Assessing and building trust in intersector collaborations

Trust is becoming ever more important in public administration because increasingly complex public problems transgress the boundaries of…single organizations…requiring cooperation. — Peter Oomsels and Geert Bouckaert

blog_image_assessingtrustA former teacher and educational consultant, Brooke Franklin had a mission: to increase resources for Detroit public schools by forging partnerships with businesses and non-profit organizations. This was no small task. Detroit’s public schools face a number of challenges — budget cuts, school closures, competition from charter schools — and the students in the system suffer, with the lowest ranking standardized test scores of the nation’s urban districts. But one of the greatest obstacles was a lack of trust among potential business partners in the school district. Businesses had a history of donating funds to district schools, but in some cases felt their contributions were ineffective in promoting significant change. Brooke recognized that the lack of trust and transparency would present one of her greatest challenges to building these new partnerships.

Brooke’s dilemma is common in cross-sector collaborations. Working outside of institutional boundaries and across sectors requires trust, a willingness to have faith in the motivations and efforts of others. “Trust facilitates, solidifies and increases the performance” of collaborative efforts, observe Peter Oomsels and Geert Bouckaert, the authors of new research on trust in cross-sector collaborations, which is profiled this week by IBM Senior Research Fellow John M. Kamensky in Government Executive. Distrust can stifle the “innovation, learning, organizational performance, and effective cooperation” that arise in trust-rich environments and can stall innovative practices like intersector collaboration. Oomsels’ and Bouckaert’s research provides a framework through which cross-sector leaders can assess trust levels at three stages: within organizations, within relationships among partners, and within an individual. As our case studies show, assessing existing levels of trust and working to build trust where lacking is key to forging cross-sector relationships.

Brooke addressed the lack of trust head-on. She brought together stakeholders from businesses and non-profit organizations to participate in the Detroit Regional Chamber advisory council, where partners engaged in an honest exchange about past challenges in partnering with Detroit Public Schools. She followed up by holding monthly tours for business leaders of schools that had academic gains and promise for future achievement. Ultimately, her efforts resulted in the creation of the innovative, cross-sector initiative, Detroit Public School Volunteer Business Corps, where volunteers from the business and philanthropic community provide interactive and engaging lessons based on the specialty of the business or organization.

Our Toolkit, which aims to provide practitioners with the tools they need to implement collaborative solutions, creates a vocabulary for the tools that Brooke and other cross-sector leaders use in building trust in a collaboration. Oomsel and Bouckaert suggest that trust can “be seen as observable risk-taking behavior in a relational exchange process.” The tools below speak to encouraging the “rational risk-taking behavior” that is inherent in partnering across sectors and organizations boundaries.

Establish Transparency of Viewpoints is the creation of an open environment to understand and address the differing interests of collaborative partners. Brooke employed this tool by holding an open meeting through which partners could engage honestly about past challenges. Acknowledging the conflicting opinions that can arise from the distinct values and goals of each sector creates channels to hear and respond to concerns, which nurtures cross-sector understanding.

Share a Vision of Success is the agreement on a set of project goals and ideal outcomes that clarify the mission and priorities of the collaboration. Defining a common purpose links stakeholders together and creates a mutual understanding of the benefits of success. Understanding these mutual benefits is critical to what Oomsels and Bouckaert call “calculus-based trust” in which “an actor is trusted when it is perceived that that actor has an interest in continuing a certain relationship.”

Communicate the Interdependency of Each Sector is the understanding of each sector’s unique contributions and the recognition of their expertise, resources, and networks. Conveying the benefit of working with other sectors fosters continued participation and commitment to results. Reinforcing the mutual benefit derived from collaboration again reinforces “calculus-based trust” and the success of a partnership across sectors.

Brooke’s efforts creating trust among collaborative partners allowed the Detroit Public Schools Volunteer Business Corp to broker partnerships for each of the district’s 141 schools. For more on Brooke and the Detroit Public School Volunteer Business Corps read our case study, “Improving Public Schools with Business Volunteers in Detroit.”