Newark City of Learning Collaborative develops compelling fact base, aligns cross-sector partners

blogimage_nclcIn collaborative environments characterized by shared decision-making authority, developing agreement on the facts that define “the problem” is an often overlooked but crucial step. This charge often presents an early challenge for collaborations, as partners may come to the table with sector- and organization-specific biases that influence their perspective on “What’s really wrong here?” Consider, for example, a local initiative to improve public transportation: One partner may contend that lack of accessibility contributes to lack of ridership, causing the key issue, while another may argue that operational efficiency is the root of the problem. One cross-sector collaboration in education offers a real-world example of a well-developed, compelling common fact base that has shaped partners’ understanding of the issue and strategy to address it.

The Newark City of Learning Collaborative (NCLC), recently honored by the National League of Cities Mayor’s Institute on Children and Families, works “to support, build, and strengthen postsecondary initiatives in the City of Newark.” To accomplish this work, NCLC brings together community-based organizations, local city government, higher education institutions, public and charter schools, corporate partners, and state and national agencies. “For the first time ever, we can say without reservation that all the key players are at the table pursuing the same agenda,” said NCLC Co-Chair Dale Anglin at the National League of Cities event.

NCLC’s goal is to increase the percentage of residents with postsecondary degrees, certificates, and quality credentials from the current 17 percent to 25 percent by 2025 (25 by 2025). A key aspect of accomplishing that goal is to “build awareness of the broader issue by gathering and sharing data that tracks readiness, enrollment, retention, and completion of Newark residents.” As part of this work, NCLC has developed “Data Resources” publicly available through its website, illustrating:

  • Current percentages of residents over 25 who have attained a post-secondary degree or certificate
  • Total educational attainment of Newark residents
  • Comparisons of Newark residents’ educational attainment with that of a group of peer cities
  • Correlation of income and poverty level with low educational attainment
  • Graduation rates for Newark residents who enroll in two- and four-year postsecondary institutions

These data points provide a detailed look at the current level of educational attainment and provide a path for the collaboration’s progress. For example, data indicate that a full 79 percent of students who enroll in local two-year institutions do not graduate within six years. With this knowledge, NCLC works not just to increase postsecondary enrollment but also retention, with a focus on aligning opportunities for students to enter four-year institutions from two-year institutions and developing financial support opportunities.

As NCLC illustrates, a well-developed fact base provides a platform for action. While NCLC’s Data Resources contains mostly quantitative data points captured in charts and graphs, a fact base can take other forms.  A cross-sector collaboration targeting childhood obesity in Somerville, Massachusetts, provides another example of developing a common fact base, this one through interviews. In the early 2000s, 46 percent of first and third graders in the city of Somerville, outside of Boston, were overweight or at risk for becoming so. Researchers at Tufts University worked in collaboration with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Somerville Public School System, the Somerville School Food Services, community-based organizations, and local food providers to design and implement Shape Up Somerville. In the initiative’s early stages, collaboration partners agreed that gathering the perspectives of constituents and community members, particularly those affected by the obesity epidemic, would allow them to tailor their initiative to the community’s needs. They conducted a series of focus groups and key-informant interviews with children, parents, teachers, and community members, gathering critical feedback on appropriate approaches to combating childhood obesity. The creation of the Shape Up Somerville Advisory Council allowed researchers to meet monthly to provide project updates, coordinate collaborative grants, and measure outcomes. This process brought researchers, school personnel, community and immigrant service providers, and volunteer health advisors onto the same page.

Without a common fact base, partners may perceive that one partner’s perception of the issue is dominant. This can leave partners with the perception that the issue is framed and understood by the collaboration in a way that does not accommodate their role in addressing the issue at hand. We suggest partners consider the following questions together as they attempt to build a common fact base:

  • What are the different ways partners perceive the problem we aim to address? What are the differing facts partners think are relevant to defining the problem? How will we address these differences and overcome potential sector-specific biases when it comes to defining the problem?
  • How will we ensure that we consider a balance of quantitative and qualitative data in deciding what facts are most relevant to our understanding of the issue we wish to tackle?
  • Where will we look for data?
  • How will we decide when we have developed a satisfactory understanding of the issue?

For additional guidance on building a common fact base, we recommend these resources:

“Partnership Development Toolkit” from the European Commission
Especially see Problem Assessment on pp. 17-19 for step-by-step guidance for partners to complete a problem assessment — an activity wherein partners exhaust their understanding of the problem the collaboration wishes to tackle. The “Partnership Development Toolkit” is a guide for facilitators of EQUAL Development Partnerships (DPs) but is easily adaptable to partners in a wide variety of issues.

“Assessing Community Needs and Resources Toolkit” from Community Toolbox
Especially see points 3, 4, and 5 for guidance on assessing how key stakeholders approach the problem, gathering evidence to indicate whether the problem should be priority for the collaboration, and identifying barriers and resources for addressing the issue. Community Toolbox is an online collection of toolkits and resources for individuals seeking to work collaboratively to bring about social change.

“Tools for Complex Decision-Making” from Spark Policy Institute
Especially see the Using Information in Multi-Party Decision-Making tab for guidance on navigating the differences in how multi-sector stakeholders value and view information.

“Tools for Analysing Power in Multi-stakeholder Processes: A Menu” from Centre for Development Innovation
Especially see the Rich Picture exercise on p. 6 and the Problem Tree Analysis exercise on p. 8. Both exercises invite multi-stakeholder partners to visually express their differing viewpoints on the causes, consequences, and context of “the problem.” “Tools for Analysing Power in Multi-stakeholder Processes: A Menu” was created for participants of the Thematic Learning Programme on Power in Multi-stakeholder Partnerships and is accessible across a wide variety of issues.