Making Collaboration Work: How Complex Organisational Partnerships Succeed
For the last few decades, public sector organisations, non-profits, community groups and businesses have been trying to come together and jointly strategise in creative ways to tackle issues that are beyond any individual organisation’s own responsibilities, boundary or borders.
April, 08 2019 | Susan Meyers Chandler
For the last few decades, public sector organisations, non-profits, community groups and businesses have been trying to come together and jointly strategise in creative ways to tackle issues that are beyond any individual organisation’s own responsibilities, boundary or borders. These difficult, complex problems include such wicked social problems as homelessness, affordable housing, poverty, crime, unemployment, family violence, access to health care, public education, etc. It has become clear that working on these problems has not been very successful when individual agencies attempt to work primarily within a narrow or single focus and/or within a single sector (i.e. non-profit, business or the public sector). The core elements, causes and structures of these complex problems span across traditional, organisational boundaries, thus it is essential to develop new co-operation skills and strategies for these organizations to work together, and for staff to learn about working in networks and understand the elements of inter-dependency which seems to be necessary for successful collaborations (O’Toole, 2014; Bryson, Crosby & Stone, 2015). As Huxham and Vangen (1996) noted more than two decades ago, cross-sector and multi-organisational collaborations are essential if there is to be any hope of alleviating complex, deep-rooted social problems.
Traditionally, the public sector’s delivery systems and policies were designed to develop, improve and implement high-quality programmes and services. However, they usually have been managed by single-function State, local or federal agencies, each focused (and restricted) by their own legal mandates, rules and regulations (Kettl, 2006; Sorensen & Torfing, 2011). These individual, public sector agencies tend to work in silos that often prevent collaboration since each believes that it has little authority but a lot of potential liability, thus “staying in their own lane” seem to be the safest activity. They often do not reach out to co-ordinate, co-operate or collaborate with other sector organisations, whether non-profit entities, companies, or even other public sector agencies. This fear has often limited the public sector’s engagement with their own constituents as well. Public sector agencies are often hampered by bureaucratic restrictions that prevent them from sharing information, staff, data or expertise. A narrow and tall silo is an excellent metaphor for this type of behaviour since agency staff usually look upward and inside their own hierarchy as if glancing up through a very small lens and they choose not to look left or the right, outside and beyond to explore if they could better collaborate, and cooperate with others. Sometimes it is the risk-adverse nature of a bureaucratic agency’s leaders and supervisors, as well as fears of agency liability expressed by their cautious attorneys that limit collaborative endeavours (Chandler and Pratt, 2011). Confidentiality rules that were originally designed to protect clients (and staff) have now become so restrictive that they stifle communication across sectors.
Our research (Making Collaboratives Work: How Complex Organisational Partnerships Succeed, 2019, New York, Routledge) examines what is needed for the development, governance and implementation of effective collaborations. Through an extensive review of the literature, case studies and a survey of collaborative practitioners, the research looks at the context and processes conducive to the formulation, development and implementation of successful collaboration. The work explicitly examines and assesses the role that a neutral facilitator can play in the success of collaboration networks.
Implications for Practice
This research supports the premise that collaboratives, defined as a group made up of multiple stakeholders from public and private organizations, attempting to work as a common entity with the goals of solving a complex social policy problem, works best when there is a trained, neutral facilitator managing the organizational group’s organisational processes. These groups use consensus-based, decision-making strategies to govern themselves as a formal partnership, where members agree to share information, resources, and authority. Good facilitators can become the necessary “boundary spanners” that these groups need to accomplish their goals.
The work surveyed and interviewed facilitators with extensive experience working in, and facilitating collaboratives. There were many common themes that were unearthed from these collaborative practitioners. They all agreed that when tackling complex social problems, more could be achieved working across boundaries than any single agency would be likely to accomplish alone. They highlighted the need for members to appreciate and understand the levels of interdependency among one another and how this would facilitate good problem solving. Members need to agree on explicit and measurable objectives and agree on a clear group mission (Potapchuk, 2016). This is often assumed but, if not explicit, can later lead to misunderstandings and negative attributions when the going gets tough.
Most of these practitioners described the importance of designing an initial stakeholder membership matrix that is inclusive, consciously diverse, and includes stakeholders not usually at the collaborative table. Engaging and convening the members must be a conscious process and is most effective when inclusion is a part of the initial collaborative philosophy. There must be attention to the engagement processes that provides sufficient orientation to new members so they become comfortable enough to participate fully. Developing a partner assessment and attribute table will help to explore such factors as whether a potential member: (1) has a basic commitment to the group’s shared mission; (2) can has the ability to commit sufficient time and resources. Members with wide-ranging contacts and connections across sectors and boundaries are extremely helpful people for have in collaborative ventures.
The author uses examples from her own work in the State of Hawaii to describe the challenges of working in multi-ethnic and multi-cultural groups and communities. While diversity among collaborative members can be a source of creativity, innovation and stimulation, there is a collaborative paradox as defined by Ospina & Saz-Carranza (2010). The paradox is that this diversity can also be a source of tension as conflicts may emerge due to the members’ differing values, priorities, practices, beliefs, organisational orientations and ways of problem solving. This must be managed carefully and again, this is where an external facilitator can be extremely helpful.
Such collaboration groups must spend sufficient time to develop an understanding of collaborative governance and agree to the explicit rules that will structure the participation (Emerson and Nabatchi, 2015). A crucial factor for collaborative success is to ensure that the members representing separate organizations have sufficient independence, even as they build their understanding of the interdependency they share inside of the collaborative’s work. Members need to have sufficient authority to make decisions that represent the group or agency they represent. However, if innovative strategies and ideas emerge from within the collaborative processes, members may feel they need to “check back in” with their home organization or group which may slow down the decision-making processes but also can build and strengthen the group’s legitimacy. Securing clear lines of accountability and developing precise enforcement mechanisms after agreements have been forged are essential for successful implementation.
The Facilitator’s Role
A trained facilitator focuses on the group processes (not the content) and helps minimise a group spinning its wheel or becoming dysfunctional. A facilitator enables groups to work more effectively and can achieve positive group synergy (Kaner, 2014). A facilitator can provide exercises within the collaborative to build and maintain trust and positive relationships among the group members. He/she can help members find and appreciate their collaborative advantage in participating in the group and avoid generating competition and/or distrust. A facilitator can develop good communication mechanisms within the group and between the group and its external stakeholders. Finally, having an approved formal conflict resolution process that has been vetted and agreed to by the group members can be used to move the group through the likely interpersonal conflicts between members as well as move the group members from positions to shared needs and interests.
Another important issue for collaborative work is how the different members will be acknowledged for their successes, as well as how group members will be held accountable for a failure. Successful collaboratives learn how to grow, share information, resources and authority if they are to meet their goals and remain sustainable. Early on, there must be clear strategies to ensure that adequate resources and funding can be secured throughout the life of the collaborative, its implementation and for future sustainability. This research focuses on the facilitating skills and tools that both group members and facilitators need for success in collaborative work.
Susan Meyers Chandler is Professor of Public Administration and Associate Director of Public Policy Center at the University of Hawaii and served as Hawaii’s Director of the Department of Human Services.
Bryson, J.M., Crosby, B.C. & Stone, M.M. (2015). Designing and implementing cross-sector collaboratives: Needed and challenging. Public Administration Review 75(5), 647-663.
Making Collaboratives Work: How Complex Organizational Partnerships Succeed (2019). New York: Routledge by Susan Meyers Chandler.
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