Policy Network Perspective Case Study – BC Water Act Modernization Process

Taking the policy network perspective, the focus shifts to a specific horizontal policy issue case where the BC government has attempted to develop a policy response to a complex issue which cuts across a number of ministries and departmental responsibilities – the British Columbia Water Act Modernization (WAM) Process. By looking at this specific case, the research objective is the development of an understanding of how Gov2.0 technologies can support efforts at knowledge-sharing and collaboration-building across internal-to-government policy networks that are created for the purpose of coordinating the input of multiple agencies aimed at addressing a complex horizontal policy challenge.

In order to manage the complexity of governing, large governments are first divided into ministries or departments each of which are given a clearly defined mandate and set of responsibilities. Despite these best of intentions and attempts to manage for complexity, public policy issues frequently arise which either fall between the responsibilities of existing ministries or span across more than one. In such situations, a holistic approach to governance is called for. (Holistic governance is also referred to in the literature as horizontal governance, joined-up government and cross-cutting policy analysis, amongst other terms. A hallmark of public service reform in the early 21st century, horizontal policy problems call for collaboration, coordination and integration between government agencies and knowledge sharing across government. The problem is not new, but increasing complexity in policy and governance has renewed interest in holistic governance. Corporate knowledge management is a key concern of horizontal policy analysis – a desire to have access to a wide array of perspectives – leading to the question of whether technology can support or facilitate integration in policy formation, and whether policy networks and organizational social capital can contribute to joined-up government.) In such cases, governments are challenged to undertake collaborative approaches to developing holistic responses and individual ministries are called upon to share responsibility with other departments and work together to jointly develop solutions.

The example focused on here is the B.C. Government’s Water Act Modernization (WAM) Process. Over the past three years, the provincial government has engaged in an open dialogue with citizens and interest groups as the province seeks to reform the century-old Water Act. The WAM process has been led by the Ministry of Environment but involves several other ministries and departments with significant interest in the management of the province’s water resources. It thus represents a good example of a cross-cutting policy issue in need of horizontal policy collaboration.

Cross governmental exercises in collaboration rest heavily upon bureaucratic power relationships. Despite their overall objective of serving a common government, individual ministers and their officials often respond to incentives and objectives rooted in their own ministry that may be at odds with their colleagues from other departments. In addition, each ministry or department may exhibit a unique organizational culture which affects its perspective on the policy issue and its approach to cross-governmental collaboration. In the absence of direction from a central agency or the government leader, collaboration efforts can get mired in the conflicting objectives and perspectives of the players.

This research does not focus on these power dynamics; rather, the perspective here seeks to reflect that adopted in the policy analyst perspective and view the horizontal collaboration challenge as rooted in the challenge of knowledge sharing and collaboration seeking across a large organization like the government. However, rather than being the domain or initiative of individual policy actors, in this  perspective the focus shifts to whole-of-government policy networks and the enabling technology that can facilitate that collaboration. While such efforts will still be subject to the interests of individual players, and negotiations over the final form ultimately rely on a mix of power and politics, the rational policy formulation process is still relevant for our purposes. As such, cross governmental knowledge sharing, knowledge creation and collaboration building represent important elements in the development of holistic, robust policy solutions. While this rational approach may still fail to survive the subsequent political process, the model advanced here rests on the normative argument that the objective of policy analysis is to provide to the political realm a position that emerges from the policy analysis process with strong justification.

The corporate collaboration and knowledge sharing characteristics of Web2.0 approaches seem ideally suited to the development of cross governmental collaborative solutions to crosscutting policy issues. Two principal problems present themselves when attempting to research the effect of 2.0 technologies in horizontal governance applications. First, the newness of this approach means that it is unlikely that a pure application of the technology to a horizontal collaboration challenge will be found. Examples of governments explicitly embarking upon a horizontal governance exercise based on the deployment of an internal Web2.0 solution are still very rare. It is not even certain that one can find horizontal collaboration projects that have significant 2.0 interactions. And even if one could find particular examples of horizontal collaboration that had available to it strong 2.0 support, it would likely be difficult to disentangle the use of technology from the underlying policy network relationships in determining the causes of the project’s success or failure. Given the newness of the technology and the complexity of the horizontal governance environment, an assessment of the effect of Web2.0 technology on collaboration exercises and identification of optimal deployment and use characteristics will rely on the qualitative observations of participants in such exercises where the use of Web2.0 technologies exists in a tangential or peripheral sense, and where the discrete contribution of that technology to the overall collaboration exercise can be reasonably disentangled.

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