Attention cross-sector collaboration champions: Are we forgetting the public sector?

By Neil Britto, Executive Director, The Intersector Project. This post originally appeared in Route Fifty.

blogimage_ForgettingPublicSectorIn our current era of limited government resources, enlisting the business and non-profit sector in the design and delivery of public services is alluring. Indeed, cross-sector collaborations that aim to refine or even replace traditional public service delivery approaches seem to be as en vogue as ever.

One telltale sign of this trend is the small but growing industry of training and advisory organizations that have appeared in recent years to support cross-sector collaboration in the United States. Fortune 500 companies, major foundations, and well-endowed non-profits routinely turn up on the client lists of these groups. Yet our exploratory research at The Intersector Project—where we work to empower practitioners to work across sectors to solve complex problems—suggests the public-sector may be underserved by this industry.

Are those of us who seek to improve cross-sector collaboration in the United States to improve public welfare forgetting what could be our most important client—the public sector?

Consider this: Our exploratory research of a robust sample of the industry revealed at least $30 million was spent on cross-sector support services and training in the United States in 2013. A significant majority of the beneficiaries of these resources are business and non-profit organizations. Notably, our sample is limited to program service revenue listed in form 990s from a set of advisory and training organizations, but it supports what we’ve heard in conversations with practitioners and industry participants over the past years. Public sector practitioners often tell us they “go it alone,” working to diagnose, design, implement, and evaluate complex collaborations without the kinds of tools and standard processes that have become commonplace in other areas of public administration–risk management, for example.

Admittedly, the public sector can be a challenging client. Talent development budgets can prohibit public sector practitioners from being candidates for fellowship and leadership development programming. Some have pointed out the dominant mindset in the public sector is narrowly focused on service delivery rather than broadly focused on problem solving. Most importantly, public sector managers, especially at the local level where cross-sector activity frequently occurs, often do not have the budget for cross-sector project support services, arguably making the public sector an unattractive client.

Yet one could argue that, more than any other sector, it is the public sector that should be well-equipped to diagnose the appropriate opportunities for collaboration, and design, implement and evaluate collaboration; a meaningful amount of public resources are used in these collaborations, and after all, collaborations often aim to solve complex public problems.

Readily available one-size-fits-all, collaboration-related resources that do not consider the unique incentives, constraints, processes, and culture of the public sector, we would argue, aren’t good enough. One example of this is the fact that most openly available resources for cross-sector activity do not address compliance or regulatory processes that are critical to how public sector professionals interact with other sectors when negotiating, designing and managing shared decision-making processes.

It’s not as though public sector practitioners, leaders and observers lack interest in government, business and non-profit collaboration. Last month, I participated in the annual conference of the American Society for Public Administration. While the conference covered a broad range of topics relevant to the public sector, cross-sector collaboration was a recurrent theme throughout discussions of collaborative governance, public value, shared services, emergency management, natural resource stewardship, education, the applications of “big data,” and more. Add to this evidence the many examples of successful public sector-led collaborations found in case study libraries, including our own. So where are the resources to support practitioners working in these areas?

Notably, there are programs and initiatives that are working at addressing this gap. Coro Leadership Centers, Living Cities and Civic Consulting are a few examples of organizations that support local, public-sector practitioners tasked with working with other sectors. And we suggest there are other opportunities for interested parties to get involved. We need increased foundation support for initiatives that support the public-sector practitioner in working across sectors. There is also an opportunity for the large academic community concerned with the public sector and cross-sector collaboration to improve knowledge mobilization to benefit practitioners. Another promising approach is for public sector membership organizations that have the infrastructure to create, endorse and broadly disseminate accessible and credible resources to the thousands of members at the state and local level. ICMA’s Collaboration Service Delivery Matrix is one example of a resource that could be valuable to local public sector professionals who work across sectors. Graduate education programs that train future public administrators are another promising area. The University of Virginia’s fellowship program for graduate students from law, business and public policy graduate schools and The University of Arkansas’ Cross-Sector Alliance Certificate are two examples of graduate education programs focus on the mindsets, methods and skills that are helpful for working across sectors.

At The Intersector Project, we’re increasingly interested in a potential “public sector gap” in the cross-sector support industry and are launching a research project to evaluate if, how and why local governments are underserved with resources for working across sectors. Our recent experience at the ASPA conference confirmed that this is a question worth exploring, especially as business and non-profit involvement in the design and implementation of public services becomes increasingly popular.

Interestingly, a chapter from a book given to all ASPA conference attendees from Donald Kettl, “From Intergovernmental to Intersectoral,” stuck with me: “… so many governmental tools are now intergovernmental and intersectoral that it can be difficult to define where government begins and where it ends.” In the United States, the “growing interconnection of government with the private and nonprofit sectors” means that the public sector must be trained and equipped with the tools necessary to create public value in collaboration with other sectors. If the public sector is inadequately equipped for this task, particularly at the local level where collaboration tends to occur, the changing nature of public service design and delivery may not be for the better.