It’s Time to Embrace Collaboration
The societal assumption that competition drives progress is becoming increasingly questionable. Our overdependence on it as an organizing principle is costly and inefficient. Can we design a more effective re-balance?
“Preserving competition in the marketplace,” by itself, is an incomplete regulatory principle that must be augmented with thoughtful collaboration if we are to produce an optimal, sustainable transportation system. When we saw the need for paving muddy roads to and from the railroads in the early 20th century, we missed the opportunity to thoughtfully integrate the newly developing freight highway system with the highly developed rail system. The resulting competition in commerce and public policy triggered a disastrous long-term shrinkage of the geographic footprint of the rail network leading to a suboptimal transportation system.
Coordinating across industries, companies, agencies, and indeed political parties requires respect, collaboration, and consensus-based decision-making processes. Our governing system, however, is structured to manage competing “factions” instead. Competition in the marketplace, competition for government attention, and competitive debate, rather than thoughtful deliberation, have stifled our collective ability to address the thornier issues of our day.
As a nation of competitors, can we now redraw our battle lines, so to speak? Can labor sit down productively with management, can business coordinate with the community, and can shippers collaborate with transportation providers? Can government partner with private industry, and most importantly, can we have all stakeholders’ input, not just the most powerful? Can we create new pathways for coordinating commercial activity and related public policy to better meet our national needs? If we can, we must confront the compelling task of creating new forums and new methods for all stakeholders to think, plan, and act productively. Vested-interest representatives, individually beseeching government for attention, suppress our collective intelligence, no matter how transparent we make that process.
There is no shortage of intelligence in the public or private sectors, but gathering and applying this intelligence faces institutional barriers and legal and regulatory prohibitions, born of a system based on competition and mistrust. More than money is needed to improve our transportation system. Meaningful progress, especially to design and build sustainable systems now compels us to bridge the gaps we face in communication and coordination. Government, industry, and informed citizenry currently relate from an insufficient distance, interacting through commissions, hearings, studies, reports, and recommendations, when the keys to real results are dialogue, agreements, commitments, and action plans.
OnTrackNorthAmerica is not the only organization to take notice of these impediments to progress. Over a decade ago, I blogged on the OTNA site that the Federal Highway Administration’s “Freight Story 2008” read (with emphasis added), “Creative and ad hoc arrangements are often required through pooled fund studies and multi-state coalitions to plan and invest in freight corridors that span regions and even the continent, but there are few institutional arrangements that coordinate this activity.” It went on to say that “Most solutions to freight problems require joint action by both public and private sectors. Financial, planning, and other institutional mechanisms for developing and implementing joint efforts have been limited, inhibiting effective measures to improve the performance and minimize the public costs of the freight transportation system.” In 2021, this state of affairs still shows no signs of improvement. All while the environmental stakes are rising daily.
Advancing beyond these “limited institutional mechanisms,” requires us to think and work together across a wider range of interests. Not only is it time to coordinate across transportation modes, it is time to coordinate among companies and regions. We can no longer afford the inefficiency of one port, for example, taking business away from another port when we need a port “system” that is optimally efficient as a whole. There is still a role for competition that is directed toward shared prosperity. But having an economy that operates as a zero sum game, where one party’s gain results in another party’s loss, invariably results in the reduction of overall value and resources available to society.
To make any sense of one state or region competing against another, it has to be a competition to contribute the most to the whole system, not at the expense of another region. In the 21st century, no one wins unless we all win. Our multi-faceted natural and capital resource challenges call for new ways to interact in business and government, whereby the power of collaboration sits effectively alongside the power of competition.