Public sector collaboration: everyone is talking about it, but how can we do it well?
Across the public sector, there is wide acceptance that complex socio-economic problems can only be solved by multiple agencies – public, private and not-for-profit – combining their resources and expertise. But operating as a network, rather than a traditional public sector hierarchy can prove difficult, and many collaborations fall short of their grand ambitions.
An ANZSOG-funded research project aims to identify factors that contribute to the success (or otherwise) of collaborations between entities for public purposes.
The project’s leaders – principal investigator Professor John Phillimore from Curtin University and co-investigators Dr John R Butcher, also from Curtin, and Professor David J Gilchrist, University of Western Australia – have examined five examples of successful collaboration from across Australia and New Zealand, and developed nine ‘success factors’ for effective collaboration.
Their findings have been published in the most recent issue of Policy Design and Practice.
The team said that despite the widespread public practice of describing networks as ‘collaborations’, genuinely collaborative practice was surprisingly hard to find, and that there was a gap between the rhetoric and reality of collaboration.
The five cases selected for the study operate in different jurisdictions, involve different levels of government and operate at different geographical scales. Each involved collaboration between public sector entities, and between public sector entities and external actors, including local community ‘influencers’, civil society organisations or informal community groups.
The cases selected for investigation were: the ‘Change the Story’ framework for the prevention of violence against women and their children; the Victorian Community Based Emergency Management project; ‘Throughcare’ a program to meet the needs of recently-released offenders; the Geelong-based ‘WHO Stops’ childhood obesity initiative; and New Zealand’s ‘Children’s Teams’ to create intervention plans for vulnerable children.
These collaborations recognised that different agencies held different parts of the solution to complex long-standing problems, and that working collaboratively was a way to reach shared goals
Finding unique ways to make collaboration fit
Effective partnership-based approaches to public sector governance are based on characteristics such as trust, shared values, implicit standards, collaboration and consultation.
The researchers found that, in all cases, the collaboration was not modelled on an existing collaboration, but developed in way which fit the unique needs of the situation.
Despite this, the collaborations had some common features and exhibited a number of features not extensively canvassed in previous literature on collaboration.
They identified nine factors for success in collaborations:
1) Each collaboration should be specifically designed to address the specific problem
Each of the initiatives examined is seeking to address problems that have proved resistant to conventional policy approaches. Thus, it seems clear that recourse to a collaborative approach is a response to the twin effects of complexity and sector failure. However, the collaborative solution must be designed specifically in response to the presenting problem.
2) Senior managers must support collaboration by allowing it to work
A collaborative process needs to be formally supported and authorised – and, importantly, understood – at the executive levels of partner organisations. This usually involves the establishment of a ‘backbone organisation’ – or its functional equivalent – to support the administration of the collaboration and allocate resources. Critically, the collaboration also needs to be based in an operating environment that allows for flexibility, experimentation, distributed governance and decision making, and control over resource allocation and deployment.
3) Develop policy and operational tools that work for collaboration
Collaboration is difficult to implement in practice due to accepted norms of governance and management. Canadian social entrepreneur, Mark Cabaj, contends that collaboration is not counter-intuitive: rather, it is counter-cultural. One interviewee said that, ideally, collaboration is “outward facing” and focused on mediating and accommodating a range of perspectives and priorities, as opposed to being inward-facing and narrowly focused on fidelity to process.
4) Understand the relationships between – and culture of – collaborators
Don’t underestimate the importance of a learned set of skills that are vital in forging and sustaining productive collaborative relationships. Collectively, these might be called “collaborative intelligence” (CQ) which combines an acute sensitivity to the interpersonal dimension of human interaction with an astute appreciation of the emotional resonance of systems, relationships between organisations, and the “baggage” brought to the collaboration by various actors. Although many people working in the public and community sectors exhibit a capacity for high CQ, differences in organisational culture can encourage or inhibit its expression.
5) Collaborators must communicate with bureaucracies to give assurance
It is not enough for authority to cascade from the top. Sustaining collaboration requires reciprocal flows of assurance: between partners; between partners and stakeholders; and between partner organisations and frontline workers.
6) Middle managers within bureaucracies need to be recruited to the cause
One clear message from those engaged in collaboration is that they frequently meet middle management resistance, despite clear directives from executive management giving sanction to collaboration. It is at this middle level, perhaps, where the dominant incentive structures reward territoriality, conservatism, risk aversion and excessive focus on outputs – all qualities that militate against genuine collaboration.
7) Have realistic timeframes in mind
The collaborations examined all exhibited long lead times for design and implementation, involving intensive and complex processes of relationship building, establishing legitimacy and trust, collectively framing the problem, and agreeing on ways of working. Cutting corners on the establishment and relationship-building process will build significant problems into the system.
8) Consider how the collaboration will demonstrate impact early but realistically
A recurring theme in each of the cases is the importance – and problematic nature – of “evidence of impact”, something that is often demanded for new initiatives or approaches. Interviewees generally agree that it is very difficult to demonstrate impact in the early stages of collaboration. This is largely due to the significant upfront investment of effort in building relationships with partners and other stakeholders. Authorisers often underestimate the investment of time, effort, and emotional energy required to build relationships and become impatient to see measurable demonstrations of impact.
9) Consider how the collaboration will be sustained over a long period
Collaboration can be difficult to sustain. Indeed, its informal or semiformal nature suggests impermanence. Also, formalising or normalising collaboration can undermine its dynamism and sense of collective purpose, while burnout and high staff turnover contribute to the erosion of corporate memory.
Is collaboration a universal solution?
Interest in collaboration reflects a growing recognition that the traditional bureaucratic model of public administration is not up to the task of addressing complex social problems.
The researchers say, a number of important themes have emerged from the interviews undertaken for this study. First, collaboration as a response to wicked problems needs time and dedicated resourcing, as well as support from all levels of organisations. Partners need to instill and sustain confidence and goodwill, and provide appropriate assurance to their executives and boards.
Second, the trajectory for collaboration can be unpredictable and requires a capacity to tolerate a lack of certainty and to adapt to new situations.
Third, one cannot underestimate the time, effort and emotional energy required to manage internal and external relationships; maintain the internal integrity of the process; and ensure the external legitimacy of the collaboration. Personal dedication and commitment to the issues at hand are critical for maintaining focus and effective collegial relationships. They are also what sustains participants in the process when the going gets tough.
Collaboration also needs to be outward-looking and able to offer assurance to a range of external stakeholders – some of whom might have perspectives that are not fully aligned with the organising themes of the collaboration. And sixth, collaboration has an organic quality; goalposts will change, thus requiring a capacity for nimbleness and adaptability. For this reason, formal terms of reference are useful as starting points, but might unduly fetter collaboration practice.
Finally, it is important to bear in mind that collaboration might not always be the most appropriate strategy for every problem. Considering the challenges involved, and the risks of collaboration failure, decision-makers would be wise to not look upon collaboration as a talisman capable of shepherding them safely through complex policy terrains.