By Dr John Butcher and Professor David Gilchrist
Dr John Butcher is an ANZSOG research fellow at Curtin University and The Australian National University (ANU) who has published extensively on the evolving relationship between government and the not-for-profit sector. Professor David Gilchrist is an accounting academic and economic historian at the University of Western Australia.
They have been part of an ANZSOG-funded research project into collaboration that has now published the ANZSOG/ANU Press book ‘Collaboration for Impact: lessons from the field’, which details the insights drawn from conversations with those engaged in collaborations for social purpose—including chief executives, senior managers and frontline workers.
Collaboration is often offered as a solution to so-called ‘wicked problems’ in public policy.
However, collaborations often fail to get off the ground, or are unable to be sustained, for the simple reason that collaboration is hard to do.
Wicked problems arise and are perpetuated by a wide range of factors.
For example, the observed effects of entrenched intergenerational disadvantage in particular locales – including poverty, poor school retention, unemployment, low levels of civic engagement and social exclusion – might be perpetuated by characteristics of place such as a distressed built environment, a lack of social and cultural amenity, a lack of affordable housing, poor access to affordable transport, the absence of local educational and employment opportunities, or the absence of accessible primary or hospital care.
Because wicked problems usually straddle jurisdictional, programmatic, sectoral and organisational boundaries, no single organisation or sector has the remit, authority or capability to deliver solutions.
Treating these problems clearly requires interventions from multiple actors.
However, many problems in public policy persist in part because, historically, policy responses have tended to occur within organisational or programmatic silos.
It comes as no surprise, therefore, that policymakers and policy practitioners in the public and not-for-profit sectors increasingly talk-up ‘collaboration’ as an answer to the fragmentation of programs and services.
Beyond the rhetoric, however, it can be hard to find examples of genuine, effective and sustained collaboration. For a start, many things that are so labelled are not collaboration per se. They might entail communication, cooperation, or coordination, but fall short of true collaboration.
In 2016, we set out to uncover the key ingredients of effective collaboration.
The springboard for our research project (jointly funded by ANZSOG and the John Curtin Institute for Public Policy) was a workshop convened in 2015 to explore the challenges of working across sector boundaries for social purposes. The workshop resulted in our book The Three Sector Solution (ANU Press) which offered useful reflections on the pressing need for more effective cross-sector working whilst leaving the ‘how’ of collaboration largely unaddressed.
To address what we saw as a ‘practice gap’ in the collaboration literature we investigated five collaborative initiatives in Australia and New Zealand. These were:
Each was established to address a complex problem in public policy by convening collaborative spaces in which a broad spectrum of stakeholder interests could reach a shared understanding of the problem at hand and agree a way forward.
Each also occurred in policy spaces characterised by a long history of policy gaps, fragmented service delivery, inter-agency rivalry and bureaucratic rigidity.
We wanted to find answers to a fundamental question: ’how do you make collaboration work?’
From many in-depth conversations with frontline workers, policy professionals, academics, community leaders and community sector organisations we were able to distil a significant body of practical guidance that can be used as a point of reference for anyone embarking on a collaborative endeavour.
These are now contained in our new book Collaboration for Impact: Lessons from the field which has just been published online by the ANU Press and is available as a free download.
Our book explores the key dimensions of collaboration practice and our findings are organised around the following eight headline observations:
Collaboration is not easy: the path to collaborative action is strewn with barriers and obstacles such as bureaucratic rigidity, risk aversion, organisational rivalry, a history of policy failure, personality conflicts, incompatible values, misaligned goals, stakeholder distrust and internal resistance.
Nor is collaboration the solution to every problem: when pursued as an end in its own right collaboration becomes ‘a solution in search of a problem’. And, as the old saying goes, if the only tool in your toolbox is a hammer – and that hammer is ‘collaboration’ – then every problem looks like a nail.
In Collaboration for Impact we set out practicable actions that will assist would-be collaboration partners to address the following questions:
At its best, collaboration offers a means to restore order, coherence and agency in the wake of disruption, but it needs to be done thoughtfully and systematically.
Australian society, governments and institutions have been pummelled by successive exogenous shocks, including the global financial crisis, institutional and systemic failures, drought, bushfires and now COVID-19.
The manifold disruptions wrought by the global pandemic have led to renewed calls to ‘build back better’. Australians are questioning the old, accepted approaches to governance, the economy and meeting the needs of the populace. For all its difficulties, we contend that ‘collaboration’ – as a practice and as a mindset – is an essential ingredient in any re-building.