May 01, 2021

In the aftermath of the 2016 and 2020 U.S. elections, one thing is clear: Most Americans are remarkably in agreement with the idea that the current political and economic systems simply are not generating well-being, prosperity, or security for the vast majority of us. We want real change.

At the same time, people have different and contradictory ideas about the root causes of the problems, and about what they think or feel could make our large-scale systems better. This is what makes the problems we face as a society complex and dynamic, what’s known as “wicked problems.”

I want to share a vision of a way forward, that doesn’t involve electing different politicians, changing the electoral college, campaign finance reform, or an amendment to the constitution.

Those are real options, of course, like buying a dilapidated house and choosing to fix it up because it has “good bones.”  You might gut the whole house, add new features, modernize the appliances and… voila! You’ve made the house great again!

The problem as I see it, however, is that the foundation on which the whole house rests is problematic. At the risk of oversimplifying, the “bones” of our political institutions came out of the best thinking of the 18th century. And yet, so much has changed since then!

To generate more wise public policy in these times, we need to get back to the ground we stand on. What are our democratic values, and what kind of institutional structures will work today to help us realize them?

At this point, you might jump to the assumption that I am saying we should tear the whole house down and build something new — but my metaphor takes a different turn. Construction on the new house is already well underway. The old house will fall on its own; instead of tearing it down, let’s redirect our precious energy toward reinforcing the new structures.

The old house can serve our transition to the new one; we can turn our attention instead to what is worth saving, what is already working and want we want to build into the new structures.

Governance is Not the Same as Government: Changing Perspective

Here’s a popular puzzle that demonstrates how our habits of perception can block our ability to solve problems. The problem is to connect the 9 dots below with four straight lines, without lifting your pencil from the paper: When we first encounter this problem, our tendency is to assume that we must stay within the square defined by the dots. However, a puzzle is a problem for which the obvious response does not work. In this case, the answer involves drawing lines that go “outside the box” (see solution here).

Likewise, if we are seeking to change the outcomes of public policy, we are not restricted to working just within the structures of government. In fact, wise public policy is more likely to happen today in other arenas that include and transcend government.

These new policy arenas, taken all together, form the structure of a new system that is already transforming public engagement and how public policy is made — this is not a theoretical argument. My hope is that, as a society, we become more aware of these emerging opportunities for democratic engagement, and reclaim our power to shape the systems that impact our lives.

It is the Circle Forward mission to keep developing, applying, and testing practices for collaborative governance in support of these new arenas of self-governance. Our commitment to this work keeps strengthening, as it becomes clearer that governments alone cannot handle the complexity of the problems we face.

The Path Forward is on Common Ground

On the leading edge of this new trend in public policy are people who recognize our basic interdependence — that no single entity, no matter how large or powerful, can solve the wicked problems in our current systems. Rather, the key to our success for changing “the system” lies in optimizing the activities, relationships, and interactions among all the stakeholders in the system.

Perhaps you are among those who are already leading, supporting, or participating in cross sector, multi-stakeholder governance networks, where people are seeking common ground, and government is just one voice among many stakeholders at the table.  You might not have considered until now that your network may be a more authentic kind of democracy than our representative government; by ensuring a plurality of voices, your network may be the best place for policy-making to happen on your issue; and that this type of cross-sector arena is the next evolution of democracy.

A cornerstone of this new system is the axiom that complexity is needed to handle and process complexity. The science of complexity states that for one system to deal effectively with another it must be of the same or greater complexity.  When the structures of government are not guided by the science of complexity, they show themselves to be inadequate for dealing with today’s “wicked problems.”

The Architecture of Collaborative Governance is All Around Us

If you squint your eyes, so to speak, and focus on the constructive work that is happening around the country, you will see the outlines of these new systems of self-governance emerging. They have the requisite variety of stakeholders to handle complex issues, and they have the power to distribute leadership and positive action more broadly and equitably.

An example is New York State’s juvenile justice system. The consulting firm, FSG, engaged representatives from 62 counties statewide and hundreds of agencies, from the courts and police to mental health and child welfare services, to work on a juvenile justice system that no one person or agency—or even the governor—could change alone. In 2010, for the first time ever, law enforcement, county services, state agencies, the courts, and advocacy organizations began to work together toward shared goals. Collaborative relationships laid the foundation for dramatic policy changes, and between 2010 and 2013, the number of youth in state custody declined by 45 percent with no increase in crime. You can read more about it here.

Collective Impact

New York’s juvenile justice system is one example of emerging structures of governance networks (that include and transcend government) found in the Collective Impact Movement. Collective Impact is when a group of actors from different sectors commit to a common agenda for solving a systemic problem, using a structured form of collaboration. This framework was codified by FSG and has been successfully applied to all kinds of systems, for issues like community health, education, food security, and economic development, for example.

Although bringing together stakeholders from across systems can be challenging and delicate to pull off, when collective impact initiatives succeed, they yield meaningfully positive results: new relationships get formed, power imbalances are addressed, funding and resources are re-prioritized, and the strategic directions of organizations, businesses, and governmental agencies are aligned to support shared purposes. The collective impact movement encompasses thousands of such arenas for the public good, across communities and regions. A few are listed here.

Large Landscape Conservation

Large landscape conservation initiatives take a similarly holistic approach, both environmentally and politically. Large Landscapes are just that — large ecological systems that cross state (and sometimes country) borders and native lands. These cross-sector initiatives take into account the complexity of the landscapes in their purview: including biodiversity issues, but also issues such as local economies and agriculture, ecotourism, geodiversity and the health and social benefits of the environment.

The Roundtable on the Crown of the Continent, as one example, grew out of the observation that the future of the Crown of the Continent (in the Rocky Mountains) is being shaped by over 100 government agencies, non-government organizations, and place-based partnerships. The Roundtable convenes a “network of networks” by linking aligning the many groups, agencies, and entities working around the Crown, across the U.S. and Canada and several indigenous nations.

They are building resilience into the Crown’s natural and human communities. Resilience is the capacity of a socio-ecological system to absorb shocks and maintain function in the face of external stressors, as climatic, economic, and demographic changes play out across the landscape.

What is different about these initiatives, is that government representatives are just one stakeholder at the table.

People and organizations that participate may have widely varying ideologies, but at the same time, they recognize their basic interdependence. The recognize that traditionally marginalized voices must be at the table. In governance networks, dialogue between public authorities and those constituencies who are affected by public governance helps to clarify the nature of the problem that needs to be addressed; and, it can also trigger the creative destruction of existing ideas and thereby pave the way for new ideas that then inspire more wise policy making and service delivery.

The New Structure for Governance

Taken individually, each successful initiative that brings together diverse voices to collaborate on wicked problems is inspiring. Taken all together, researchers like Eva Sorensen say we are in the midst of a tectonic shift in how public policy is being made:

“[P]olicy, defined as the attempt to achieve a desired outcome, is a result of governing processes that are no longer fully controlled by the government, but subject to negotiations between a wide range of public, semi-public and private actors, whose interactions give rise to a relatively stable pattern of policy making that constitutes a specific form of regulation, or mode of coordination. It is this pluricentric mode of coordination that in the literature is dubbed governance networks.”

“As such, the idea of the sovereign state governing society top-down through comprehensive planning, programmed action and detailed regulations is losing its grip, and is being replaced by new ideas about a pluricentric governance based on interdependence, negotiation, and trust.”

The infrastructure of these emerging governance networks is criss-crossing all the typical jurisdictions and boundaries, and is threaded through social systems from the local to the regional, national, and international levels.

An appropriate metaphor for these emerging governance networks might be that we are growing the connective tissue in our political body, like that in our physical bodies, that weaves together our life-supporting systems. We are becoming a networked society, like this graphical depiction of the internet. Across every system you can imagine, stakeholders are linking and aligning their efforts, and pooling their resources, to leverage changes that none of them could do alone.

New Forms of Governance Change the Rules for How We Make the Rules

In their book, The Starfish and the Spider, Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom document how distributed networks like Napster, Craigslist, and E-bay have changed the rules of the game in their respective industries. To understand the potential impact of governance networks on public policy, just listen to what Carl Wilson, a music critic at Slate, told the Daily Beast in June 2014 about Napster’s influence on the music industry: “The [music] industry losing some of its control has been positive, just as I hoped it would be at the time — the wide-open way music is discovered today has broken down barriers between genres, between the ‘commercial’ and the ‘artistic,’ between audience niches. It’s also resulted in much greater levels of control for artists and fans to create and share music without a monolithic and hierarchical industry guiding anyone’s hand. This was Napster’s goal from the beginning.”

Substitute the word “government” for the music industry and “public policy” for music; and, we can start to imagine self-governing networks shifting policy making to arenas where it is more open, participatory, and democratic. Government is an important institutional member in governance networks. They have a unique role to play in shaping a collective vision and in carrying it out. And, like the music industry, governments and other institutions will morph and change in response to collaborative decisions made in governance networks.

For Leaders of Collaborative Governance Networks

Our clients and potential clients are leading collaborative networks. As you read this article, it may be hard to see yourselves as primary architects of the next evolution of democracy.

Happily, the priorities for building your network to address social and environmental systems, are the priorities for restructuring democracy. As the popular Tony Robbins says “where focus goes, energy flows.” We can give more energy and legitimacy to the new policy arenas, where the rules of the game include collaborative governance, voices from all parts of the system, and equitable processes that address systemic injustice.

That’s not to say that all governance networks are effective or democratic — this is not about utopia. This is an appeal to recognize the opportunity to direct our energy toward these emerging governance structures and so develop real alternatives for democracy to thrive. The internet itself is providing the infrastructure for exciting new tools for democracy and public engagement.

Governance networks focused on a common agenda can use these tools and platforms to harness the wisdom of untold numbers of citizens, and we can find pathways forward together. Read Part 2: We Want Real Change. So What’s Next?

If you’d like to know more about operationalizing equity, transparency and forward momentum in your network, contact us.

We’d love to hear about your work.

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