Blog post

Can We Categorize Participation and Collaboration?

By Andrea Di Maio | January 20, 2010 | 5 Comments

open government data

In my previous post I shared my frustration with the ambiguous difference between participation and collaboration in the Open Government Directive. In drafting my advice to Gartner clients about how to develop their Open Government Plans, I have highlighted this ambiguity and made the following assumption:

The distinction between participation and collaboration is very subtle and may create some confusion. On the main, participation is more geared toward policy-making, whereas collaboration expands beyond that, to areas such as government service delivery and operations

This being said, I thought it would be useful to distinguish two types of participation and two types of collaboration, as follows:

  • Continuous (or on-going) participation, where the public can make general comments about the agency activities (e.g. general feedback forms, online surveys, etc).
  • Focused (or one-off) participation, where the public is explicitly invited to provide feedback on specific issues or draft policies  (e.g. policy blogs and wikis) over a limited period of time.
  • Planned (or top-down) collaboration concerns initiatives that are driven by the agency (or by another government agency) where the scope for collaboration from external stakeholders is somewhat constrained. Examples would include crowdsourcing a problem resolution to the public.
  • Unplanned (or bottom-up) collaboration concerns initiatives that are started by external stakeholders and are mostly self-organized: in this case the agency needs to be aware that they exist and seek ways to add value. Examples include the many discussion fora and social networks where people discuss quality of and improvements to government services.

I am not entirely sure that every single participation or collaboration initiative would fall exactly into one of these buckets. But at least it’s a start, isn’t it?

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  • I am teaching a grad level course in Collaboration and Virtual Teaming this winter at DePaul. Your conundrum is very interesting and perhaps I can help. I’ve posted to my course blog and anticipate my students will also have thoughts on this.

    One way to get at a distinction between participation and collaboration is to apply the terminology employed by the academics who do collaboration engineering (CE). (Search Google Scholar on that term and read papers by Briggs, de Vreede, and Kolfschoten, among others.)

    The CE theorists suggest that teams engaging in collaboration exhibit one of six patterns of behavior at any point in time: Generation (going from fewer to more ideas being considered [eg. brainstorming]); Clarification (going from less to more understanding of ideas being considered); Organization (going from less to more understanding of the relationships among ideas [e.g clustering]); Reduction (going from more to less ideas under consideration toward achieving a particular goal [e.g. Voting]); Evaluation (going from less to more understanding of the value of each idea under consideration toward achieving a particular goal [e.g. other kinds of Voting]); Commitment (going from less to more commitment toward acting on an idea toward achieving a particular goal.

    I am not sure that is a complete list of all possible behaviors, but it is a good working list. Collaboration may entail all of this. And particular problem solving process will entail several of these patterns in a given order. Each pattern can be operationalized using a wide array of methodologies (for example, Brainstorming is only one of many idea generation methodologies). The Collaboration Engineers call these methodologies \ThinkLets\.

    Anyway, Collaboration as defined in this blog post can consist of all six of these collaboration patterns. Participation, as defined, seems limited to just the Generation (ie. ideation) pattern.

    Stated another way: When the government lets people participate, they are letting people put ideas on the table – then the government (or someone else) decide how to evaluate and use those ideas. When the government lets people collaboration they are inviting people into the entire decision making or problem solving cycle including the organization and evaluation of the ideas generated through participation.

    This is an extremely important distinction.

  • Tim says:


    The term “participation” (also “public participation” or “public engagement”) as used in the Open Government Directive refers to the process of engaging citizens at *all* levels of (government) decision making, not just idea generation.

    The International Association of Public Participation (IAP2), one of the leading organizations in this field, uses a spectrum model to describe five levels of participation (full disclosure: I am an IAP2 member):

    * Inform
    * Consult
    * Involve
    * Collaborate
    * Empower

    Full document here:

    (Note: IAP2’s use of “collaborate” in this context is not equivalent to the “collaboration” concept promoted in the Open Government Directive)

    Hope that helps to further clarify…

  • Danny says:

    @ Tim,

    I am working from Andrea’s definition of participation.

    “where the public can make general comments”
    “where the public is explicitly invited to provide feedback”

    I am not wedded to the concept of participation as the idea generative portion of collaboration. But if participation is intended to be more than “inform” and “consult”, then Andrea might want to continue to evolve her definition.

    In reading the reference document I note that I too have a lot of trouble differentiating what it calls participation from what I’d call collaboration. I also note that the document addresses participation from the point of view of the public agent, not the point of view of the participant. I find this curious.

  • Danny says:


    I spent some time with the document Tim references. I have a different take on the participation/collaboration relationship now. The terminology I propose should work both in a public sector and corporate environment.


    Participation is the context by which stakeholders to a decision engage (or participate) in the process of making that decision. The iap2 suggests a model where there are five levels of participation possible. They are:

    Inform: At this level the stakeholders are simply told of the decision by the decision makers. Explanation or rationale for the decision is provided. This is one way communication.

    Consult: At this level the stakeholders are asked to provide feedback, analysis, and/or alternatives toward the decision. This is two way communication. This communication process may exist only in a subset of decision making stages (possibly only early in the knowledge gathering phases of the process.)

    Involve: At this level the stakeholders engage through out the decision making process and there is some level of commitment on the part of the decision makers to take stakeholder input into account.

    Collaborate: At this level the stakeholders actively participate in the entire decision making process. They are real players at the table and fully participate in the decision making process.

    Empower: At this level, the decision making process is merely guided or facilitated by a leadership entity. The actual decisions are developed and made by the stakeholders.

    Given this, collaboration is one possible level of participation. This is very different from what you wrote up top – and very different from what I riffed from your writing. But this terminology maps well to the iap2 terminology already in place.

  • @Danny @Tim

    Just for your information, I am a “he” and not a “she” 🙂

    Thanks for the interesting viewpoints. I do like the discussion on levels, but what my suggested classification aims at is the distinction between the timing of participation and the direction of collaboration.
    By “timing” I mean: is participation truly “open”, so that people can express their opinion about pretty much anything, or does it refer to specific issues, topics, policies, events?
    By “direction” I mean: is collaboration driven / hosted by government? Or does it happen irrespective of whichever action government takes, as people self-organize to tackle certain issues that are important to them (rather than to the policy-makers’ agendas)?
    The levels of participation are somewhat orthogonal to this and have to do with the purpose more than timing and direction. I may inform on my web site or reach out to community web sites where people may get value from being informed. Similarly I could consult, involve etc through channels I control or through somebody else’s channel. Where things become a tad more complicated is when the actual topics for consultation, involvement etc are decided by the public, not because they are planning to participate or collaborate, but because they are having a discussion among themselves.
    My problem with limiting participation to a linear spectrum like the IAP2 one is that it does assume participation is a linear progression which is somewhat orchestrated by government (but the same would apply to a corporation): reality is that people will decide more and more where and how they want to participate and collaborate.
    I do not see this been addressed by either of your comments.