Collaboration, often translated as partnership working, has become in recent years one of the cornerstones of ‘good governance’. Better coordinating the engagement and participation of various actors and agents who operate in and around local governance has promised better designed services, ‘joined up’ provision and resource savings, but was this model of collaborative governance more fit for times of plenty than times of austerity?
This is a question that an international research project has been established to examine. ‘Governance under austerity’ is a major two year study, led by De Montfort University, with APSE as a partner. The study will explore how cities around the world have put into place engagement with the private sector, and civil society, and how these arrangements have stood up to the challenges posed by recession.
In places like Barcelona, Dublin and Leicester there are good examples of collaborative processes being put into place during the boom years, with a lot of time, effort and energy invested in ensuring that effective dialogue was taking place between the local public sector, private sector and community groups. However, there is a danger that as resources are withdrawn then the good relationships developed over the past couple of decades may become more strained, or indeed be viewed more cynically, as something that was purely tokenistic, rather than a deep rooted commitment to the various communities within localities.
So is collaborative governance something that should receive continued support and investment, or in times when Councils are facing tough choices around cutting resources to elderly care or children’s services, is it something they can really afford?
In cities like Baltimore or Athens, where trust between the state and wider society has broken down to the extent that activism and protest has replaced co-operation, it seems a long way back to the valuable collaboration exchange that can take place at a local level. Whilst times are tough, nobody wants to see a breakdown in relationships that will take decades to repair and withdrawing resources today may prove a false economy.
So will support for collaborative governance within the public sector disappear when budgets are slashed, services are cut, staff are being made redundant and terms and conditions are eroded? Will action from civil society change in an austere environment and collaboration turn into protest? If this is the case why would the local public sector finance this or support it?
In fact, despite all the claims made in the name of collaboration, there was arguably never a solid evidence base for its strategic advantages or benefits. And, as these emerging questions on the continued resonance of collaborative working in times of austerity suggest, such evidence is needed now more than ever.