Is power sharing the solution to power asymmetry in collaborative governance?

blogimage_powersharingBy Bing Ran & Huiting Qi, School of Public Affairs, Penn State Harrisburg

Power dynamics play a significant role in collaborative governance because many issues and challenges can be linked to power asymmetry. Both practitioners involved in a power-sharing arrangement and scholars who study collaborative governance usually assume a power-sharing arrangement by default in collaborative arrangements. But the pursuit of power sharing as the solution to power asymmetry often leads to difficulties in theory and implementation. Sharing power in collaboration requires, conceptually, an insightful reflection on the dynamics of power sharing, and, practically, clear guidelines to handle the challenges of time-consuming negotiation, less flexibility, and ineffectiveness. We recently published research in the American Review of Public Administration that explored possible contingency factors affecting the relationship between power sharing and effectiveness of collaborative governance. We identified six contingency factors influencing power sharing and linked them with the practice of managing collaboration projects.

Contingency Factor 1: Institutional Environment

An institutional environment strongly cultivating and promoting collaborative relationships provides a solid foundation for power sharing in terms of system trust and shared ideas, values, and norms because participants incline to believe that the system’s rules can protect them from unforeseen challenges. Trust building, joint decision making, and collaborative spirit can be enhanced within this kind of institutional environment, all of which can make power sharing less challenging and more beneficial for an effective collaborative process. Therefore, we propose the following:

Proposition 1: The stronger the institutional environment is in cultivating collaboration, the more beneficial power sharing is for the effectiveness of collaborative governance.

Contingency Factor 2: Type of Mission
The effects of power sharing on collaboration are contingent upon the mission of the collaboration. In emergency management, with an exigent mission, the requirement of quick response and high efficiency to manage crisis or disaster does not leave participants much time to negotiate power structure. On the other hand, collaborations with long-term missions, such as urban governance, that are engagement- or effectiveness-oriented can afford power-sharing negotiations to motivate actual engagement of diverse stakeholders in the long term and achieve the mission of the collaboration, even though it is time consuming. Therefore, we propose the following:

Proposition 2: The less exigent the mission of collaborative governance, the more beneficial power sharing is for its effectiveness.

Contingency Factor 3: Type of Network
Voluntary or mandated networks are two typical collaborative networks. When collaboration is formed voluntarily, participants will have more consent, reciprocity, and trust, all of which will positively influence their willingness to negotiate power structure, resulting in fewer challenges overall. Comparatively, in a mandated collaboration, which usually involves bureaucratic or hierarchical mechanisms, participants engage in interactions largely based on the mandate, which might hinder the level of mutual consent, reciprocity, and trust, leading to difficulties. Moreover, the major planning approach in mandated collaboration involves deliberate planning from goals and careful articulation of missions and responsibilities dominated by a few powerful parties. The major planning approach in voluntary collaboration, however, involves a more democratically effective conversation between a broader network of affected partners in forming missions and specifying responsibilities. Power sharing between participants is a key factor in the effectiveness of voluntary collaboration. Therefore, we propose the following:

Proposition 3: The more voluntary the network, the more beneficial power sharing is for the effectiveness of collaborative governance.

Contingency Factor 4: Previous Collaboration Experience
For participants with insufficient power-sharing experience in collaboration, it is difficult to establish the legitimacy of power sharing. Powerful participants who lack power-sharing experience will likely be reluctant to share power. Participants in a weaker power position who lack power-sharing experience may have limited capacities to do so. The effectiveness of collaborative processes, such as joint decision making and mutual trusting relationships, will be inhibited due to the challenges encountered by power sharing between partners with insufficient power-sharing experience. This will further negatively affect the collaborative outcomes as well as participants’ satisfaction with their collaboration. Therefore, we propose the following:

Proposition 4: The less power-sharing experience participants have, the less beneficial power sharing is for the effectiveness of collaborative governance.

Contingency Factor 5: Diffusion of Power Sources
Power sources, which mainly come from formal authority, resource control, and discursive legitimacy, are the foundation of exercising power. It is unrealistic to share power without the diffusion of power sources among participants. If the sources of power cannot be easily shared with others, power sharing will lose its foundation and be extremely challenging, leading to difficulties in aligning different perspectives and jointly making decisions, which are important measures in assessing the effectiveness of collaboration from the process perspective. Therefore, we propose the following:

Proposition 5: The more widely diffused power sources are, the more beneficial power sharing is for the effectiveness of collaborative governance.

Contingency Factor 6: Cost–Benefit Calculation
In practice, there is an intrinsic trade-off for participants in a collaboration, when they must decide if they want to receive more benefits at the cost of relinquishing some power. The choice may depend on their expectation and calculation of the costs and benefits of giving up some power in a collaborative arrangement. If participants expect that the benefits of collaboration will outweigh the cost of giving up some power or leaving the collaboration, they are more likely to tolerate a certain degree of differences or even disparities in power sharing. From the cost–benefit perspective, the effectiveness of collaboration can be promoted in terms of both outcomes achieved by collaboration and the stakeholders’ satisfaction with their collaboration. Therefore, we propose the following:

Proposition 6: The more acceptable the cost–benefit calculation is for participants, the more beneficial power sharing is for the effectiveness of collaborative governance.

Our contingency framework provides some empirical guidance for practitioners collaborating with other partners. For effective power sharing in a collaboration, participants should (1) evaluate the institutional environment outside the collaboration, such as the rigidity of regulations and rules that can control the participants’ behaviors; (2) understand both individual organizational goals and common missions of the collaboration when sharing power between partners; (3) improve the internal consent or legitimacy of the mandated collaborative; (4) choose partners who have positive previous experiences in power sharing with others; (5) be cautious to participate in a collaboration in which the partners’ power sources are extremely asymmetric; (6) improve participants’ satisfaction with their benefits gained in collaboration.

This contingency framework provided in our study will help both scholars and practitioners develop a conceptual understanding of power relationships in collaboration and provide insight on how the power dynamics in collaboration can be managed in practice.

Bing Ran is an Associate Professor of Public Administration in the School of Public Affairs, Penn State Harrisburg. His research interests focus on the dynamic interactions between society’s complex infrastructure and human behavior, tackling topics such as collaborative governance networks, organizational identity, knowledge integration, social entrepreneurship, and hybrid organizations.

Huiting Qi is a doctoral candidate in the PhD program in public administration in the School of Public Affairs, Penn State Harrisburg. Her research interests include collaborative governance networks, behavioral public administration, and organizational theory.