Collaboration for impact: eight lessons from the field

collaboration illustration
  • Published Date: 20 October 2020

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.

Discovering what makes effective 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:

  • Throughcare (ACT) – a collaboration between the ACT community sector and ACT Corrective Services aimed at providing a more coherent set of supports for people following release from the ACT’s prison for persons sentenced to full-time imprisonment and remand, the Alexander Maconochie Centre.
  • Whole of Systems Trial of Prevention Strategies for Childhood Obesity or WHO Stops (VIC) – a collaboration between the Global Obesity Centre at Deakin University, the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services and the Southern Grampians/Glenelg Primary Care Partnership that supports local ‘backbone groups’ established to initiate sustainable local strategies to reduce the incidence of childhood obesity in the communities of Portland (SeaChange) and Hamilton (GenR8 Change).
  • Community Based Emergency Management or CBEM (VIC) – an initiative of Emergency Management Victoria to foster and support community-led collaborations with the aim of building resilience and enabling communities to respond to, and recover from exogenous ‘shocks’ such as bushfire, flood and other hazards.
  • Children’s Action Plan (New Zealand) – an initiative of New Zealand’s Ministry for Children that resulted in the creation of ten Children’s Teams that provide early intervention and diversion for children at risk by bringing together communities, families, practitioners and relevant agencies.
  • Change the Story (Australia) – a collaboration between Our Watch, VicHealth and Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety (ANROWS) established for the purpose of developing an agreed national framework for the prevention of violence against women and their children by consulting with a wide range of stakeholders – including state and territory governments, advocacy organisations, service providers and academic researchers.

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.

Eight Lessons for collaboration and the questions collaborators should ask

Our book explores the key dimensions of collaboration practice and our findings are organised around the following eight headline observations:

  1. If ‘business as usual’ isn’t working, then a new ‘business as usual’ is required.
  2. Having a clear ‘path to impact’ is a fundamental prerequisite for ongoing authorisation to collaborate.
  3. The power of ‘collaborative intelligence’ as a catalyst for sustainable collaborative action cannot be underestimated.
  4. Collaborations and the operational framework that supports collaborative action must be consciously designed – and preferably co-designed with stakeholders.
  5. Collaborations cannot succeed without clear, unambiguous authorisation; systems to provide assurance to stakeholders; and governance frameworks that are ‘fit for purpose’.
  6. Effective collaboration leadership is comprised of skills and aptitudes that are quite different to the skill sets valued in more traditional settings.
  7. Good faith engagement with internal and external stakeholders is crucial for earning the trust, credibility and legitimacy necessary to establish a ‘social licence to collaborate’.
  8. Although collaboration has the capacity to deliver bespoke place-based solutions, collaborative action is difficult to standardise and might be difficult to ‘scale up’.

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:

  • is collaboration an appropriate response to the problem at hand?
  • how will collaboration help to address the problem?
  • will collaborative action be supported by authorisers and stakeholders?
  • what are the potential impediments to collaboration?
  • can the benefits of collaboration be measured?
  • how will collaborative action be sustained?

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.