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How can co-governance arrangements be used to develop better policy?

4 May 2023

News and media


A new report published in ANZSOG’s Research Insights series looks at the difficulties of defining co-governance and establishing principles around the concept which can be applied to different contexts. 

Interest in co-governance, or collaborative governance, has grown in recent years as societies contend with declining trust in government, policy failures and entrenched ‘wicked problems’ that appear to defy solution. There is growing recognition that some policy problems are too big for policy makers to address alone and that policies are likely to be ineffective if they fail to address the needs, interests and concerns of people directly affected by the policy.  

In contrast to traditional top-down decision making or consultation, collaborative governance seeks to bring together affected stakeholders to develop consensus-based policy.  It involves government and non-government actors coming together to explore possibilities and develop creative, effective policy responses. It is used when there is a belief that it will produce better policy and/or in circumstances where it is seen as appropriate that a community have power of policy development and implementation. 

The report, Would adopting more co-governance arrangements with communities build public trust? is the first output of a larger research project examining co-governance and trust, being undertaken by the Social Policy Research Centre (SPRC), UNSW Sydney, funded by the Australia and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG) and the NSW Government (the NSW Department of Premier and Cabinet, as well as Customer Service, Regional NSW and the NSW Public Service Commission). 

The Report reviews literature (both academic and practice) and references 22 different examples of co-governance from nine different countries ranging from environmental management, place-based initiatives, childcare and COVID-19 responses. 

It identifies broad principles that can be applied to different contexts, both around methods to implement co-governance, and its outcomes. 

The Report found collaborative governance initiatives: 

  • Can be in response to external drivers (any party, not just government) or policy 
  • Are specific to a problem and objectives (e.g. to redress power, resource information asymmetry; to solve ‘wicked’ problems) 
  • Require delegated authority that allows capacity for action 
  • Require powerful sponsors or champions. 

Barriers to adopting collaborative governance arrangements stem from the lack of willingness of parties to engage or lack of the preconditions for effective collaborative governance. 

The report highlighted four stages of collaborative governance required to establish effective collaborative governance and that their configuration is likely to vary based on the context, policy objective, preconditions, and time and resources available. The key stages are summarised below, and the report contains more detail of what makes up each stage, and the potential barrier that can occur. 


Identifying when collaborative governance may be beneficial 

Providing guidance on how co-governance can be effective in practice

The report notes that collaborative governance is on a continuum of ‘co’ activities which governments are involved in, including consultation, collaboration, co-design and co-production. In terms of the degree of power and authority given to non-government actors, devolution, self-determination and autonomy are further along this continuum. 

Co-governance requires partners to be engaged in the decision-making process itself, not just provide views or ideas – such as through consultation. It involves sharing power between the public sector and civil society, recognising that power comes in various forms (such as decision-making, resources, information and knowledge), and having participants recognise the process as collaborative governance. The real power often lies in the decision-making around the rules of engagement rather than on the substance of the decisions themselves. 

As well as difficulties over definitions, determining the outcomes of collaborative governance arrangements does not appear to be straightforward. The range of potential outcomes can be myriad, varied, intentional, unintentional, measurable, unmeasurable, positive, and negative. In addition, some arrangements can span years or decades changing to meet new circumstances. 

While the original objective of the study was to understand whether co-governance arrangements help build public trust in government, the report states that: “it is clear from this review that: trust is only one element of co-governance; trust (either the absence or existence of) may be a driver of, requirement and/or outcome of co-governance arrangements; and there are multiple components to trust and multiple relationships to which trust is potentially relevant”.  

The review indicates that much of the literature to date has been written from the perspective of the public sector rather than civil society, and there is an opportunity to provide clearer guidance to both the public sector and civil society about: 

  • what co-governance is (and is not),  
  • where it is most useful 
  • how to negotiate co-governance arrangements to ensure they address issues of power imbalance 

There is currently little detailed guidance in Australia and New Zealand about how to operationalise collaborative governance – not just from a public sector perspective, but also from the perspective of other stakeholders involved. ANZSOG has commissioned this research project to learn from three existing cases of collaborative governance to develop practice guidelines from the experience of those involved. 

The next step for the project is the collection of evidence from three case studies to develop a more detailed understanding of the process of co-governance from the perspective of both civil society and public sector organisations as to how co-governance works in practice.