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Infrastructure: Testing Ground for Organizational Collaborative Governance?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Daniel Bauer
August 20, 2018

At an increasingly prominent rate, physical infrastructure projects are becoming exercises in collaborative governance. Organizational behavior is sufficiently compelled to create, add and modify managerial processes and techniques for such undertakings. Regardless of the impetus behind physical infrastructure, collaborative governance holds all parties accountable for the provisioning of public goods. The challenge arises as to what level of ownership (both potential assets and potential liabilities) prevails.

Collaborative governance is complicated, oftentimes laced with unpredictability and coupled with an amalgamation of opposing influences. Various definitions of collaborative governance abound, but in a 2007 research article published in Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory; both Chris Ansell and Alison Gash provide a comprehensive description that can be applicable to infrastructure. In their article titled, Collaborative Governance in theory and practice, collaborative governance “involves a partnership between public agencies and private stakeholders to form public policy through collective decision-making.” At inception, Ansell and Gash’s definition invokes a veiled attack on the premise that public policy formulation is the sole purview of public sector organizations. Conversely, there is a subtle recognition that decisions are not made according to a division between public sector and private sector. Both sectors possess an interest, a common ground, and both sectors are interconnected in a risk-return relationship underpinning society/community.

Nowhere does a better testbed exist for collaborative governance than the use of public resources deployed through infrastructure. Therefore, the research article provides the results of 137 examples. In general, local public goods emerged as a top priority concern addressed by collaborative governance. The results of the examples reveal the determination that certain features lead to “successful” collaboration. The revealed results showcase factors such as 1). time 2). trust and 3). interdependence as necessary for successful collaboration. From the practitioner perspective, successful collaborative governance is born out of time getting to know each other, an element of trust and some proverbial “skin in the game,” which becomes most important, and therefore beneficial, especially considering who bears potential liability in case of unsuccessful infrastructure. The implications and lessons learned are not only valuable in an American viewpoint, but also can be successfully engaged abroad.

Conversely, in 2015, authors Ojiako, Papadopoulos et al, presented a research study at the Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers – Management, Procurement and Law, titled, “Collaborative Governance in Greek Infrastructure Projects.” The authors revealed a common set of factors leading to a less than optimal public goods delivery. The research examined several organizations competing for and managing infrastructure projects throughout the country, with implications for American collaborative governance. The results of the scholarly work identified factors including inequality between partners (some with unequal financial capacity, political clout and human resources capacity among others), ownership of the delivery through collaborative governance and, again, the time factor; in this study specifically concerning decisionmaking and solving problems.

According to the National Council on Public-Private Partnerships (NCPPP), collaboration      among various public sector entities is increasingly exploratory and fast becoming the norm for infrastructure. In July of 2018, a proposed federal funding mechanism was being explored, potentially permitting agencies for budgeting purposes to separate certain real property capital investments from their operating expenses. Such undertakings, whether ultimately successful or not, are examples of infrastructure serving as a testing ground for governance.

The World Bank in a 2018 positioning paper regarding governance and institutions recognizes and highlights the importance of collaborative governance regarding successful infrastructure, amongst others, by stipulating that “countries with strong institutions prosper by creating an environment that facilitates private sector growth, reduces poverty, delivers valuable services and earns the confidence of their citizens — a relationship of trust that is created when people can participate in government decision-making and know their voices are heard.”

Pragmatically, neither public sector nor private sector possess the exclusive financial capacity to underwrite the “all-in” cost of infrastructure. Additionally, impacted communities don’t necessarily possess the appetite for risk inherent in both greenfield infrastructure development and brownfield infrastructure overhaul. Thus, to develop, construct, maintain and operate public goods service delivery, like it or not, multiple levels of government, private sector and various nonprofit organizations cooperate.

Rarely does one stakeholder commit to infrastructure on a standalone basis. Usually, stakeholders in public sector, including federal, state, local (county and/or municipality) and even special district(s), conflate to form an organization addressing infrastructure. Born out of this conflation is a unique organizational culture. The aforementioned studies, in the aggregate, map out a set of common characteristics associated with successful infrastructure. Finally, the vehicle mechanism for successful infrastructure is collaborative governance.

As this continuing series on infrastructure has revealed, infrastructure proves to be not only an impetus for technology impact, but also a deliverer of value through physical and informational solutions, productivity and GDP enhancer, cost effectiveness advocate, birthplace for innovation, transformative driver of en masse public policy, and now serves as a testing ground for unique organizational cultures and organizational entrepreneurship in the form of collaborative governance. The next article will discuss nascent funding solutions for infrastructure and wrap up with environmental, social and governance as an asset class for various infrastructure undertakings. Ultimately, the perceived challenges associated with infrastructure serve as enticements (or low hanging fruit, if you will) for organizational behavioral solutions emanating through newly structured collaborative governance.


Author: Daniel G. Bauer is finishing his Doctorate at the School of Public Administration at Florida Atlantic University. Mr. Bauer has an Executive MBA from the College of Business at Florida Atlantic University and a BBA in Finance from University of Toledo College of Business. Daniel has 20+ years of professional experience both domestically and abroad. His research areas focus on finding solutions at the confluence of financing, procurement/supply chain, organizational behavior, sustainability, and social responsibility. Please reach out to him at [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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