Collaborative partnerships between the public and private sectors are essential if the global economy is to stay afloat, argue John Donahue and Richard Zeckhauser in this new book on how to achieve public goals more effectively. Bringing their important lessons to life through a variety of interesting case studies, Sasha Jesperson finds that the authors provide a must-read for anyone involved in the future of public policy making.

Collaborative Governance: Private Roles for Public Goals in Turbulent Times. John D. Donahue and Richard J. Zeckhauser. Princeton University Press. February 2011.

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Harvard Kennedy School lecturers John D. Donahue and Richard J. Zeckhauser begin Collaborative Governance by outlining some of the major economic, environmental, and social challenges that lie on the horizon for the global economy: ageing populations, run down high streets, and failing schools are all referenced to paint a bleak picture of the future. The authors write that “government often finds it lacks the skill, the will, and the wallet to figure out a fix and get it done”. At a time when governments across the world are visibly struggling to manage crumbling economies, rising unemployment figures, and ever tightening public purse strings, many readers would agree.

Looking to the U.S., Donahue and Zeckhauser argue that the constant debate between Democrats and Republicans on the size of government has become stale, and that the discussion should now shift to how government can get its work done. The authors call for a systematic increase in the impact of government efforts through collaborative governance; the creation of synergies between governments and private partnerships that would allow them to collectively produce more than their separate efforts. The total cost of all the services that citizens would like their governments to provide far outstrips the tally of taxes that citizens are prepared to pay, and so the authors make the case for public-private partnerships as essential for achieving public goals more effectively.

As the main barrier to effectiveness, Donahue and Zeckhauser raise the lack of skills and knowledge of the private sector; public servants are rarely experts on which teaching methods provide for the best education, how to construct roads or bridges, or which training course would make an individual more employable. They argue that in almost any moderately complex undertaking, “having collaborators participate in specifying the mission and the methods greatly enhances the potential for creating value”. Productivity, information, legitimacy, and resources can all be made more efficient through collaboration, argue the authors, but they also accept that collaboration is not always straightforward, and may even come at a cost that undermines the original goal.

To highlight the varying results of collaboration, the authors explore a broad spectrum of collaborative case studies. Discussing the US student loans structure, they reveal the ‘gravy train’ made available to private banks cashing in on student debt at the government’s expense.

Turning to a case study on space shuttles, the authors reveal the confusion around collaboration. What NASA thought could be done through a contractual arrangement actually required much more discretion on the part of the United Space Alliance for what became quite a complex undertaking.

Yet, there are also notable positive examples, such as Chicago’s Millennium Park, where the involvement of private actors transformed an old railway yard into a cultural icon far greater than that which was originally conceived as possible. The transformation of USAID is also held up as an example of effective collaboration, in which a shift towards a genuine collaborative approach with partners improved the department’s legitimacy in the eyes of taxpayers, but also enhanced its effectiveness on the ground through new partnerships with corporations such as CISCO, rather than the usual suspects in the aid industry.

Drawing the book to a close, the authors make no illusions that collaboration is simple, and the case studies that they have selected throughout the book attest to this. They also note that there is no one size fits all solution. Despite this they are able to provide practical guidance by mapping out potential obstacles and strategies to prepare and foresee most eventualities. The heavy reliance on diverse case studies provides a readable and engaging account of collaborative governance, while emphasising the many directions partnerships can take.

However, the book does have a self-congratulatory tone towards American innovation, and the authors focus solely on American case studies even while aiming to provide solutions for the global economy. The justification for the American-centric focus is that “it applies more fiercely to our market-friendly country than it does to most other polities”. While corporate interests may be stronger in the US, strong business interests remain elsewhere, as do successful and unsuccessful examples of collaborative governance.

Nonetheless, the analysis and principles provided by Donahue and Zeckhauser provide lessons that can be applied anywhere. As the UK continues to steer through its own turbulent times where the government will be unable to afford many services required by citizens, these lessons will become increasingly important. Required reading for anyone interested or involved in public policy making to understand the potential value, and risks, of collaborative governance.


Sasha Jesperson is a PhD candidate in the Government Department at the LSE. Her research focuses on the intersection of security and development in post-conflict reconstruction, and human security, comparing Sierra Leone and Bosnia. Previously, she worked with Amnesty International, both at the International Secretariat and the Australian section on a range of human rights issues, but particularly focused on human rights in conflict and post-conflict situations. Read more reviews by Sasha.

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