The case for mesh governance (or how government can escape the old organograms)
Updated: Jul 17
Every country in the world struggles with the same problem: how to coordinate and align the actions of different tiers of government – national, regional, city, district - often run by different political parties and with different interests and world views.
The COVID crisis has once again put this problem into sharp relief, since almost every aspect of the crisis cuts across these boundaries, involving health, social care, economics and jobs.
Predictably the experience of the crisis is causing many to reaffirm their instincts. Natural centralisers like to believe that the message of the crisis is that centralisation works, and they cite Singapore, New Zealand or China as examples of decisive action taken by national governments at very different scales. The UK government for example is promising more centralised control over the NHS as one response to the poor handling of the crisis.
Meanwhile, natural decentralisers draw the opposite conclusion. They prefer to look at Germany which achieved a much lower death rate than France or the UK, and focus on how much better some cities and states in the US have performed than the fumbling Federal government.
Both groups are wrong. The key to success in this period has not been a zero sum game between centralisation and decentralisation. Instead it has depended on how well countries organise a mesh – an integration of multiple tiers, acting together, sharing data, lessons and insights.
Indeed, the crisis has confirmed that we need new governance models to cope with an era of networks, complexity and data when most of the big challenges don’t fit neatly into the demarcated responsibilities of different tiers. The classic vertical division of labour no longer works.
We need instead to be looking at what could be called ‘mesh’ models. The essence of a mesh in the physical world is that it combines multiple vertical and horizontal links, which together make it strong and resilient. Mesh networking in telecoms is a similar idea in which nodes connect to as many other nodes as possible, rather than sitting in a hierarchy. Governments badly need something similar, and although some have elements of a working mesh, none is yet really there.
They can helped by formal structures and processes. There are many examples around the world where different tiers come together. Examples include south Korea’s Central Crisis Management Committee which brings together the main national departments and the leaders of big cities. Australia has long had its Council of Australian Governments (COAG), that at times has managed detailed collaboration between national government and states.
Some countries also have powerful networks which organise the presence of national government closer to the ground, such as France’s Prefets. The UK used to have Government Regional Offices but now lacks these structures and also has now nothing quite comparable to the joint decision-making structures of other countries; coordination with devolved nations and cities is sporadic, ad hoc and inefficient.
But these formal structures only work well if they are supported, like a mesh, by many other links. One specific model of mesh governance whose time may at last have come is the idea of a city collaborative. This is a structured partnership of three tiers of government – eg national, city and district – to work together and solve shared problems. These work best if they don’t try to solve everything and don’t become the forum for negotiating on budget allocations or conflicts. Instead the collaborative works to create the flows of knowledge and trust that in turn make other things easier.
Specifically, that involves:
· supporting relationships and networks by bringing together leaders from across the tiers, plus business and civil society, in regular gatherings to discuss the issues facing the city and longer term challenges such as how to reach net zero. Stronger informal relationships of trust can be vital for getting the formal machineries to work well.
· Joint problem-solving teams made up of officials from each tier working together on acute cross-cutting issues and making recommendations to official and political leaders.
· Joint scenarios and foresight work to develop a shared picture of what lies ahead and the big strategic options.
· Joint commissioning of research from universities, consultancies and others, in a rolling process that aims to embed universities more fully in the challenges of the city.
· Joint curation of relevant data, particularly where it cuts across boundaries, including some public health data, transport and jobs (potentially in the future organised through data trusts), and provided to the public through data dashboards.
This kind of collaborative working has to be consciously organised and curated. It doesn’t happen naturally. It requires cultivating informal relationships and various forms of shared knowledge management (which can increasingly be on existing platforms like Slack); ideally it involves some shared knowledge of the skills and experience of staff across the different tiers (of the kind that will increasingly be available through programmes like Microsoft Cortex). Once in place there are then many ways to better integrate different arms and tiers of government (my book 'The Art of Public Strategy' details how to use joint teams, budgets, targets, data, policy-making and other tools).
Done well this sort of mesh governance can greatly improve cities’ capacity to think and act. By contrast, in many big cities today governments of different tiers act in a zero sum way, acting in ways that are counterproductive. In some, their actions are at least additive. But with a good mesh structure in place they can become multiplicative, becoming more than the sum of their parts.
This doesn't imply that collaboration is always good. As I wrote in the Art of Public Strategy, most forms of collaboration and coordination have an inverted U-shape in terms of effectiveness. More isn't always better. Too much collaboration can be almost as bad as too little if it means that everyone is always in a meeting. But there are now many new technological tools available that have greatly reduced the costs of coordination, and there is now lots more experience of how to do this well.
Recovery from the crisis makes arrangements of this kind even more vital – whether managing temporary local lock-downs, supporting vulnerable sectors or helping to create jobs. Collaborative structures are well-suited to thinking ahead: what might happen to high streets? How to use a period of high unemployment to rapidly enhance skills?
Indeed, for the big tasks of the next decade these sorts of arrangement will be particularly vital – finding and testing out the answers to climate change and achieving net zero (including the practical challenges of retrofitting, installing heat pumps at scale; transforming energy systems); the design and implementation of new economic strategies; resolving the challenges of care for the elderly. All of these problems cut across organisational boundaries, which means that their solutions have to as well.
In the UK, the combined metropolitan authorities are an obvious place to start and already have some of the elements described above. But no major city anywhere on the world yet has an adequately functioning mesh approach to governance. The crisis could be used as a good opportunity to jump to another level – beyond the 20th century organograms to models that are much more authentically appropriate for an era of networks, data and knowledge flows, and tricky, complex, cross-cutting problems.
[This piece is prompted by having helped run sessions over the last few weeks bringing together different tiers of government in big conurbations in several countries to think about the next stages of the crisis. These have convinced me - even more! - that we are overdue a shift to a new model of collaborative governance.]