Collaboration: First Step or Last Resort?

Collaboration, governing-by-network, public-private partnerships, shared authority--whatever you call it, it's a hot topic in government circles. Renowned public administration expert Donald Kettl in his book "...
by | November 23, 2009

Collaboration, governing-by-network, public-private partnerships, shared authority--whatever you call it, it's a hot topic in government circles.

Renowned public administration expert Donald Kettl in his book "The Next Government of the United States" compellingly describes how the government we have is not up to the challenges it faces, from Katrina to healthcare to climate change. One solution, he says, is to move to a greater use of collaboration across sectors and across agencies and programs.

But is collaboration the right solution in every case? Is it readily achievable? Not necessarily, says a team of researchers from the University of Minnesota led by Professor John Bryson.

In a case study of how the Twin Cities metro area successfully developed a public-private sector partnership to reduce traffic congestion in the Twin Cities metro area, the team found several preconditions may have been critical to that success.

The authors say that two views predominate around the use of collaboration. One assumes "that collaboration is typically always best and one should start by search for collaboration partners." The other assumes ". . . organizations will only collaborate when they cannot get what they want without collaborating," The authors concluded that "Collaboration - especially cross-sector collaboration - is no panacea."

The case study examines how the Twin Cities metro area, after decades of effort, made a major breakthrough in addressing traffic congestion. It required various federal, state, local and regional authorities to combine a variety of techniques, including congestion charging and electronic tolling, among various travel options, including highways and mass transit. While cross-sector collaboration was key to that success, it had been tried before and it hadn't taken hold. Why was this time different?

Bryson and his team found there were a number of factors that were critical to success in this collaboration. Some were unique to this instance, and others may be applicable more broadly. Several factors converged, almost serendipitously, to make the collaboration work.

First, the key stakeholders shifted their approach from thinking of traffic congestion as an engineering problem to thinking about it as an economic problem. This led to four new strategies: congestion pricing, expanding mass transit, increasing the use of technology, and encouraging telecommuting.

Second, the federal government offered over $1 billion to pilot traffic congestion projects that would use these kinds of strategies. As Bryson and team observed: "Top-down mandates and bottom-up willingness to collaborate complemented and reinforced one another."

Third, the highly publicized collapse of the I-35 bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis in 2007 was a catalyst for action.

And finally, the champions behind the collaborative approach addressed five questions that the authors felt are almost prerequisites to any successful collaboration:

1. Do you understand, and can you build off of, past efforts? "Organizations and groups seem more likely to engage in cross-sector collaboration when single-sector efforts to solve a public problem have failed," noted the authors. Also, they found that pre-existing and positive working relationships were an essential foundational element. In the case of the Twin Cities partnership, ". . . a broad array of constituencies had become alarmed by this public problem, developed a shared sense of urgency . . . " They realized that historical attempts to solve it had failed and were finally willing to try a market-based tool - congestion pricing -- rather than more traditional methods, such as construction or regulation. In this case, they banded together as a last resort because all other approaches had failed.

2. Have you developed effective governance approaches? Organizing to get things done in a collaborative manner is not easy, largely because it is time-consuming and it constantly evolves. Players and roles change over time. Typically, a respected and neutral organization and specific individuals should help design and manage the inclusive process. Regular meetings among stakeholders, preferably using existing forums, are key elements. In the case of the Twin Cities, they created an Urban Partnership Agreement Steering Committee. Before receiving the federal grant, the committee chose to maintain loose, not tight, membership boundaries and was very inclusive. It was characterized by fluid and participatory decision-making process within an evolving governance structure. Flatter, more inclusive processes and structures provided useful mechanisms for expressing, hearing, and accommodating interests and building a broad coalition of support. In addition, tight timelines helped foster innovation by forcing going around or bending existing rules and normal procedures.

3. Do you understand the roles of key players? The main locus of power will likely shift over the course of a collaboration process. Understanding how power is allocated, at different points in the collaboration process, is important to managing both process and expectations. One crucial political task is framing is framing issues. As Bryson and team note: "The way issues are framed will determine much of the politics that ensue, as well as the way actors assess costs and benefits of proposals, and construct winning arguments." In the Twin Cities example, politics was the opening of the window of opportunity. Of course, monetary incentives - in the form of a federal grant -- helped!

4. Can you demonstrate both leadership and competence? Any collaborative effort will be comprised of a mix of political, facilitative, and technical skills. The mix among them will change over time.

Typically, political sponsors have the formal authority to bring to bear in securing political support and resources. The champions often lack formal authority, but they supply ideas, energy, and determination to move forward. Effective champions can both facilitate and frame policy ideas in comprehensible ways to multiple constituencies. They also need to have a high tolerance for risk and situational ambiguity.

5. Can you create outcome-oriented accountability? Accountability arrangements, notes Bryson, "can be particularly tricky in collaborations, as the multiplicity of actors and agencies involved often causes ambiguity around the question of 'who is responsible for what?'" However, creating a system that tracks inputs, processes, and outcomes is important. When these are made transparent, then the various stakeholders can use this system to hold each other mutually accountable. In the Twin Cities effort, though, participants were nearly unanimous in identifying the Minnesota state department of transportation as the agency ultimately responsible for success of the traffic congestion project. While the department created a tracking system, accountability goes beyond the metrics. People are likely to have different views as to what constitutes success, notes Bryson, so it is important to pay attention to the role of the media "in terms of building support, providing useful criticism, and helping assure accountability."

Bryson and his team conclude: "collaboration is not an easy answer to hard problems, but a hard answer to hard problems." So if you are facing an opportunity to collaborate across sectors, start by asking yourself these kinds of questions first. They may help you decide if collaboration should be your first step . . . or your last resort.


Jonathan D. Breul is the executive director of the IBM Center for The Business of Government and a partner with IBM Global Business Services. He is also a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration and can be reached at

John M. Kamensky is a senior fellow with the IBM Center for The Business of Government. He is also an associate partner with IBM Global Business Services and a fellow of the National Academy. He can be reached at

For more on this topic, read: Designing and Managing Cross-Sector Collaboration: A Case Study in Reducing Traffic Congestion.

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