Problematizing partner selection: Collaborative choices and decision-making uncertainty

Published date01 October 2023
AuthorMachiel van der Heijden
Date01 October 2023
Subject MatterArticles
Public Policy and Administration
2023, Vol. 38(4) 466491
© The Author(s) 2022
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/09520767221088269
Problematizing partner
selection: Collaborative choices
and decision-making
Machiel van der Heijden
Utrecht University School of Governance (USG), Utrecht, The Netherlands
Although networked collaboration is often linked to positive outcomes, choosing suitable
partners for collaboration can be diff‌icult. Actors often only have limited information
about the preferences, capabilities, and trustworthiness of prospective collaborators,
meaning that considerable uncertainty may underlie collaborative choices. This article
analyses the decision-making uncertainty associated with collaborative choices and
assesses factors that potentially mitigate such uncertainty. Based on qualitative re-
search, it presents a conceptual model that brings together and specif‌ies mitigating
factors at the network-, organizational, and individual-levels of analysis. The developed
conceptual model provides a clearer theoretical understanding and presentation of the
cross-level factors important to consider when studying collaborative behaviour. In
addition, through its focus on uncertainty, it provides more consideration of the
challenges that individual off‌icials face when choosing collaborators in complex net-
worked environments.
Networks, policy networks, decision making, uncertainty, collaborative governance
The collaborative contacts that (public) off‌icials maintain in networked settings are
valuable for their home departments and agencies: they provide them with access to
relevant information and resources, help them learn about potential policy problems and
Corresponding author:
Machiel van der Heijden, Utrecht University School of Governance (USG), Room -1.15b, Bijlhouwerstraat 6,
Utrecht 3511 ZC, The Netherlands.
solutions, and create the potential for forming alliances and coalitions (Alexander et al.,
2011). However, choosing suitable partners for collaboration can be diff‌icult (Agranoff,
2006;Feiock, 2013). Individual off‌icials often only have limited information about the
preferences, capabilities, and trustworthiness of potential partners (Leifeld and Schneider,
2012;Hamilton and Lubell, 2018). Moreover, they generally lack the time and cognitive
capacities to accurately map out their network surroundings (Krackhardt, 1990). As a
result, considerable uncertainty may underlie collaborative choices, particularly regarding
the value of prospective collaborators.
Such uncertainty is important to consider because it challenges an increasing number
of public off‌icials operating across organizational and jurisdictional boundaries. Although
network behaviour is typically associated with benef‌icial outcomes (Cristofoli and
Markovic, 2016;Meier and OToole, 2001), the complex nature of networked envi-
ronments means that in practice individual off‌icials will often struggle to successfully
engage in such behaviour. Many networking individuals (and their respective organi-
zations) will not reap the benef‌its of networked collaboration, being overwhelmed by the
complex settings in which they f‌ind themselves. As such, decision-making uncertainty
undermines the promise of networked collaboration and problematizes the strategic cues
by which many theoretical models assume collaborative choices to occur (see Siciliano
et al., 2021).
However, the uncertainty underlying collaborative choices can also be mitigated.
Policy network scholars emphasize the role that the institutional context of networked
collaboration can play in this regard (Leifeld and Schneider, 2012;Scott and Thomas,
2015). In particular, the formal structure of working groups, task forces or committees
through which a lot of collaboration occurs, presents policy actors with a clearly def‌ined
pool of potential partners with whom they have a chance to become acquainted ( Fischer
and Sciarini, 2016). This reduces decision-making uncertainty regarding the selection of
appropriate network partners, as these institutionalized structures make information about
potential partners more readily available (Ostrom, 1998). Beyond this general insight,
however, several issues still require further consideration.
Firstly, although scholars increasingly f‌ind that, on average, joint participation in
institutionalized settings and bilateral collaboration are correlated (Leifeld and Schneider,
2012;Lubell et al., 2017), such settings vary considerably in terms of their charac-
teristics (see Choi and Robertson, 2014;Fischer and Leifeld, 2015). Some settings have
many participants, others only few. Some will meet frequently, others not so much. In
that sense, these settings vary in terms of the extent to which they actually provide
policy actors with easy access to information about prospective collaborators. As a
result, the degree to which institutional settings reduce the decision-making uncertainty
underlying collaborative choices can also be expected to vary, depending on their
specif‌ic characteristics. What characteristics are most relevant in this regard, remains an
open question.
Secondly, when thinking about the actors actually making the collaborative choices,
characteristics of (individual) network participants at both the organizational- and
individual-level also seem important to consider. Individuals engaged in networking
typically represent organizations that have different structures and resources. Think for
van der Heijden 467

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