More from the Navigator Awards discussion on cross-sector collaboration

blogimage_NavigatorAwardsAs part of Route Fifty’s viewcast detailing the next steps for the Navigator Awards program, our Executive Director Neil Britto served as a panelist to discuss cross-sector collaboration in state and local governments. (Navigator Award nominations are open through August 15.) Some interesting cross-sector themes emerged from the discussion, which we explore here in greater detail.

As leaders in local and state government work to tackle public problems with diminishing resources, the practice of working with partners from the business and non-profit sector is growing and evolving, with a proliferation of different models and methods. There are now many different terms to describe the practice of collaborating with partners from different sectors to accomplish a shared goal — public-private partnerships, collaborative governance, collective impact, multi-sector partnerships, and cross-sector collaboration, for example.

One way to think of the variety of models is on a spectrum of integration of partners — from informative, to consultative, to collaborative relationships in which partners have shared decision-making power. Another way to think of the variety of models is in terms of formality — there are partners that find ways to work together informally in coalitions and those that operate with MOUs, bylaws, formal governance structures, and the like. The Intersector Project’s Case Library showcases the many different forms cross-sector collaboration can take. From large scale, cross-sector community advisory boards to loosely organized community and business members working with government to formal collaborations that form and operate new independent organizations.

At The Intersector Project, we focus primarily on collaborations that involve government, business, and non-profit sector entities and the sharing of resources, expertise, and authority among partners to jointly achieve a shared outcome. This yields cross-sector relationships that promise to augment the capacity (whether financial, productive, or both) available for public missions, but at the price of more ambiguous lines of authority and typically more challenging implementation.

One example of this type of collaboration is P-TECH (Pathways to Early Technology High School) in Brooklyn, New York, a collaboration between New York Public Schools, City University of New York, and IBM, that enables students to graduate with a high school diploma and an associate degree in computers or engineering. A Steering Committee comprising representatives from the Department of Education, CUNY, and IBM act as the experts and decision-makers charged with moving P-TECH forward in accordance with the vision developed for the school and its students. The Steering Committee meets regularly, and its decisions and discussions are based on the work of planning committees, which develop recommendations and provide updates on specific areas of school functioning, such as course scope and sequence and workplace learning. While questions are being asked about the program’s viability and the success of the program, P-TECH transformed the school-to-career pipeline, creating a six-year program that blended the traditional four years of high school with two free years of community college, plus internship opportunities at companies like IBM, and mentorships — typically offered to students who may not have access to these opportunities otherwise.

Why are so many local and state jurisdictions turning to partnership? There seem to be several relevant trends:

  • The acknowledgement of single-sector inadequacy for solving significant problems. Leaders from most sectors acknowledge that the nature of the biggest challenges facing the United States cannot be solved by one sector alone. Arguably, this has always been the case. However, trust in government is at notable lows, and there is increasing recognition that the behemoths of industry contain the resources and influence that can positively influence many pressing issues.
  • Declining public budgets and capacity. Most P3 legislative processes are initiated to address a financing problem for public infrastructure. In an era of constrained public-sector budgets, the assets of other sectors will need to be deployed to support public well-being. Since the ‘Great Recession’ the public sector has lost over 700,000 jobs which illuminates the changing capacity and expectation of the public sector. Furthermore, discretionary spending budgets by public-sector managers have been severely cut, so training and new forms of support for public-sector practitioners are being drained. The consequence is public-sector professionals are having to navigate emerging processes like cross-sector collaboration.
  • Increased desire to try collaborative approaches. Many want to believe that collaboration can be a panacea, which it probably can’t be. It’s a hard idea to be against, despite collaboration’s potential risks and dangers. Collaboration is a tool for government in the 21st century. It’s not the most important tool, but we cannot underestimate it’s importance in an era of changing public-sector capacity.

Meanwhile, the evolving nature of public-private partnerships presents new frontiers for the application, perhaps particularly in the public sector. Traditionally, partnerships referred to public-private partnerships characterized by term-limited, highly specified contracts or fee for service agreements with private contractors. This transactional nature of a partnership is closer to outsourcing or contracting, rather than a shared decision-making process. A recent report from the Fels Institute suggested over 92 percent of the National Association of State Chief Administrators agreed that government and private organizations had to develop a new process to create partnerships that were beyond transactional. 64 percent agreed that these new partnerships are different from traditional public-private partnerships. Not all partnerships are collaborative, but an increasing amount of high-money, infrastructure related projects will require it.

One of the key ways in which these “relational partnerships” differ from traditional partnership is the role of each partner in diagnosing a problem and developing a solution — what we call shared discretion. In the case of traditional public-private partnerships, a private entity has typically bid to complete a project, where government has both identified the problem and proposed the solution. In the case of cross-sector collaboration, while one partner may have originally identified the problem and proposed a solution, that partner ultimately has to build consensus from all partners on the problem, the shared vision of success, indicators of progress, strategy, and more.

As the practice of cross-sector collaboration grows, practitioners and scholars alike need to better understand its limits in order to understand the conditions, processes, structures, and interactions that contribute to success. The common approach of developing case studies that examine successful cross-sector collaboration is helpful in understanding best practices, but limits the opportunity to learn from failures or challenges. There is a preference and ease to studying successes, while discussing failure and challenges is often sensitive and undesirable. Yet practitioners and researchers need to understand what structures, processes, and partner interactions exist in failed cross-sector collaboration, and how the absence of those elements helps explain the difference between successful and unsuccessful cross-sector collaborations. Funding organizations have a potentially key role to play in enabling learning from failure because of their ability to financially incentivize a process that is unlikely to happen without support.

Cross-sector collaboration, of course, is not without its challenges and limitations. The simple becomes complex in collaboration because of the differing values, practices, and languages that exist among sectors. These differences manifest in the different processes, protocols, and philosophies that influence methods for analyzing problems and potential solutions, forms of project management, and approaches to evaluating successes. The importance of managing expectations of progress and results is imperative for successful cross-sector partnerships.

This piece was originally published in Route Fifty and is republished here with permission.