Civic Collaboration’s Essential Elements

Governments are good at a lot of things, but innovation isn't one of them. That's where partners come in.
by | January 11, 2017

Otis White

President of Civic Strategies Inc.

When it comes to improving cities, not much is certain, but of two things I am sure: The secret s lies in collaboration -- getting numerous independent interests working in coordinated ways on big problems. And one of the secrets of effective collaboration is knowing what each partner is good at so that each can contribute from its strengths.

If I'm right about this, then we need to think deeply about what each participant can bring to a collaboration. And we should begin with government, since it will be inevitably be central to almost every ambitious civic undertaking.

But first, let me urge you to give up that most human of instincts, defensiveness. If we aren't willing to acknowledge that there are some areas where we don't excel, then we'll never work effectively with others.

This can be difficult in public life because governments face a chorus of critics ready to pounce on any shortcoming. What can I say? It takes courage to be a leader. But it also takes faith that, as you build successful collaborations, your list of critics will grow shorter as your list of admirers grows longer. So have the courage to say where you need help.

What would those areas be for governments? Most likely they would include coming up with new ideas, which tends to occur early in the collaboration process.

Why aren't governments good at creative new ideas? Because they tend to be like old-fashioned department stores. They offer many things, most of them as commodity services. This rewards a wide view and clearly thought-out routines, but not innovation.

Some of the interests governments collaborate with, by contrast, will be more like niche retailers: They sell one or two things but do so at amazing depth and variety and are constantly looking for new ways of doing things. So why not use these groups' knowledge, passion and focus to bring new ideas to civic undertakings?

Having trouble picturing this? Think of a collaboration aimed at attracting more young people to a city. The city government will surely be one of the partners, but others might include the chamber of commerce, the local university, entertainment venues, apartment developers and, one hopes, some actual young people. Which participants in this collaboration would you expect to offer the most promising ideas?

Collaborations are about more than ideas, of course. They're about creating workable solutions and seeing these solutions put in place. So as a collaboration moves toward decision-making and implementation, the strengths of government become critical. The three most important strengths that government offers are fairness, scale and steadfastness.

Fairness is a value that you'll have to help your partners understand and appreciate. They'll see it, at first, as delay. But government processes are designed to ensure that everyone gets a voice -- and, in doing so, they can reveal the flaws in our plans and show us their unintended consequences. So while you should accept others' leadership in generating new ideas and approaches, they have to realize that public decision making depends on … well, the public being involved.

The best example of scale at work is water conservation. By making changes in their building codes (mandating that new construction and renovations use more efficient plumbing), cities have dramatically reduced the amount of water each household uses. New York, for instance, was consuming 1.5 billion gallons of water a day on average in 1979. By 2009, it had reduced its daily consumption by a third, to just over 1 billion gallons, even as its population grew by nearly 12 percent -- and with almost no one noticing the changes.

As for steadfastness, governments -- unlike businesses and even nonprofits -- tend to stick with what they do. The reason New York reduced its water consumption so dramatically is that the city government never wavered in its commitment.

So as you begin collaborations, ask for help with ideas. But outline what your partners can expect from government: It will listen widely and decide carefully. But, once committed, it can offer real, measurable change. And by and large, it will keep its promises.

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