April's announcement of the latest crop of Kennedy School "Bright Ideas" recipients is a reminder how vital innovation in public programs is during this period of rapidly contracting budgets and undiminished needs. As a former public official, I especially appreciate those who are able to innovate when all those around them are focused on vanishing resources.
I was particularly pleased to discover that one of Philadelphia's most successful innovations, Project U-Turn, also received recognition. Project U-Turn is a citywide campaign to understand, focus public attention on and, most importantly, mitigate Philadelphia's school dropout crisis. It is led by representatives of the school district, city agencies, foundations, youth-serving organizations, parents and young people. (Disclosure: The William Penn Foundation, of which I am president, supports this project.)
While I often attribute much of Project U-Turn's success to the project's architect, Laura Shubilla, there's something more than just capable leadership going on. What makes the program remarkable is the collaboration and integration of purpose that occurs across a fragmented and fractious ecosystem of public and private entities. Why are effective collaborations so rare and what are the ingredients that propel the successful ones?
A recent essay in the Stanford Social Innovation Review offers some common sense but nonetheless challenging-to-achieve conditions for successful cross-sector collaboration.
While the authors don't downplay the importance of individual programs and organizations, they do argue that "large-scale social change requires broader cross-sector coordination, yet the social sector remains focused on the isolated intervention of individual organizations."
Alas, many collaborations end in a puddle of frustrations and ambiguous results. The Stanford essay suggests that absent some key conditions, collaboration is likely to be an energy-drainer rather than an energizer. But the experience of Project U-Turn suggests there's a way around that:
Common Agenda. Project U-Turn was launched in 2006, and within a year, the newly-elected mayor had bought in to the project and embraced the city's responsibility to address the dropout crisis. School district officials, juvenile justice practitioners, nonprofit service providers and philanthropic leaders all agreed that a multipronged attack was critical to reversing trends, one that identified at-risk youth, provided enrichment throughout the year, improved the high school experience and offered alternative schools for returning dropouts.
Shared Measurement Systems. Project U-Turn uses an annual dashboard that tracks four measures: percentage of 9th graders on track for on-time graduation; the six-year cohort graduation rate; the number of seats available for returning dropouts and at-risk youth; and the number of dollars leveraged. All partners regularly see these scores as well as rigorous evaluations on programs funded by or supported by Project U-Turn. Steady progress is celebrated; while shortfalls are scrutinized and programs adjusted.
Mutually Reinforcing Activities. Project U-Turn has enabled key partners to drive forward complementary activities that support the effort: The school district created accelerated schools, the city's human services department established a support center that works with children in the foster care system, and the child welfare and mental health departments staff re-engagement centers that attract and guide dropouts back to school opportunities.
Continuous Communication. Project U-Turn releases regular reports on the progress of the campaign. Monthly steering committee meetings are still well attended after six years.
Backbone Support Organizations. The Philadelphia Youth Network, created under the Philadelphia Workforce Investment Board, has itself been a high-performance collaboration for youth workforce development since its formation in 1999. Rigorous management of its broader work has provided the essential spine for Project U-Turn's success.
The dropout crisis is endemic and each community's response unique. The expanding interest in Project U-Turn among other cities suggests that embracing the comprehensive approach with community partners resonates. Placing isolated blame -- or targeting only one element of this complex problem -- simply doesn't produce results, nor will collaboration without attention to the key structural elements that hold it together.
You may use or reference this story with attribution and a link to