facilitating government and governance

Facilitating for Government or Governance

This was an article written at the beginning of my consulting practice and has held up well over time.

Over the course of my career I have studied with many talented facilitation mentors from both the organizational development world and the world of community organizations.  Studying and, more importantly, practicing in both worlds has helped me develop an understanding that there are two facilitation disciplines that require different sets of skills.

A traditional organizational development approach to facilitation takes the perspective of “government” thinking.  Government thinking has been used to describe the hierarchical business approach with all that it implies. Government thinking is dominated concepts like hierarchy, centralized decision making, sole authority, dependent relationship, uniform policy, outputs and vertical relationships.  Facilitation, in this context, employs a range of meeting process tools like brainstorming, decision-making, group dynamic, negotiation and mediation.  Often parochial in nature, the primary objective of government thinking is to solicit advice, convince those that work “down-stream,” and ensure negotiated progress toward centralized plans.

At the other end of the spectrum is “governance” thinking that has historically been the domain of community collaboration and community organization.  I started my professional career working in the community tasked with developing coalitions and partnerships. Over the years I have participated in the development of numerous working collaboratives.  In governance thinking the characteristics are almost antithetical to government thinking.  In governance there are multiple “authorities,” decentralized decision-making, negotiation and persuasion, participatory relationships, localized policies and community level outcomes.  The goal of governance is collective and democratic action.

Many facilitators coming through the ranks of corporate human resource, training or organizational development departments who “cut their teeth” on traditional meeting facilitation, planning and/or in labor-management negotiations are likely well versed in government thinking and are masters at operating in this environment.  However it is increasingly important for facilitators to possess the complimenting governance-oriented skills and experience.  Indeed, the sea change that is occurring across all economic sectors (both public and private) is that governance thinking is now no longer the sole domain of community organizers. Government agencies and private sector organizations are embracing governance thinking. More and more companies are interested in the whole, are creating networks, and are operating in a triple bottom line environment –all earmarks of governance thinking. It is my belief that the correlation between the rapid proliferation of networking technologies and the acceleration in governance thinking is no accident.  Technology tools have fundamentally redefined organizational hierarchy.  This shift has also redefined facilitation skills required to be effective in this new systems-environment.

Given the shift to governance thinking, facilitators need to go back to the roots of community-based organizing and immerse themselves in systems-thinking, empowerment education, collaborative technology and adult leaning theory.  In is only with a blended understanding drawing from the principles of governance that facilitators can make significant contributions to performance.  Recently I came across a list of skills in an academic journal related to social work (1) that I adapted as a list of governance-related facilitation skills.  In addition to meeting process skills, governance facilitation requires:

1.  Activation/Enabling Skills: First and foremost strong facilitation understands how to convene (and hold together) stakeholders to address community issues.  In public involvement this might include bringing together government, nonprofit, advocacy groups, faith-based communities, and unaffiliated citizens.  In the private sector this might include bringing not only those up and down the supply chain but external influencers like regulators and consumers.

2.  Framing Skills:  A facilitator must be able to create a focusing frame and values around the issue(s) and facilitate agreements related to roles and responsibilities of players that, when coordinated, move the group towards values-based solutions.   Core to the process of framing both focus and agreement is the ability to think and act from a systems perspective, fostering a whole that is more than the sum of the parts. (for more on framing)

3.  Orchestrating/Mobilizing Skills:  This is the skill set that demonstrates the facilitator’s ability to manage the movement towards the milestones, objectives and outcomes.  Facilitation as movement requires expertise in community engagement.

4.  Social Networking Skills: I have written elsewhere of the facilitators need to be able to manage connections and relationships for the process of knowledge creation.  This point is underscored in a governance model where the network is core to success.  This truism is familiar to any facilitator who has come up through the community-side of facilitation.  Making and supporting connections between people and  managing the collective wisdom are often what makes the difference between success and failure.

5.  Synthesizing & Editing  skills:  All facilitation requires the facilitator to have a deep toolbox of strategies that enables him/her to effectively synthesize, edit and transform the process as it unfolds. Such tools supporting this work include such things as mediation, interest-based problem solving, and possibly even strategies that create incentive for progress.

Some have suggested that the shift from government to governance is a revolution.  Others, like me, believe that governance thinking is simply the process of re-imagining and re-discovering our roots in community organizing.  Whether this shift is evolution, revolution or rediscovery matters less than how governance thinking impacts facilitation.  Governance thinking is about creating networks of democratic action.  It is about increasing leverage and effectiveness.  Fundamentally governance is about thinking and working in new ways and is about re-imagining social impact whether it is in the public or private sector and fostering this impact is the heart and soul of facilitation.


Photo Credit: Helena


(1) Frahm, K. A. & Martin, L. L. (2009). From Government to Governance: Implications for Social Work Administration.Administration in Social Work33(4), 407-422. doi:10.1080/03643100903173016

(2) Working Wikily


Mark Fulop
Mark founded Facilitation & Process in 2009 to help organizations and communities bridge the gap between where they are today and where they want to be tomorrow. He’s led dozens of Portland nonprofits, government agencies and philanthropic organizations through complex change initiatives including strategic planning, revenue planning, board development, collaboration, and facilitation.