Part II: A Conversation with Larry Summers

In our previous post, we introduced a recent conversation with Larry Summers at the Harvard Kennedy School IDEASpHERE Conference. During this discussion with Zanny Minton Bedoes, Summers discussed challenges and opportunities relating to growth and prosperity in the US. Among the opportunities, Summers emphasized the importance of cross-sector collaboration in addressing the complex issues facing the country.

As the conversation came to a close, Bedoes asked one final question, to allow Summers to summarize his thoughts from the previous half hour, and posit some strategies to address the challenges he identified. The question (to paraphrase) was this: Why are the current debates around these issues, and the ambitions of the solutions so “feeble” compared to initiatives we have seen in the past? Is it a weakness of the political system, or is it the fault of the private sector?

Summers’ response to this question not only helped contextualize the challenges of growth, but also provides an explanation for the motivation behind our work.

The current administration does not have the “empty canvas” available to presidents like Teddy Roosevelt, who led the country at a time when the government was “3% of the GDP and whole states were basically unoccupied.” In other words – technology and innovation need space to grow, and in well-developed countries this is a rare commodity.

But even if the space is available, it needs to involve more than just government action or initiative. According to Summers, “there is a need for approaches that transcend and that combine efforts in the public and private sector.”

“There is a need — and this is something that is some of the most important work that’s been done at the Center for Business and Government over the last decade — for approaches that transcend and that combine efforts in the public and private sector. If you think about it — to use a phrase that Frank Weil coined — WW2 was a triumph of ‘collaborative governance’. It was a triumph of close collaboration between business and government, in which government didn’t try to produce the airplanes itself, and business understood that the decisions as to just what airplanes were going to be produced needed to be made on broad strategic grounds. That’s a particularly extreme example. The Lewis & Clark expedition was a public private cooperation. The transcontinental railroad to the Pacific was a collaboration of the public and the private sector. There are all kinds of much smaller successes, in the schools, in repairing parks in New York, that involve that kind of collaboration.”

In his talk, Summers illustrated the impact that a strategic partnership between government and business can have on the growth of the country.

In this case, both government and business understood their capacity and role in the partnership – allocating control over certain decisions to the other, what we refer to as “shared discretion.” It was this understanding and ability to focus on their strengths that allowed this partnership to succeed.

However, with each partnership there is a new set of challenges. For many public private partnerships, there is a level of risk and the concern that interests may not align for the greater good. But if cross-sector collaborations are vital to our growth as a nation, how do we manage these relationships and facilitate these types of partnerships to ensure that the value is shared across parties? Accord to Summers these questions are “as important as any other if we’re going to get to the kind of bolder and more imaginative solutions.”

These are the questions that Intersector is working to address through our Toolkit, case studies, and expanding partnerships. The strategies embodied in our Toolkit are specifically designed to help leaders navigate cross-sector collaborations, and better identify the opportunity for partnerships. To help connect these strategies with their practical application, and challenges that arise when placed in a real-world context, we have developed our case studies that provide narratives from leaders who were faced with difficult decisions, and who managed to bring together partners from different sectors around core issues that affected each party. As we continue to build our network, our hope is that these stories and strategies will promote a more collaborative environment allowing each sector to bring its particular strength and insight to solving some of the more complex, and enduring challenges facing our communities