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Book Review

Helen SULLIVAN, Collaboration and Public Policy: Agency in the pursuit of public purpose

Richard Freeman
Bibliographical reference

Sullivan, Helen, London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2022, 278 p., ISBN 9783031095849.

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1What is collaboration, other than ‘working together’, and what would it mean in our field, other than working together for some version of the public good? Is that not policy itself? What if we thought not of collaboration as an instrument of public policy, but of public policy as a form of collaboration?

2Helen Sullivan is more measured and more sanguine than this, carefully defining collaboration as ‘a more-or-less stable configuration of rules, resources and relationships generated, negotiated, and reproduced by diverse yet interdependent actors that enables them to act together in the pursuit of public purposes’ (p5). But she is quietly ambitious, too. She focuses on collaboration not least because it is a high-order concept, beyond and above the jaded vocabulary of ‘partnership’ and ‘network’, and her work gives an enduring sense that she has, like Archimedes, found the place to stand from which to move the world. The strong implication of her book is not just that collaboration ‘remains prevalent’ across a broad sweep of public policy and related concerns (including public administration and management and, arguably, much of international relations and social and economic development, too), but that it is fundamental to each of these activities. So it matters as much to think about collaboration as about risk, governance, knowledge or anything else, and Sullivan’s achievement is to think them all together.

3For this is not simply a summary and synthesis of research on a particular topic, based on a career-long engagement with the ways in which public services do and do not work together (much of it in collaboration with others). It is also an important reconfiguration or reframing of what we think public policy is and does, how it works. This is an effect in part of what she has to say about collaboration, but it is also shaped by the formal organisation of her book, by her account of what matters when we think about Collaboration and Public Policy. Her subtitle is significant, too, drawing new attention to human as much as to organisational agency, informed by much recent writing in sociology, anthropology, science and technology studies, and policy studies: policy is made by people, and collaboration is done by thinking and feeling, embodied and situated human beings. All this amounts to a take on the field as a whole seen through a specific lens, something like Deborah Stone’s Policy Paradox, or perhaps Mark Moore’s Creating Public Value.

4The challenge Sullivan sets herself is to explore why collaboration, for all its travails, anxieties and downright failures, continues to hold the grip, the fascination, and the appeal that it does. It is inherent, or perhaps intrinsic, to some of the core conditions of contemporary governance, including interdependence, hybridity and diversity; it is hooked into a crisis of faith in collective action and the nature of the public, if not of the rational, science-based, ameliorative, and progressive precepts of modernity as such; it carries all the uncertainty and flux of global (and local) transition. In this way, the context she provides gives her treatment a sense of contemporaneity, if not urgency: this is public policy for now.

5Seven chapters parse out the possibilities and its limits of collaboration, its obstacles and supports, addressing in turn ideas, rules, ethics, expertise, emotions, objects and practice. Chapter 3 on ‘Ideas, agency and collaboration’, for example, reviews the use of ideas in policy studies; finds a topical focus on the ways in which ideas catalyse collaborations, providing something on and with which to work together; follows an interesting train of thought about ideas of the local and the local significance of ideas, making in turn for a quirky, intriguing connection between ideas and space; reflects on the nature of collaboration itself as an organising idea, noting the variety of discourses in which it is deployed and mindful of its politicising and depoliticising effects; offers collaboration as a source of ideas, a context in which new thinking is generated. The point is not that ideas are any more specifically characteristic of collaboration than any other policy instrument or mode of organisation, but that it presents an opportunity to rethink what we know about them in a more grounded and purposeful way.

6In each case, respective chapters cultivate the reader’s attention with an exposition that is wide-ranging, informed, authoritative, and always clear and fluent (perhaps in due recognition of the extent to which the book itself is a collaboration between writer and reader). What is new is the framing, the commitment to include new topics and new ways of thinking in social science, to take up the interesting work of the last decade or so in the policy sciences and to re-attach it to human subjects, by attending not just to rules but to ethics, not just to expertise but to emotions, not just to ideas but also to things.

7This approach is always securely grounded in a range of references and empirical examples, located in space and time, and genuinely global in reach. Sullivan’s recurrent attention to the local is an effective way of doing justice to the always immediate and specific demands and constraints placed on policy makers (all policy is local, as Tip O’Neill didn’t quite say). Some of these empirical cases are presented in what are called ‘figures’, though they are in fact no more than the ubiquitous ‘boxes’ of the contemporary academic text, and here Sullivan has been unusually poorly served by her publisher. The relevant material has been reproduced double-spaced in a small font, drawing attention only by being ungainly, distracting and difficult to read. Nevertheless, here is the Indian panchayat alongside social services in Wales; here is New Zealand’s Brackenbridge Declaration committing public services to collective leadership and joint action compared with the norm-led ‘ASEAN way’; here are the established names in the field, some of them longstanding collaborators such as Helen Dickinson, Steven Griggs and Chris Skelcher – but here too are Sara Ahmed, bell hooks, Jacques Lacan, Richard Sennett and Shoshana Zuboff.

8Analysing the different elements of collaboration gives due consideration to what are described as the different ‘domains’ or dimensions of policy making: ‘the political domain (what collaborations are for), the material domain (what collaborations do), the cultural domain (what collaborations mean), and the spatial domain (what shape collaborations take)’ (p31). Some of what this includes is standard, part of the conventional wisdom of an invariably conservative discipline, though the writing is consistently clean and fresh. Much of the rest is new, informed by related work in cognate disciplines, and the book is all the more interesting the further it moves into unconventional and unfamiliar territory. Chapter 7, for example, leads with the emotional ‘unsettling’ invariably wrought by collaboration, the range of responses to it, and the ways in which they might be managed. The book’s conclusion offers the idea of ‘the collaborative self’, a tantalising yet brief and tentative indication of what might have been a seminal realisation of the specific mix of ideas in its title.

9The book remains a model, not simply as an account of what policy is, what it does, and how it does it, but also of how we might think about it. It will serve as a point of departure for continuing research on collaboration, but also, I hope, for practice. I want my students to read it, not because they are students and this is the kind of thing they ought to know if they want to get a masters, but because they are present and future practitioners. This is what they have to think about, in organisational and political terms, but also in human terms.

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Electronic reference

Richard Freeman, Helen SULLIVAN, Collaboration and Public Policy: Agency in the pursuit of public purposeInternational Review of Public Policy [Online], 5:2 | 2023, Online since 01 September 2023, connection on 11 December 2023. URL:

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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