from government to collaborative governance

A classic view of government presumes that its job is to make and enforce laws. If you break the law, agents of the government are allowed (with due process) to force you, if necessary at gun point, to surrender property, liberty, or even life. On this view, government is different in kind from other institutions. Further, it ought to be kept sharply distinct. Blurring the border around the government is dangerous because too much coziness between government officials and other people encourages corruption (which is the private exploitation of governmental power), and because other institutions would be distorted if they were too closely implicated with government.

This theory of government supports a range of reforms and safeguards. Separation of church and state keeps the government from remaking religion in its image. Ethics rules are often about preventing exchanges of goods and favors between government and private persons. Open meeting laws suggest that the government should not consult with members of the public except in public, where the interaction can be monitored.

An entirely different view shifts from government to governance. Here, the idea is that we govern by shaping our common world. Law is one instrument for that, but law is not sharply different from norms and incentives. Law isn’t merely executed by government; without broad and active popular support, it becomes a dead letter. Besides, government is not unitary. It comes in layers and separate offices and agencies. No part of government monopolizes any kind of power. In the end, government is a bunch of people, and they are not sharply distinguishable from other people. They usually wear several “hats” (legislator and parent, for example). Public employees appropriately act as organizers and entrepreneurs within agencies and routinely cross the line between government and non-government to get things done.

According to this view, the narrow definition of government is analytically unhelpful and encourages the wrong kind of reforms. Far from driving a wedge between government and society, we should encourage porous borders and collaboration. Public officials should learn to form partnerships and should support civic groups. AmeriCorps lets people work for a time as quasi-public employees so that they can take a private perspective into the government and vice-versa. Instead of the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA) that erects barriers whenever federal agencies wish to hold a meeting, we should enact what Lisa Bingham proposes: a Collaborative Governance Act that “authorize[s] agencies to use public participation and collaboration much differently, much more, and a lot earlier in the policy process.”

Government versus governance raises significant practical, definitional, and normative issues.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.