Starting to build collaborative government
Collaborative government. For too many people that term is an oxymoron. Government does to us. We either put up or we protest. But that’s the old world, the old way of doing things. We’re seeing a move away from the arrogance of imposition and closed-shop decision making towards a much more thoughtful, open and collaborative process. Towards what I call intimate democracy. Yesterday I facilitated the start of this public conversation in Scotland, the Collaborative Government Scotland forum, which was co-hosted by the Democratic Society, Scottish Government and the University of Edinburgh. This was a workshop for about 70 people from civil society and government to come together and talk as equals about what collaborative government means for Scotland. We didn’t expect to get the answers, this is the start of a journey not a single event. We hoped that from the day we would be able to frame a number of intentions about the focus and direction of travel. Intentions that will both frame emerging thinking within the Scottish Government and also shape the direction the shared conversations will take. I think we achieved that. The process involved a lot of conversation. Facilitated conversation in various formats. A lot of problems aired (though people were overwhelmingly positive), a lot of questions asked and a lot of talk about where we can go. I had the easy job, all I had to do was make things run on time and connect it all together. So that gave me time to walk around and listen, to talk to people about their feelings and ideas. Before I explore the themes that I heard coming out of the workshop, I want to position this conversation by para-phrasing what one participant said:
Creating choice is different from letting people decide.
This is fantastic. It’s both true, obvious and rarely given attention to. If we want to build truly collaborative government then we need to involve people in choosing what the parameters of this are, in designing it from scratch. It’s not going work if all we do is provide them with a list of ideas we’ve generated in private. That’s not collaborative! What’s clear is that there are cultural and social barriers to success in the new world. And this is challenging for both civil society and for government for different reasons. The world is changing rapidly, we can’t possibly believe that old world structures will still work in a new world. The new world wants to be a network of equals not a power-based hierarchy. Change is happening, it’s not a case of if, but when. So, based on what I heard yesterday, I want to offer this intention into the conversation:
We have to intentionally dissipate old-world ‘power over’ and actively promote through our actions and ideas ‘power with’
I think this is important because what I heard yesterday was that we need to create safe places and safe processes. These places and processes are how we share our power with and across the network. We need to build strong relationships, drawing on the weak ties of the network society, and empower trusted intermediaries to be grounded leaders. They in turn use new skills and new ways of being to draw together citizens, charities, agencies and government. Doing this demonstrates value back to citizens but equally, innovation is a risky business. To overcome this we need to understand and modify our risk profiles. We have to see failure as a natural part of the life-cycle. Not failure for the sake of it, but valuing experimentation and, through active learning, feeding what didn’t work back in to the ecosystem. Where power is shared, failure is less threatening too. We have to build democratic services together. So we have to resource and empower communities to be willing and able to take charge of the change around them. A key part of sharing power is the empowerment of those who have felt unable to own their own solutions. This means taking democracy to where people are, not expecting them to come to the centre – in the networked democracy, there is no centre! Government can start to let go of control, allow the trusted intermediaries to take the message out and share it amongst their networks. Then trust them to bring what they hear back into the conversation. This extends the reach and keeps the message relevant. Sharing power let us start a cycle of new leadership and trust building: Can this happen? Yes! I believe Scotland has the advantage of scale – my experience in New Zealand and Sweden tells me that a small, smart, passionate and well-resourced country can achieve a lot because it can be much more agile! Small works to our advantage here. So let’s start small, and remember that this isn’t revolution, it’s evolution. We can easily take a couple of pilot areas and re-model them around our intentions as collaborative and agile processes. And together government and communities can share, talk, listen, reflect and then move on to design, prototype, refine and learn.