Avoiding “Coblaboration”: Engaging Public Sector Leaders Can Lead to Successful Cross-Sector Collaborations

By Chris Thompson, Director of Regional Engagement, Fund for Our Economic Future

Intersector Project Executive Director Neil Britto asked a provocative question recently in RouteFifty: 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?

As Director of Regional Engagement for the Fund for Our Economic Future, a philanthropic collaboration that works to increase job creation, job preparation, and job access in Northeast Ohio, I am responsible for persuading civic leaders from the private, philanthropic, nonprofit, and public sectors to value and engage in cross-sector collaboration.

The Fund’s experience over the last decade confirms Britto’s observation that too often proponents of cross-sector collaboration assume that including the public sector in this work is just too hard. After all, “parochial” public officials are required to be focused on delivering services within political boundaries, and cross-sector collaborations are designed to achieve systemic change within communities (which invariably include multiple political subdivisions).

However, we’ve learned that very similar “parochial” constraints limit the ability of leaders from other sectors to participate in cross-sector collaboration. Every nonprofit has a defined mission that it must focus on, and rare is the nonprofit with a mission that includes fostering cross-sector collaborations. Corporate leaders probably have even more constraints on their ability to support cross-sector collaborations. Their top priority has to be to the health of the enterprise. And while foundations have the most freedom to support cross-sector collaborations, many of them, too, have narrow missions or are focused on supporting programmatic activities, rather than supporting the capacity required to achieve the systems change that is at the heart of cross-sector collaboration.

Each of these constraints makes it challenging for leaders, regardless of their sector, to commit budgets and time to collaboration. Yet, advocates of cross-sector collaboration are good at finding ways to help leaders in those other sectors overcome these constraints. We need to do the same with public sector leaders because trying to address systemic public welfare challenges without engaging the public sector is kind of like making pizza without the dough — it only results in a mess.

Our experience has taught us that three pre-conditions need to be present before launching a cross-sector collaboration: a compelling cause, galvanizing leadership, and high-performing organizations. Public officials are well positioned to help their communities meet these pre-conditions.

Compelling Cause – The Council on Competitiveness accurately describes cross-sector collaboration as an unnatural act among non-consenting adults. Overcoming that reality requires a very compelling cause. Public officials, particularly elected officials, are well attuned to identifying and framing challenges in ways that create a sense of urgency and create public will. For example, Summit County Executive Russ Pry and County Council President Ilene Shapiro have used their positions as elected leaders in one of Ohio’s largest counties as a platform for making talent development a compelling cause within their community.

Galvanizing Leadership – Cross-sector collaborations, by definition, require leaders to exercise leadership beyond the boundaries of their own organization or base of support. Elected officials are accustomed to building broad coalitions of support — that’s how they win elections. Summit County government influences only a small portion of the overall talent development system in that community. But Pry and Shaprio — two experienced politicians who have built deep trust within their community — are able to use their stature and credibility to build support within other sectors. Leaders from the education sector, private sector, and even the philanthropic sector aren’t as well positioned to promote cross-sector collaboration within the talent system as are these two public officials.

High-Performing Organizations – Perhaps one of the most painful lessons we’ve learned about collaboration is that asking a handful of average performing organizations to collaborate will result in a failed collaboration. Collaboration is very hard work; only high-performing organizations are up to the challenge. If the goal, as Britto framed it in his blog post, is to “improve public welfare,” then that cannot be achieved without high-performing public services. While it is easy to lament the quality of public services, we cannot afford to set up redundant systems (whether private or nonprofit) to the delivery of public services through the work of other sectors. We need high-performing public services, and we must acknowledge that public leaders are best positioned to assure such performance is expected and achieved. In the Summit County example, Pry and Shapiro have had to make some tough political decisions to improve the performance of the parts of the talent development system controlled by county government. Because they were engaged in a cross-sector collaboration, they knew that their choices were vital to achieving broader, systemic goals. Had they not been part of the collaboration, perhaps they would have viewed the decisions in a more parochial fashion. More importantly, they knew they had the support of their collaboration partners. Leaders are more willing to undertake the risks of cross-sector collaboration when they are working with those they trust. Only by engaging public officials early in the process, can we create those bonds of trusts.

Advocates of cross-sector collaboration that fail to take advantage of the unique skill sets of public officials are limiting their ability to meet the these pre-conditions and increasing the odds that their collaboration will be little more than what Eric Gordon, chief executive of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, calls “coblaboration.” If we are to achieve sustained positive change in our communities, we cannot afford more coblaborations. Advocates of cross-sector collaboration must find ways to engage leaders from all sectors, particularly the public sector.

Chris Thompson is Director of Regional Engagement, Fund for Our Economic Future. The Fund for Our Economic Future is a philanthropic collaboration dedicated to advancing economic growth & equitable access to opportunity for the people of Northeast Ohio through research, civic engagement, and grantmaking.