Mar 23 2015 How can public policy support collective impact?
In 2013, the Boston Federal Reserve launched the “Working Cities Challenge” — a competitive grant to support work to improve the lives of low income people in Massachusetts’ smaller cities and to “advance collaborative leadership” in those cities. In designing the program, leaders made a critical choice: Rather than accept multiple applications, the program allowed only one application from each city — a stipulation that encouraged entities that would otherwise have been competing against each other to work together in partnership.
This example, gleaned from the FSG learning brief, “How Public Policy Can Support Collective Impact,” provides insight into the subtle measures government can use to support collective impact and nurture the cross-sector partnerships that often are key to this approach. The Collective Impact Forum released a podcast last week with the learning brief’s authors, Elizabeth Gaines and Erin White, exploring the ways government can support collective impact and illuminating key lessons for practitioners seeking to work with government in their initiatives — a conversation that holds important lessons for practitioners of intersector collaboration, as well.
What were the key takeaways?
- When working with government, practitioners should consider advocating for policies that create an enabling environment for collective impact and cross-sector collaboration generally (rather than focus solely on policies that relate strictly to supporting the outcome of a particular initiative).
- Government leaders are best positioned to implement these policy changes when they view their work through a broad lens of problem solving rather than a narrow lens of program delivery — a challenge in “bureaucratic systems that have operated in the same ways for many, many years.”
- The most ripe opportunities for policy change lie at the local and state level, where government leaders have the potential to deeply understand local context and are positioned to implement policies that can effect real change.
“How important it is to [consider] policy while working through very challenging social change issues?” asked Collective Impact Forum Community and Program Manager Tracy Timmons-Grey, noting that practitioners often say they have difficulty understanding “which policies we should advocate for and why.”
White, Associate Director at FSG, pointed out that practitioners are often quick to identify what she called “soda machine policy” — policy that is clearly related to the outcome of a collaboration (e.g. soda machine policy in an obesity-related collaboration). But a critical, often-overlooked policy area relates to the less obvious processes and mechanisms that support collaborative efforts: “policies relating to partnering differently, collecting data differently, tracking resources differently, and then really planning and implementing differently,” said Gaines.
It is in this second policy area that practitioners often have “a gap in understanding of the types of policies needed to really drive…long term systems change” that is the hallmark of collective impact, intersector collaboration, and similar collaborative frameworks, White said.
Grant policy that allows for changes “in previously submitted plans as long as they maintain focus on the overall goal,” for example, allow collaborations to shift as partners work together to Share a Vision of Success, Build a Common Fact Base, Agree on Measures of Success, and adapt to changing circumstances. Grant policy that requires partners to “meet and otherwise community regularly” nurtures cross-sector understanding and holds the potential to support collaborations in Communicating the Interdependency of Each Sector, Establishing Transparency of Viewpoints, and Managing Expectations of Process and Results. (For additional examples of policies that support collective impact and collaboration, see page 9 of the learning brief.)
The Importance of Mindset
When asked about the greatest obstacles to implementing policy change, both White and Gaines, who is Vice President for Policy Solutions at The Forum for Youth Investment, focused on the importance of policymakers.
Government “has a structure in place that’s designed to do and act a certain way, and turning around that big machine is very challenging,” White said. “I think one of the biggest challenges to overcome is…for those policy makers who maybe don’t totally understand the power of coordination and alignment and driving to common goals…to adopt a different mindset, to go from thinking about program delivery to thinking about problem solving, and then to organize themselves to solve a problem.”
“So rather than thinking about delivering one program and one agency, how can we partner across programs and across agencies to solve a problem.”
Gaines, who regularly works with policymakers commented that government leaders often have a “real thirst for better coordination and alignment. They have a real desire to focus on outcomes rather than outputs. But the problem is that they have real challenges in turning around bureaucratic systems that have operated in the same ways for many, many years.”
Movement at the Local Level
Both White and Gaines pointed to promising gains in mindset shifts and policy changes at the state and local level. “I’m really convinced that more progress is going to happen closer to the source,” Gaines said, adding that “ultimately how policies are designed and how they are implemented is determined at the state and local level.”
She added: “I’m really heartened by the decade that I’ve spent working with state and local policymakers that, in fact, I’ve watched many of them step up to the plate to play a more direct role in collective impact.”How can public policy support collective impact? Boston Federal Reserve has one answer. Click To Tweet