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Public administration explainer: What is co-governance?

17 April 2023

News and media


ANZSOG’s Research program is currently funding a research project, co-sponsored by the NSW Government and undertaken by the UNSW Social Policy Research Group, into co-governance arrangements, with the goal of building understanding of enablers of and barriers to successful co-governance projects and their impact on trust. This article, by ANZSOG Research Assistant Dr Honae Cuffe, outlines how co-governance differs from other forms of government-community collaboration and how it can work in practice. 


Interest in collaborative approaches to government has grown in recent years as a way to engage citizens, deliver better outcomes and restore public trust in government. 

Policy failures and the burden of ‘wicked’ problems have contributed to declining levels of trust in government. Trust is the cornerstone on which the legitimacy of democratic institutions and systems lays. A lack of trust can lead to declining social cohesion and prevent governments from addressing systemic and long-term challenges such as climate change and ill-health. 

Co-governance is one of several approaches that governments are using to prioritise accountability and collaboration. It involves “negotiated decision-making arrangements” in which there has been a “devolution of decision-making imperatives, authority and control” to a collaborative body comprised of government and local stakeholders, generally from community-based organisations.  

This decision-making power is formal and includes the right to make funding decisions, recommendations to elected government officials and involvement in program implementation, evaluation, and refinement. 

Co-governance is often grouped with other closely related but distinct collaborative approaches including: 

  • Co-production: In public policy and administration, co-production is a collaborative approach to government that involves citizens in the delivery of public services and policy. Co-production operates on the principle of input exchange, with government and citizens each adding value. In co-production, governments will seek citizen input to access their particular knowledge and identify trends and priorities, through consultation, beta testing or ex-post evaluations. This input combines with that of experts and other government actors to expand the available resources that inform decision-making. Citizens have input in the day-to-day decisions that will affect their lives and, ideally, have access to more efficient, effective and equitable services and programs. 
  • Co-design: Co-design refers to a process of involving citizen users in the design of services and policies that affect them. Co-design is grounded in industrial design thinking, with iterative stages that are oriented towards innovation. Where co-production sees citizens as a resource and invites feedback at the delivery stage, co-design treats citizens as equal partners. Members of the public are seen as “experts in their own experience”, who should be empowered to contribute to designing services and policies that relate to those experiences. This involves collaboratively defining problems, testing ideas and forming a consensus on the solution.  
  • Place-based approaches: Place-based approaches to policy and service delivery are designed around the specific and intersecting circumstances of a particular place. Place-based approaches are led by the local community and delivered in partnership with stakeholders, including government and other non-government service providers. This approach empowers local communities, allows them to identify their own priorities and can include elements of co-production, co-design, and even co-governance. Rather than one discrete model, place-based initiatives use different methodologies and structures depending on the local context. 

These various models provide citizens with opportunities to shape the policies and services that impact their lives. However, they are guided through pre-designed and circumscribed participatory mechanisms and final decision-making power rests with the government. In this way, the existing power imbalance between government and the community is ultimately reproduced. Only co-governance involves the sustained devolution of decision-making power. 

Co-governance in action

There has been particular interest in co-governance with First Nations communities in Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand in recognition of the value of First Nations’ knowledge and skills, and the role that co-governance can play in promoting greater self-determination and responding to community-led agendas for change.  

The Waikato River Authority in Aotearoa New Zealand is an example of a successful long-term arrangement. In 2010, the Authority was established to oversee the management of Aotearoa New Zealand’s longest river, the Waikato River. The Authority is governed by 10 board members – five appointed by the Crown and five from Waikato iwi – and has shared responsibility for setting and achieving strategic plans for “the restoration and protection of the health and wellbeing of the Waikato River for present and future generation.” This partnership enables the pooling of resources, skills and knowledge for more effective outcomes. The structure of having both the Crown and iwi appoint members has created long-term continuity and created a board with deep understanding of the issues. 

In Australia the Maranguka initiative, based in the town of Bourke in remote Western NSW. Maranguka developed in response to systemic disadvantage and the failures of policy and service to support vulnerable families and children in Bourke. 

The Bourke Tribal Council – the overarching governance body representing the clan and family groups of the Aboriginal community of Bourke – partnered with government and non-government organisations to develop a community-led strategy for crime reduction and to deliver positive outcomes for children and families. The Growing Our Kids Up Safe, Smart and Strong strategy adopts a coordinated, whole-of-life approach to community empowerment, service delivery, and reducing young peoples’ exposure to the criminal justice system.  

The strategy is operationalised through the Aboriginal-owned and operated Maranguka Community Hub and strategic working groups. The regular meetings of the working groups bring community members and government and non-government agencies together to share insights, test ideas, and monitor progress.  

Maranguka has been praised for its partnership approach that reimagines how Aboriginal communities engage with government to prioritise greater self-determination. 

With the promise of increased accountability, a sense of joint-ownership and more effective solutions, co-governance has the potential to redefine public service-citizen relationships and restore public confidence. It goes beyond other forms of collaboration and invites the public to act as joint architects of the design of the participatory mechanisms, allowing societal actors [to] participate directly in the core functions of government itself.”  

Co-governance assumes that devolving power and the formal capacity for action that co-governance promotes will lead to an increase in levels of trust and better outcomes. 

Despite anecdotal success, the evidence base in favour of co-governance remains relatively undeveloped. In large part, this is because co-governance is a relatively new concept, and the parameters are not clearly defined in literature or practice. Co-governance processes vary according to contextual factors such as the governing structures involved, the issue at hand, and the level of community involvement. ANZSOG’s research is an attempt to create an evidence base around what kinds of co-governance work best and build trust between governments and communities.