might say. Not so. Tax collection depends on the willingness of the governed to contribute their fair share. And as the Russian experience illustrates, where only 25% of citizens pay their taxes, no amount of tax collectors can fix the problem when the population as whole has lost faith in its moral contract with the State. When people begin to feel that there is a disconnect between the taxes they pay and the services they receive, they will at first complain and then later stop complaining altogether as they also stop paying and go underground. By all indications, the underground economy in Canada is growing suggesting a declining trend among Canadians in their faith in government. If Mr. Lynch wants to renew government, increase recruitment, retain existing employees and create a culture of excellence in the PS, then this declining faith in government needs to be addressed head on.

Similarly most people that I talk to don’t think much about core public services. I mean they assume that those services are already being responsibly carried out and they are generally happy with their delivery. What they are more concerned about are the non core service areas – such as the ability to coordinate across multiple authorities on any number of issues including, employment and training, creating safe, coherent communities, dealing with climate change and potential pandemics, and timely access to health care. There are also a host of issues connected to any number of interest groups seeking funding for this or that. But while the complexity of the big problems discourages serious action and investment by government, the government is often willing to buy political support with quick contributions to interest groups.

Interestingly no one in the PS seems to take notice of the inherent contradiction in the desire of citizens’ to pay less for more services. Resources aren’t limitless even though the avenues for spending may be. Where are the trade-off debates? Since politicians are rewarded equally for cutting taxes and fixing problems, the former being so much easier to accomplish than the latter, this puts the PS in the unenviable situation of trying to fix problems with fewer real resources, in an environment of increased risk avoidance, with higher reporting and accounting costs, and with a shrinking windows of political commitment. Is the Clerk prepared to stand up publicly and say “get real” (as it somewhere suggests is part of his job description)?

And if this 'something for nothing' attitude becomes the characteristic dynamic between the citizen and the State, then why should we be surprised when employees (also citizens) want more pay for less work, or when they demonstrate a weak commitment to helping citizens solve their problems. You just can’t build an organization of excellence where acceptance of ‘quick fixes’, ‘risk-free solutions’, CYA, the ‘easy way out’, the ‘cheapest solution’, and ‘flaccid commitment’ abound.

As you can see, the Clerk has a much bigger job to do than he was willing to admit to the students at Dalhousie.

In a follow up note I’ll examine the government’s recruiting position from a SWOT perspective.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

My mistake, I thought the Public Service was working for Canadians

July 4, 2006

It’s nice that Canada Day comes around every year to remind us to think about the country we live in and how it meets our expectations. Canada truly is one of the best places in the world to live. On Canada Day we can take a breath and enjoy the large degree of balance we have achieved together.

That’s why it’s doubly frustrating when you see a problem and it seems to absolutely resist being fixed. Of course I’m not talking about things like the violence in Iraq or Afghanistan or AIDS in Africa. I’m talking about those chronic Canadian problems like healthcare, literacy and lifelong learning, immigration, productivity, the environment, or the ongoing saga of federal-provincial relations. If we’ve come so far, then why can’t we resolve these issues?

In my naiveté, I have always assumed that fixing these things was what our public sector leaders were hired to do. Isn’t that why we vote for them? You can therefore imagine my surprise when I was informed by a senior federal ADM that “governments don’t fix problems. They only take positions.” From a political perspective, what’s really important is being on the right side of the issue. As it turns out actually resolving an issue is largely immaterial and just a “coincidence” if it is in fact settled.

Said another federal official, “the big problem in doing business with government is that there is no leader, no one person who is really in charge. Government is a multi headed thing. If you’re dealing with government you’re likely to be dealing with several different departments who don’t talk to one another and are usually off in different directions.” It’s even worse, he said, if you’re dealing with some federal-provincial file. It’s like signing an agreement with a CEO who has no control over his company. Whatever anyone says it’s an empty promise because you don’t know who’s making the agreement? You can make a deal with one part of government and another part of government contravenes your agreement. This is why government is typically experienced as such a bad faith partner. The different parts act so independently of each other that there is no semblance of coherence.

Consequently, leadership in the public sector is all about spin and has very little substance. The former Liberal government is still milking the billions of dollars it budgeted for reducing green house gas emissions but then they actually only spent a few hundred million as reimbursements for energy retro-fitting. They then get double credit for supporting climate change but not spending too much money and delivering a steady stream of budget surpluses. The Conservatives have done away pretty much with environmental spending and also seem willing to walk away from Kyoto, claiming credit for honesty without any viable national or international plan in its stead. Is this honest or is this stupid? You decide (but hint the problem of green house gases hasn’t gone away). See also my blog on Kyoto.

One of the primary contributors to this situation is the bureaucratic structure of government itself. In federal and provincial governments, legislation defines that the activities that are undertaken by government departments in silos (as does funding) but this results in a huge need for cross collaborative work among public servants. “Ministers within a single jurisdiction don’t know how to work together or how to achieve policies that align.” This gap exists at a time when most issues tend to cut across ministerial responsibilities. For example, on the subject of immigration there are several federal departments that deal with aspects of immigration, including: Foreign Affairs and International Trade, HRSDC, Health Canada, Industry Canada, etc.. Not only has the federal public service not figured out the pathways, mechanisms or models to allow themselves to effectively work together but neither has it figured out how to deal with the municipal or provincial orders of government.

There may be a committee of deputy ministers assigned the responsibility of coordination but once the task is assigned to a departmental lead, the other departments essentially forget about it. One deputy minister I spoke with agreed, “there is lots of work to be done here.” But making changes is always resisted as Machiavelli reminds us, “innovation makes enemies of all those who prospered under the old regime, and only lukewarm support is forthcoming from those would prosper under the new.”[1]

The other major contributor to this powerlessness to solve problems is the attitude of citizens themselves. A senior academic official recently told me that “as citizens, there is a big disconnect between our personal and public interests. We don’t want government to raise taxes but we don’t want them to reduce any our services either -- in fact we want more services.” We all want a free ride while someone else pays the piper.

In the end, we offer our politicians a choice – you can fix our problems which are difficult and complex to resolve or you can reduce our taxes which is simple to do, despite the negative repercussions that this may have on the collective problems we face. As citizens we will reward you equally. Small wonder then that we are blithely told by politicians that they will fix a problem and it will cost us less. Does anyone forget that image of McGuinty promising in writing not to raise taxes? And we buy that garbage! We have only ourselves to blame because we have not stood up to say what we want or to tell our governments to get real.

So despite these ongoing frustrations, I will choose to take solace this Canada Day from all that we have accomplished, that we have succeeded reasonably well in spite of ourselves and that there is hope that we will once again find some pragmatic means to overcome the challenges that face us today.

[1] Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, second edition, W. W. Norton publishers, London: 1992: pg. 17

Book Review: Presence by Peter Senge

August 2, 2006

As part of my summer reading, I just finished this 2005 book called Presence by four of the world’s most eminent management theorists Peter Senge, Otto Scharmer, Joseph Jaworski and Betty-Sue Flowers. It has one of those odd academic titles that makes you wonder just what the heck it means. And when the authors initially do define presencing as “seeing from the deepest source and becoming a vehicle for that source” one might be excused to think they are simply trying to add a ‘New Age’ flavour to the stable of management theories. Yet a full read of the book reveals some uncommon insights into a profoundly different approach to problem-solving.

As someone who has spent the last decade conducting active research involving new models of governance and collaboration, I take my hat off to them for their rich appreciation of human behaviour and the potential for collective change they have identified from paying attention to their own inner experiences. On the other hand, as a long time practitioner and student of the dynamics of consciousness I can only say that it’s about time. It’s about time that the people studying human organizations paid more attention to the human part of those phenomena -- the most central part of which is conscious awareness. Senge and his collaborators have proved themselves yet again to be pathfinders simply by following the truth of their own experiences. I must say reading Presence was like suddenly feeling a torrent of fresh air poring down a musty, old academic hallway.

This is obviously a very personal book for the authors, prepared over time and drawn from a series of their ongoing conversations about the nature of organizations and the future of human society. But it is also about their various intimate experiences of transcendence, the circumstances under which they occurred, the impact those experiences had on the world views of the authors and the transformative power with which that transcendence could reshape people and events.

Senge et. al. suggest a new type of learning is required to effectively deal with the complex problems being imposed upon today’s organizations. They offer a model that comprises sensing (immersing yourself in the situation until you become one with it), moving to presencing (experiencing the interconnectedness of that alert wholeness within human experience) and then moving into realizing or the spontaneous, natural flow of action that is supported by that wholeness as a vehicle for its manifestation. This sensing-presencing-realizing model is less about matching solutions to problems than it is about ‘co-creating’ new futures among individuals, human collectivities and the larger, natural world.

Back in the day (and it seems like yesterday) I heard the same story described in Presence from one most profound spiritual teachers of this or the last century -- Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (although for me it was presented as a quick synopsis of the entire anthology of Vedic literature). It was the story of ‘nivardhatvam’. In Sanskrit nivardhatvam means to retire or to transcend. The story of nivardhatvam began with the need of a king to deal with all the trials and tribulations of his life, the heartaches and losses, the threats, the confounding challenges, the many things so out of his control. He goes to a great Vedic master pleading for advice and expecting to have to lead a life of denial and austerity. Instead the master, unwilling to be drawn out of his own contemplations of reality, responded with only one word ‘nivardhatvam’.

What the seer meant was for the man to retire -- not as a recluse from the world of events but to retire from the confused world of objective reality, to transcend it and experience the knowingness of his own inner consciousness. Then when drenched with that consciousness, the king was to retire from this transcending and be in the world once more. He was then to continue to transcend again and again into and out of this primal consciousness. The seer’s message also suggested that this pattern of transcending and action also had to be retired from, implying that the person’s actions became so fully imbued with consciousness that the king’s inner Self was fully realized 24X7. Retiring from this Self would then be impossible although he would experience his actions as if they were going on ‘almost by themselves’.

But the seer also meant that this clearly defined state of subject-object duality should also be retired from. The regular experience of the wholeness of consciousness would open a door through which he could begin to view a similar wholeness present in every grain of existence and every object of experience. Eventually, the king’s experience of duality would transform into a unified one where the “alien self” would become the predominant experience of both his subjective and objective realities. Here the practice of nivardhatvam came to an end for there was no non-Self place to retire to – all would be seen as wholeness. From that infinitely correlated source of the natural world the king’s every desire would emerge as a vehicle for the ‘source’ to emerge into the world, bringing him freedom from the bondage of events and the pains of his own limited understanding. Thus my teacher told me that within this one word, nivardhatvam, is encompassed the practical message of all of the books of the Veda and all their commentaries. Presence was a refreshing reminder of this.

“Learning based on the past suffices when the past is a good guide to the future. But it leaves us blind to profound shifts when whole new forces shaping change arise.” Therefore when the future is uncertain and unknowable and the potential paths forward are numerous and complex, the authors suggest a reliance on “primary knowing”, on nature’s “wholeness”, and the “source” of human experience in order to create an integrated and spontaneous response that can guide us into an emerging future. Sensing-presencing-realizing the authors suggest is a way of tapping that wholeness.

In a way the model presented by the authors is like the old way of dyeing cloth. You take some cloth and immerse it in dye. Then you take it and put it in the sun. (Old dyes were not particularly strong so the sun always faded the colour.) Then you would put the cloth back in the dye and then back in the sun. You would then repeat the process as many times as it took until the colour in the cloth was fast and didn’t fade. This same process is evident in the sensing-presencing-realizing model of Senge et. al. Yet the descriptions their experiences of this “second type of learning” while they resonate with familiarity they also suggest a certain impracticality. In one instance it resulted from a week-long vision quest, in another it resulted from seeing your house burn down, and for a third it resulted from the culmination of a long process of national reconciliation after a bitter civil war. None of the authors seemed to achieve it on a regular, on-demand basis. In fact, the authors acknowledged that that the kind of openness involved in this process was “rare in adults”, although their experiences confirm that the process is a natural one and one that anyone can have.

Yet if the need to resolve the many conflicts that collectively bring about the “requiem scenario” is as great as they suggest (and I personally have no doubt of that) then there is also a great need to democratize this “second type of learning” so that in each and every instance where people are making choices that impact the future, their decisions may be guided by that awareness of the whole rather the interests of a part. I would suggest that there are many more practical means of fostering that “primary knowing”, of transcending, that can be pursued on a daily basis – the most direct of which I have found is Transcendental Mediation. Yet the responsibility to be part of a solution in an emerging future clearly rests with each person. It can not be commanded or imposed.

The real value of Presence is that it gives real hope that positive alternatives to the requiem scenario may be found. Yet as I read it I am reminded of the ‘collective action problem’ so eloquently described in Joseph Heath’s “The Efficient Society”. Will we continue to shirk our individual responsibilities (in this case for experiencing presencing) hoping to ‘free-ride’ on the efforts of others? If so we are likely to continue down the path we are on, making quick decisions of convenience, using partial knowledge, blindly following the past paradigms that assume an independence from our environment and an ability to control people and events that are by now wholly discredited. As the authors of Presence have so plainly described, the answer to the ‘requiem scenario’ does not lie ‘out there’ but it lies in the heart and soul of each and every one of us. We will choose to embrace a new way or we will not. But the consequences of our individual choice will be found like ripples extending throughout humanity and the planet. Need I say, “choose well”?

Recognizing Contingent Co-operation

August 21, 2006

It is increasingly apparent from the experiences of many community networks that many diverse, local stakeholders can effectively work together even if they do not normally interact. This was clearly evident in the large majority of the cases I reviewed in the context of Ontario’s Connect Ontario program (Wilson & Foster, 2006), as it has been in many of the other cases of successful collaboration I have examined as part of research conducted at the Centre on Governance at the University of Ottawa since the late 1990s.

Yet successful collaboration is far from the norm in business, in government or in the third sector. “In the case of organizational theory and practice, the problem that has proved most intractable has been the coordination of people and resources.” (Sarason & Lorentz, 1998:13)

In business, where research has been more extensive, it is held that approximately 90% of partnerships, joint ventures, alliances fail -- with failure being defined as early termination or failure to deliver on targeted objectives. While the idea of P3s is becoming commonplace in public sector circles, government involvement is frequently criticized, often in terms of its arbitrariness and top down approach, its inability to align its own goals with the goals of participating partners, its inability to be responsive in the light of evolving conditions, and its unnecessary bureaucracy. As I observed in Connect Ontario, these types of criticisms could emerge even when it was the government’s specific intent to avoid them.

It has also been observed by many commentators that even within a single level of government, effective cooperation between departments and agencies can be elusive in spite of high level agreement on the need to do so. As a former deputy minister once explained to me, “Government is a multi headed thing. There is no one who is really in charge. If you’re dealing with government you can be dealing with different departments who don’t talk to one another and are usually off in different directions.” Enabling government to coordinate people and resources around a common policy objective thus remains a chronic problem.

It has been my experience in examining various types of collaboration and interviewing key public sector decision makers that while many people understand the need to cooperate, the requirements for delivering on successful cooperation are not well understood -- in part because they may not fit the ‘business as usual’ patterns of government or because it is erroneously assumed that a commitment to cooperate by senior managers is itself sufficient to sustain collaboration. In the private sector this latter assumption has been one of the major stumbling blocks of successful cooperation because the organizational needs (as opposed to leadership needs) imposed by cooperative activities end up being under-resourced and under-attended to.

My experience also suggests that there are three stages of collaboration, each having its own requirements that need to be addressed in order for the partnership to succeed. The first is the rationale for cooperation that involves getting people to the table with a willingness and openness to at least to try to work with others. This is usually driven by a strong belief among potential partners that they can not achieve their goals alone. This is the stage that most people ‘get’. The third stage involves a period of self referral and reflection on the part of the partners that includes celebrating their success, collecting the organizational memory (lessons learned, best practice, etc.) of the partnership, and reassessing any future role for the partnership and other opportunities for the partners. This post partnership reflection is rarely attended to effectively because most collaborative initiatives are time limited hence there is little incentive to capture the social and intellectual capital generated from a partnership for future use.

The second stage is the working stage of the partnership that begins by building trust, continues through a period of social learning and joint decision making, and finally on to the undertaking of joint action. These steps are well recognized.

However, what is often overlooked and not well recognized, is that participating partners are usually ‘contingent co-operators’, that is, they are willing to contribute as long as others do as well. They do not participate out of coercion or out of some sense of altruism. Their voluntary participation is wholly practical, based on the assumption that the participation of others will benefit them more than the cost of their contribution. Typically, organizations will continue to participate in a partnership only so long as the costs of participation are outweighed by the contributions by other organizations. For instance, one interviewee in a Connect Ontario project commented, “I would not have taken on the leadership of a project taskforce without knowing that other community leaders were doing similar tasks in other areas which would also benefit us.” The consequence of this prevalence of this ‘contingent cooperation’ among collaborating partners underscores a strong need for transparency and monitoring so that everyone can be reassured about the levels of cooperation and commitment of their partners.

Howard Rheingold commented in his book Smart Mobs (Rheingold, 2002:176) that “monitoring and sanctioning are important not simply as a way of punishing rule breakers but also as a way of assuring members that others are using common resources wisely. That is, many people are contingent cooperators, willing to cooperate as long as most others do (what Ostrom has referred to as the ‘commitment problem’). Thus monitoring and sanctioning serve the important [and I would say essential] function of providing information about others’ actions and levels of commitment.”

The fact that partners are 'contingent' means that if insufficient resources are dedicated to the function of monitoring and sharing project information, the partners will likely lose confidence in the commitment of others. In this scenario, each partner may know their own real-time costs but be uncertain about the real-time benefits being contributed by others. This uncertainty will in turn jeopardize an initiative's continuity due to fears of being on the losing side of 'shirking'. Thus a level of resourcing sufficient to keep all the partners adequately informed becomes not just a 'nice to have' element of any partnership but an absolutely essential component.

This monitoring function can take several forms. The most successful of which is the funding of a partnership networker, someone who is constantly talking to partners, sharing information and news, listening to their concerns, resolving their conflicts, and asking their advice. This function is often performed by the project champion but rarely is it one that is sufficiently resourced. Frequently the same champion is also loaded with project management duties, project marketing, project administration, as well as with technical responsibilities. However, if the person’s networking activities are insufficient, then the partnership as a whole is put in jeopardy.

As Sarason and Lorentz observed (1998:37), while better coordination may remain the fundamental focus of most organizational reforms, there is scant attention, if ever, paid to the need for someone to do the actual coordination, as if coordination emerges by itself spontaneously from the different pieces of the organization properly juxtaposed. Yet “when we engage in meaningful conversations people develop new levels of trust, they become more cooperative and forgiving. People stop being so arbitrary and demanding when they are part of the process”(Wheatley, 2005:70). The reason why the partnership networker role works so well is that their conversations contribute to an ongoing process of information exchange and collective learning, one that corroborates partner commitments and validates their continued participation.

There are other mechanisms that can help to sustain coordination among partners including, the generation of common knowledge resources, facilitated partner meetings, the use of MOUs and other tools for establishing progress markers, story telling and case reviews, opportunities for regular feedback and direct information exchange, and governance modelling characterized by low entry and exit barriers. Some of this monitoring activity (the more routine and codifiable information) can be provided by secure online solutions but much of it requires people talking to people. In an environment where knowledge, resources and power are increasingly distributed, this ability to effectively address the needs of ‘contingent co-operators’ is gaining critical importance.


H. Rheingold, (2002). Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution, Perseus Publishing, Cambrige, MA

S. Sarason & E. Lorentz (1998). Crossing Boundaries: Collaboration, coordination, and the redefinition of resources, Josey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco.

M. Wheatley (2005). Finding Our Way: Leadership for an uncertain time, Berrett Koehler Publishers, San Francisco.

C. Wilson and W. Foster, (2006). Reviewing COPSC: 11 Case Studies of Ontario Community Portals, supplementary report for “Reviewing COPSC: Building on the lessons of community portals”, Ontario Ministry of Economic Development and Trade, Toronto, May.

Avoiding the False Choice: Either Kyoto or not Kyoto

June 28, 2006

Preston Manning’s op-ed piece in the June 28th edition of the Globe and Mail entitled “Either Kyoto or not Kyoto”, once again demonstrated that you can take a man out of politics but you can’t take the politics out of the man. His comments confuse the issue with jibes at the previous government while ignoring the fundamental fact that Kyoto is not about what we can do for ourselves but what others can do for us.

I agree with Mr. Manning that “Kyoto or not Kyoto” is not the real issue. The real issue is the extent to which we and other members of the global community continue to dump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. While there can be no doubt that better means may exist than those employed by the previous Liberal regime at reducing greenhouse gases, the planet’s atmosphere is a globally shared resource, one upon which the collective action of others have a much, much greater impact on us than anything we can do. In his current role as eminence grise for the Government, Mr. Manning should be aware that this situation is a classic case of a ‘tragedy of the commons’ where the externalized costs of burning fossil fuels can not be fully priced into the market for fuel and therefore those costs are off-loaded onto others.

The Canadian dilemma is quite simple. There are four scenarios. As individuals, organizations or as a nation we can choose to do little or nothing about greenhouse gases in the belief that we contribute so little to the problem (Canada as a whole contributes only about 2% to global emissions). We might expect that other countries who contribute more to the overall problem will reduce their greenhouse gas emissions as is ‘fair’. This scenario is clearly advantageous to us, because someone else is largely paying for fixing the problem. However, our non-action benefits no one. This can be referred to as a ‘free-rider’ scenario.

Being the international do-gooder we profess to be, we could also choose to lower our emissions while everyone else chooses not to. This may be altruistic but it is also referred to as the ‘sucker’ scenario because our actions benefit others while we derive no benefit from them. In the third scenario, we all work to fix the problem, sharing the costs and the benefits. We say “sharing the benefits” although this is not quite true. In the end the benefits we derive from the collective actions of others are much greater by far than the benefits we contribute. We can’t possibly reduce carbon emissions beyond 2%, whereas the rest of the world can reduce them by 98%. The fourth and final scenario is one where none of us work to reduce greenhouse gases and everyone ultimately suffers from catastrophic climate change.

From a collective and global welfare perspective, scenario three is obviously the best choice while scenario four is the most disastrous. However, the ‘best’ choice for any individual, organization or country is scenario number one because a benefit is obtained at the expense of others. Therefore individuals, organizations and countries will tend to choose this strategy over the others, especially since they will also be afraid of being caught as ‘suckers’. Unfortunately, if every individual and nation chooses scenario one (excepting those few altruists), we end up collectively choosing scenario four. We have a situation where a choice which is in our best interest individually ends up trapping us in the worst case scenario globally. Mr. Manning will no doubt recognize the form of these four choices as the classical ‘prisoners’ dilemma’ problem associated with collective action.

This brings me back to Kyoto. Canada’s participation in Kyoto is not about our internal policies related to our small possible contribution to reducing global greenhouse gases. Whatever we do or don’t do will have very limited impact on the global problem. However, Canada’s participation in the Kyoto Protocol, along with the other 145 countries who signed on to reduce greenhouse gases, is part of an attempt to reduce the ‘free-rider’ tendency that all nations have on this issue. If by treaty nations can be constrained from choosing the ‘free-rider’ option, then Canadians can capture the much more significant benefits from the collective efforts of other countries as they reduce their emissions. What we do in Canada is in effect the means by which we secure the cooperation of other nations by demonstrating to them that we are indeed choosing scenario three and not scenario one.

The real risk of walking away from Kyoto in favour of a ‘made in Canada solution’ is that Canada’s action would precipitate more ‘free-rider’-ism within the community of nations. Even in the most optimistic case of a ‘made in Canada solution’, Canada may reap the slim benefits of an effective national environmental solution at the cost of far greater benefits derivable from collective global action. This is very much the case of being “penny-wise but pound-foolish.” What is needed is to remain with Kyoto -- in fact Canada should continue to work to strengthen Kyoto – in order to reduce the potential for ‘free-rider’-ism.

That said, Canada’s national record at achieving its own Kyoto targets (for which the previous Liberal government must accept responsibility) is nothing less than deplorable. Within Canada, as Mr. Manning suggests, we can and must do better.

However, doing better will not occur by fiat from the PMO. As one Deputy Minister described to me once, on the issue of climate change “no one is in charge’. While the PM may determine a Canadian position regarding greenhouse gases, it is the responsibility of each federal ministry involved (Environment, Natural Resources, Industry, and Intergovernmental Affairs, not to mention TBS and PCO) to implement that decision. The problem is that these ministries do not themselves agree on what should be done. Therefore the commitment of the PMO or any single ministry will not necessarily be accompanied by the commitments of other departments. This more than anything else was the problem of the Chrétien government. Mr. Chrétien did make a commitment, but the multiple positions of his ministries made it impossible for his government as a whole to come up with any coherent position. The ministries were constantly fighting with one another, what to say of their relationships with the provinces? In such circumstances, who was any province supposed to be dealing on the subject of environment with when there was no single authoritative voice? And by the way, the provinces were no less incoherent than the federal government was for the same reasons.

Therefore, finding a solution to Canada’s greenhouse gas challenge can not simply involve “going back to the fork in the road” as Mr. Manning suggests and following a different path just because it is different. In reality the “fork in the road” is actually a nexus of many possible alternative solutions that can be applied with some degree of effectiveness or other. In fact there seems to be no lack of innovative ideas that may contribute to the lessening of green house gas emissions. The difficulty Canada has is in developing a coherent, comprehensive approach that can provide our international partners with evidence that we are not simply ‘shirking’ our global responsibilities. If we want to call that a ‘made in Canada solution’ then so be it. But this must not be done at the expense of our commitment to the Kyoto process which right now is the only viable vehicle we have to ensure that ‘free-rider’ trends do not take hold internationally. An ‘every nation for themselves’ solution is no solution at all. Only by encouraging as broad a base of international cooperation as possible can Canadians be assured that they will benefit from the work that must be done in other countries to target that other 98% of greenhouse gases that are emitted every year. Without trying to be too cute, to achieve this is more about governing than it is about politics.

Therefore as the Government moves forward on the Kyoto file they should consider embracing both options, Kyoto and a ‘made in Canada solution’, not as a matter of weakness or indecisiveness but as a reflection of the wisdom that has been repeatedly and successfully exhibited by Canadian governments of all stripes over time.