Is collaboration the “Next Big Thing?”

blogimage_bigthingBy Neil Britto, Executive Director, The Intersector Project

The public sector landscape is rapidly changing. A swarm of changes in workplace demographics, levels of trust in government, the blurring of sector lines, and more are poised to shape local governments in the coming years. How do we address the issues that will arise from these changes? What is the “Next Big Thing?” This was the topic of a recent webcast hosted by ICMA and the Alliance for Innovation. Perhaps unsurprisingly, collaboration and the increased involvement of non-state actors in the design and delivery of public services were seen as a critical trend that will influence the future of local government.

The webinar provided a collection of professionally-diverse perspectives on trending topics in the public sector through participation from county managers, academia, public sector consultants, and professional association leadership. ICMA Executive Director Bob O’Neill moderated the 90-minute discussion involving Shannon Flanagan-Watson, Business Ombudsman and Assistant County Manager for Arlington County, Virginia; John Nalbandian, Professor Emeritus, School of Public Affairs and Administration at the University of Kansas; Marc Ott, City Manager of Austin, Texas; and Rebecca Ryan of Next Generation Consulting.

The blurring of sector boundaries is a trend relevant not only to local public administrators but to business as well, said Ott, City Manager of Austin: “I see a blurring of [sector] lines. I think the private sector, in particular, are recognizing an opportunity to serve that portion of the population that has been marginalized over time.” A profit motivation and mission to serve social needs are not “mutually exclusive,” he said. “Those things do run together.” In articulating the potential cooperation of profit motives and social values, Ott expressed a logic notably familiar to the social enterprise community.

One of the most intriguing remarks for those of us interested in the design and implementation of cross-sector — or intersector — collaborations came from Nalbandian, Professor of Public Affairs and Administration, who commented on the unique benefits government brings to a cross-sector collaboration — the democratic values typically espoused by the public sector, including the values of  individual rights and representation. “Will [a socially oriented non-profit] put as much emphasis on representation as the government does?” he asked. “What happens to these values? How do we convey these values [in cross-sector collaborations]?”

This suggests that the capacity and desire of the business and non-profit sectors to prioritize core democratic values is a potential challenge for cross-sector collaborations, given the competing institutional logics of the different sectors, which include differences in norms, language, values and incentives. Practitioners looking to partner with government should be able to articulate how a proposed collaboration involving the public sector incorporates these values into the design of collaboration’s guiding principles, processes, and outputs.

The challenges and failures of single-sector approaches to complex issues illuminates a need for new, non-traditional approaches. “If I had to pick the horizon of 20, 30 years, I think I would make an argument that we are going to have a fourth sector,” said Nalbandian. Some participants predicted that this fourth sector will be characterized by hybrid organizations that employ commercial approaches of the private sector and the social missions that typically characterize non-profit organizations – again, calling to mind common definitions of social enterprise.

It remains to be seen whether the fourth sector will consist of social enterprise organizations with a unique legal structure; a collection of organizations with distinct languages, norms, and methods; or an intersector that harnesses the resources and expertise of government, business, and the non-profit sectors in a collaborative initiative, such as a “civic alliance,” which works to resolve complex public challenges. What is clear is that cross-sector collaboration is not only relevant, but increasingly important to local government. This further illustrates the need to equip public sector practitioners with resources to navigate, manage, and identify opportunities for improved public service design and delivery as a result of the blurring boundaries between sectors and the need to collaborate to address complex public challenges.

The complete webcast is available here.

.@neilbritto from @theintersector: next big thing is collaboration Click To Tweet