New Yorks Central Park hit bottom in the late 1970s. Graffiti
marred nearly every man-made surface. Litter blew across desiccated
lawns. The city government, burdened by burgeoning costs and
dwindling resources, had no plausible plan to fix the park.
But today Central Park is once again the thriving centerpiece of
Manhattan, an inviting respite to millions. This remarkable
transformation has at its core a concept that is not new, but has
been largely unrecognized and understudied for far too long:
Central Park is just one example of how the process of
collaborative governance, targeted wisely and applied correctly,
can have a significant and expanding role in a broad range of
public endeavors at every level. Collaborative governance stands as
a next step in an evolution of American democracyone that may, for
many of the most urgent tasks facing America, point the way
Schools fall far short of what parents expect and students require.
Roads, bridges, and levees are crumbling from old age and heavy
burdens. There are too many things we need to do, too little with
which to do them. No one believes, given the complexity and cost of
the tasks we confront, that simply scaling up the standard
governmental solutions is the answer. All too often government at
every level lacks the skill, the will, and the wallet to figure out
a fix and to get something done.
Nor can private charity take up every burden that government shrugs
off. Foundations are struggling with endowments decimated by the
financial crisis, and corporations are struggling to save
themselves, unable to devote resources to a significant problem if
a profit isnt part of the solution.
There is much talk about forming public-private partnerships to
deal with many of todays problems. The impulse behind partnerships
is often sound, but the implementation tends to be under-analyzed.
While the distinctions between public-private partnerships and
collaborative governance are sometimes subtle, collaborative
arrangements that are more enduring and more strategically
structured appear to offer the greatest hope for significant and
The notion of a collaborative effort between government and the
private sector does not sit comfortably in the minds of many
Americans more familiar with a model of government action carried
out solely by public employees working in public organizations
under the direction of public managers. But the accomplishment of
many important public missions now depends on private and nonprofit
organizations collaborating with government to achieve goals that
are beyond the reach of government acting alone.
Collaborative governance can serve as what the military calls a
force multiplier, which is a method for increasing the impact of
governments efforts. It brings together public and private actors
to cooperate in an organized, structured way through shared
discretion to make and implement decisions and share resources.
That discretion to act is what motivates private collaborators and
empowers them to play valuable roles alongside their public
counterparts, and unleashes the resourcefulness of an
entrepreneurial citizenry on public problems.
Collaborative governance lies between the historical models of
contracting and philanthropy and allows each party to help
determine both the means by which a broadly defined goal is
achieved, as well as the specific methods of getting to the goal
Such sharing characterizes charter schools, for example. They
receive public funds to educate the children in their charge and
they have considerable flexibility to determine how to educate
those children. The private sector can choose most aspects of the
curriculum, determine levels and qualifications, and select
staffing and set the length of the school day and year, among other
things. But the private players by no means monopolize discretion.
Government retains control over admissions, testing, financial
standards, minimum curricular requirements, and other key matters.
There are myriad other examples of collaborative governance, some
resoundingly successful and some much less so. The Manhattan
Project united public and private expertise to outrace Nazi
Germanys weapons scientists. The government foots the bill for
Medicare and Medicaid, while private practitioners provide the
medical services. The U.S. Agency for International Development
delivers many of its programs abroad through private parties more
familiar with and skilled at carrying out transactions in other
Evolution of a Successful Collaboration
While our vision of collaborative governance may extend to such
complex goals as regulating the financial system, solving the
global warming crisis, and repairing the social safety net, it is
best to illustrate the concept through the revitalization of
We do not suffer the illusion that an example of solving a parks
problems transfers easily or automatically to bigger and different
problems such as those just mentioned. However, if the people
charged with fixing those problems are made aware of the
possibilities of collaboration in other domains, they are more
likely to consider collaborative approaches for their own policy
New York Citys extensive park system, crowned by Central Park, was
the creation of Robert Moses, a power broker and major player in
New York government from 1924 to 1968. Much of this time he served
as New York Citys Parks Commissioner. From this improbable
bureaucratic perch, Moses assembled a formidable political base and
transformed the face of the city. He was creative and relentless in
assembling the resources required to build and feed his empire.
Moses played the municipal budget game hard and well and excelled
in tapping every legitimate state and federal source of support.
Moses was a tough act to follow. The parks commissioners who
succeeded him were less ambitious and less bold, and the parks
steadily deteriorated. By 1976, the departments employment had
fallen from a peak of 75,000 plus to below 5,000.
Then, Mayor Ed Koch appointed Gordon Davis as parks commissioner.
Davis initiated a campaign of tactical retreat to a manageable core
mission. The first stage was load-shedding. Functions were shifted
away from the Parks Department and toward corporations, nonprofits,
and other units of government. Load shedding yielded modest
efficiencies, but not nearly enough to solve the problem of too
many parks and too little money.
Davis shifted tactics from load-shedding to strategic load-sharing,
a first attempt at harnessing the power of collaboration.
Responsibility for the zoos in Central Park, Flushing Meadows in
Queens, and Prospect Park in Brooklyn was shifted to the New York
Zoological Society, which is a venerable, private, nonprofit
organization that was already running the Bronx Zoo.
Buoyed by that early success, Davis made a collaborative approach
the linchpin of the Parks Departments operating strategy. By the
early 1990s, partnerships with the private sectorfor capital
investments, volunteer labor, routine support services, and
political supporthad matured from an improbable experiment into a
strategic mainstay. Meetings with volunteer groups became part of
the job for department officials, while identifying grant
opportunities, nurturing volunteer organizations, and cultivating
wealthy and well-connected supporters became core competencies for
Engaging Private Citizens
The Parks Departments proudest example of the partnership approach
began in 1980 when Elizabeth Barlow Rogers took the new post of
Central Park administrator. Rogers was deeply familiar with New
York Citys cultural institutions, such as the Metropolitan Museum
of Art and the New York Public Library, both of which encompassed
elements of collaborative governance in their history and
Those institutions had long enjoyed the support of groups of
prominent citizens who donated their own money and time, and used
their connections and stature to energize fundraising. Rogers was
determined to tap their latent interest in parks to improve Central
Park. She engineered the creation of the Central Park Conservancy
as a private nonprofit oriented toward, but separate from, the
public asset of Central Park.
Rogers established a visitors center staffed by conservancy
volunteers. At first, it only provided maps and answered questions.
But the centers services grew to stage art exhibits, musical
performances, and educational programs for children. Meanwhile the
Parks Departmentusing a conventional mix of city and state
fundingwas completing several urgent projects in Central Park,
including the restoration of the dilapidated Sheep Meadow.
The move into a progressively more operational role for the
conservancy also enabled volunteers, aching for gardens to dig
into, to put their own shovels in the dirt. And that set the stage
for a three-year campaign of comprehensive planning for Central
Parks renewal, culminating in public forums and a book laying out
both the goal and the organizational means to reach it.
Engaging Private Support
The conservancy soon showed itself to be a fundraising powerhouse,
amassing a $25 million endowment for the Greensward Trustfancy
charity terminology for a park maintenance fundand thus solidified
its bid to be a permanent fixture in the constellation of prominent
New York City civic organizations. Fundraising efforts exploded in
the 1990s, providing resources both for major investments and
renovations and for ongoing maintenance.
New committees and initiatives were established to link unmet park
needs with citizens latent readiness to donate time, money, or
both. Volunteers put in tens of thousands of hours each year, and
their efforts were increasingly supplemented by paid conservancy
employees. Yet the conservancy remained a private voluntary
organization that provided discretionary support for a city-run
parka large-scale version of the friends of the park associations
that are increasingly common around the nation.
Given the major resources now flowing into and from the
conservancy, the structure of the collaborative relationship with
the Parks Department became unbalanced. The conservancy had too
little discretion over its vast contributions to the Parks
operations. In 1998, following extensive yet amicable negotiations,
New York Citys government agreed to an important move: It
transferred primary stewardship of Central Park to the conservancy
through a legal agreement formalizing the conservancys new role and
establishing the ground rules for a permanent collaboration that
granted important decision-making authority to the conservancy.
Superficially, the agreement resembled a conventional
service-procurement contract of the type any city routinely signs
with providers of construction or consulting or social services. It
required the conservancy to provide services specified for
maintaining and repairing Central Park to the reasonable
satisfaction of the commissioner. The conservancy had to submit a
detailed operating budget to the commissioner and the agreement
delineated which facilities, prerogatives (licensing and collecting
money from private concessionaires), and park functions (including
law enforcement and control over public streets passing through the
park) remained with the city.
But the critical collaborative element of the document gave the
conservancy great latitude to determine how to carry out its tasks.
The specification of the tasks to be accomplished was left
remarkably vague. Litter was to be removed and grass to be mowed as
needed. Snow and ice would be cleared within a reasonable period of
time. Plants were to be fertilized as appropriate.
The financial provisions of the Conservancy-Parks Department deal
were even more unusual. Contracts usually specify sums to be paid
by the city. Here, the funds flowed in the opposite direction. This
agreement laid out details of how much money the conservancy would
bring to the party, requiring it to raise and expend annually a
minimum of $5 million for maintenance, repairs, programming,
landscaping, and the renovation and rehabilitation of existing
Midway through the eight-year agreement, Central Park had
progressed from gloom to bloom. It had not merely regained, but
also surpassed, the standards of park quality set by Robert Moses
in the days of flush public budgets, a remarkable accomplishment
few would have believed possible a decade earlier.
Doubters Won Over
A degree of skepticism had greeted the 1998 agreement delegating
Central Parks maintenance to the conservancy. A Village Voice
feature denounced the sell-out of the park to a private
philanthropic elite. But as time passed, the arrangement won wider
acceptance, and the park blossomed. Sure, there was occasional
grumbling about private events preempting a building or meadow and
more frequent complaints that opportunities to throw a ball or
Frisbee in Central Park were being progressively restricted in
favor of the bucolic atmosphere favored by private donors.
Certainly, the conservancys interests were reflected in more flower
beds and fewer playing fields, more Shakespeare and less soccer,
and an upscale tilt to the parks image, amenities, and regulations.
But in light of the spectacular renaissance of a park that remains
open to all, only the most picayune of populists could claim that
granting discretion to a private organization imposed an
unreasonable price on those who use Central Park.
Putting the Central Park Conservancy in charge of New York Citys
premier green space in Manhattan represents a remarkably successful
example of collaboration. As private leaders proved able and
willing to galvanize efforts to improve the park, government
learned to step into the shadows.
An eclectic menu of motiveseconomic stakes on the part of nearby
homeowners and landlords whose property values rose and fell with
Central Parks quality; the opportunity to shape priorities for the
use of the park; and an undeniable quotient of pure
civic-mindednesswas tapped to attract and cement commitment to the
Private resources poured in and were deployed more productively
than government could have managed on its own. As a result, a
highly visible, hugely valuable public asset experienced an
improbable resurrection. And while the private collaborators are
the more visible stars of the success story, it could not have
happened without the dedicated government officials who labor
behind the scenes to make the arrangement work.
We do not assert that we know how operationally collaborative
governance can fix complex contemporary problems such as financial
regulation, social services, or global warming, but we do believe
that an informed effort by experts in those endeavors to apply the
core principles of collaboration to their problems could lead to
Know the stakeholders
Central Park succeeded in part because public managers were able to
identify private partners with civic, financial, and emotional
stakes in the parks resurgence who were willing to get involved.
Focus on outcomes, stay flexible on process
Collaborative governance identifies broad goals, and gives each
side the leeway to pursue them. While government has an obligation
to ensure the proper financial accounting of public funds (or even
private funds put to public uses), shared discretion ensures the
motivation of private players and avoids the territorial conflicts
that can undermine progress.
Recognize core competencies
Government frequently excels at establishing standards,
specifications, and overarching goals. It generally cannot match
the private sectors strong suit of identifying and implementing
practical operational efficiencies. Collaborative governance
succeeds best where it can recognize the particular abilities of
all the parties, and assign responsibilities that reflect that
Establish broad benchmarks and milestones
The conservancy was charged with managing aspects of the parks
operations and required to meet certain criteria (fundraising,
volunteers, and events) that ensured it was continually advancing
the shared mission of rebuilding Central Park. Government ceded
day-to-day control, but established clear guidelines for measuring
the conservancys progress.
The term governance by itself is used today to suggest that there
is much more to a well-managed society than just fair elections,
accountable legislatures, and energetic executives. While those
elements are necessary, they are far from sufficient for good
governance. This has always been true, but is more so now. Today,
all sectors have a real part to play in a well-managed, modern
Now, for a host of reasons, grounded in frustrations related to
failures of go-it-alone government in much of modern society,
collaborative arrangements are emerging, almost organically, in
sector after sector, solving problem after problem, and offering a
new way forward for government and citizens alike.