Supporting public sector leaders in cross-sector partnerships

blogimage_LivingCitiesBy Tynesia Boyea-Robinson, Director of Collective Impact at Living Cities

This piece is the third in a series examining the public sector gap in cross-sector support. You can read the related pieces here:

Attention cross-sector collaboration champions: Are we forgetting the public sector? by Neil Britto, Executive Director, The Intersector Project

Avoiding “coblaboration”: Engaging public sector leaders can lead to successful cross-sector collaboration by Chris Thompson, Director of Regional Engagement, Fund for Our Economic Future

My Living Cities colleagues and I were heartened to read Neil Britto’s post in Route Fifty on the need for more support of public sector leaders in cross-sector collaboration. We agree that there is a “public sector gap” in the arena of cross-sector partnerships, and if we continue to neglect to fill this gap, we will never achieve the enduring change that is the promise of cross-sector partnerships, and more specifically, collective impact.

Living Cities has made public sector partnership a cornerstone of our approach to transforming the lives of low-income people in cities across the country. I lead our Collective Impact portfolio, which focuses on applying the principles of collective impact to the cross-sector partnerships we support. We also have a team completely dedicated to public sector innovation, and we work closely with them to ensure our collective impact work includes the public sector in the right ways.

You cannot work around the public sector if you want to achieve enduring change. The right public sector leaders are critical partners to ensure that policies and resources are aligned to consistently achieve what works. One element of our collective impact portfolio, The Integration Initiative, is a cohort of eight cross-sector collaborations in eight different cities. Out of these eight collaboratives, four are led or co-led by public sector actors. We are learning a lot from The Integration Initiative about the unique challenges for public sector leaders in driving collective impact as compared to their non-profit counterparts.

You cannot work around the public sector if you want to achieve enduring change.

The challenges faced by cross-sector leaders are wide and varied, and the differences depend more on the local context of the city than the differences between the non-profit and public sectors. One thing we know for sure about cross-sector leadership from the public sector is that city leaders are more constrained than leaders from other sectors by the term limits of mayors and the political cycle. The pressure to create “quick wins” to deliver on political promises and mayoral priorities can cause them to lose sight of the longer-term vision of a cross-sector partnership. While quick wins are the motivational fuel for any collective impact effort, politics can at times redirect efforts to making a mayor look good rather than doing something in service of the whole. These types of quick wins built up over time can make a collective impact effort more associated with a single mayor and put it on the chopping block when a new administration comes in.

In his post, Britto said that “one-size-fits-all collaboration-related resources” for the public sector are not good enough. Our experience in supporting collective impact leaders confirms this, and I would add a “one-size-fits all” approach is not good enough for any cross-sector leader, regardless of the sector in which they work. Context is so important for building a successful cross-sector partnership, and you cannot assume that what works in one place will work in another. But it is also important not to assume your community is so special you cannot learn from anyone else. You may be unique, but you are not special enough to ignore lessons from others.

Context is so important for building a successful cross-sector partnership, and you cannot assume that what works in one place will work in another. But it is also important not to assume your community is so special you cannot learn from anyone else.

In our work supporting cross-sector leaders in all sectors, we have found several tools to be useful and applicable in most contexts. These tools are not “one-size-fits-all” resources but rather ways to approach leadership development and make it work in a local context.

Systems Thinking
A cross-sector leader needs to be able to see systems and understand systems. Without a systems focus, a cross-sector leader cannot navigate the complex relationships that come with achieving the broad goals of a cross-sector partnership. FSG recently published an article to propose a frame for collective impact work centered on the concept of a “systems leader” who is able to catalyze collective leadership among communities. We have seen that a co-leading model where a public sector leader is paired with a strong external co-chair can help offset some of the political short term pressure and keep the lens on systems change.

Adaptive Leadership
Similarly, Adaptive Leadership is a helpful tool to have in your arsenal. By attempting to change the systems in place, cross-sector partnerships, and more specifically, collective impact efforts, tackle complexity head on. Adaptive Leadership offers a practical leadership framework to help individuals and institutions adapt and succeed in challenging, complex environments. One resource for learning more about this leadership frame is Acumen’s free online course. One particular adaptive challenge facing all collective impact efforts, but most acutely felt in the public sector, is how to involve community members in collective impact. The public sector has unique constraints on how and when to involve community members, and sometimes these constraints are dictated by law. Adaptive leadership can help navigate the tension of bringing in community voices to a bureaucratic public sector system, while also managing a set of cross-sector partners.

Results Based Accountability
We have recently begun offering the Results Based Accountability framework to our The Integration Initiative sites to help them better align the different activities of their cross-sector actors. Results Based Accountability (RBA) is a framework to help social sector collaborations better align their work through a process of identifying an overall goal, then developing outcomes that link programs to this goal. We have found that RBA is a useful tool cross-sector leaders can use to get their partners on the same page and ensure accountability. In several of our cities, the Results Based Accountability frame helped agency heads from housing, economic development, and education select and understand outcomes that reinforced each other’s efforts, supporting their aspirations to move from siloes.

Cohorts and Networks
While the above leadership frameworks and curriculums are helpful, we’ve found that the strength of cohorts and networks are the best capacity building available. For example, the Annie E Casey Foundation has a group of fellows that it brings together to improve child and family-serving professionals’ ability to enact systems change efforts that get to results. In The Integration Initiative, one of the biggest benefits is access to the network of other cross-sector leaders who are leading similar efforts and who become resources for collective problem solving.  One of our strongest public sector networks is the Project on Municipal Innovation, which is a network of more than 35 mayoral chiefs of staff and policy leaders who advance transformative change through innovation in city government to improve the lives of residents. We bring together this group of people at least twice a year so they can learn from each other in real time.

Again, we agree with Neil that more can be done to support cross-sector leadership in the public sector. But all cross-sector leadership depends on the local context of the partnership. These four leadership tools and approaches can help cross-sector leaders, regardless of their sector. Any context-specific leadership resources for the public sector should try and build off of the success of these identified capacities.

As Director of Collective Impact at Living Cities, Tynesia Boyea Robinson works both internally and externally to provide clarity and guidance on effective methodologies for applying the principles of Collective Impact. Living Cities harnesses the collective power of 22 of the world’s largest foundations and financial institutions to build a new type of urban practice that gets dramatically better results for low-income people, faster.