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The Public-Private Interdependencies We Need to Nurture

Our communities face big problems that can't be solved by government, business or nonprofits acting alone.

Imagine four Boeing 727s loaded with passengers crashing every week for a year. Imagine how you would react. This is America's opioid epidemic, with more than 42,000 deaths in 2016.

As policymakers grapple with this crisis in our national and state capitols, its human toll is playing out on the streets and in the neighborhoods of our communities. And it's just one of numerous challenges, including others for which lives are at stake, faced by our cities, towns and counties. What if you could create a vision for your community, where you could bring the right public and private experts and resources around the table to build a solution that ultimately saves lives? Our greatest challenges are going to be solved by multi-sector collaborations, and I believe elected officials will be leading that effort.

What can you do to prepare for this new era of public-private interdependence? It means something different to the business community than it does to government or to nonprofits.

Sally Blount, the dean of Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, believes that whether a business is selling to, partnering with or being regulated by government, understanding the public sector is essential to success in the global marketplace. As Blount wrote, that success "demands understanding the interdependencies that bind the public and private sectors and cultivating leaders who can manage and partner across these sectors."

And it works both ways. Sometimes in government there is the idea that a contractor is nothing more than someone trying to get money out of the taxpayer's wallet. If that's the mindset government brings to this collaboration, it's already failed. These multi-sector collaborations need governments that can understand the incentives, motivations, structures and challenges the private sector faces.

Every sector -- public, private, nonprofit, faith-based -- has its strengths and weaknesses, and no one sector can do it alone. As Stephen Goldsmith and William D. Eggers put it in their book Governing by Network, "We can't solve complex horizontal problems with vertical solutions."

In some places, these public-private interdependencies are already addressing the opioid epidemic. The Ocean County, N.J., prosecutor's office is a perfect example. Realizing that we can't arrest and prosecute our way out of the opioid crisis, the office reaches out to local hospitals when there is an overdose, creating an intervention program with a local nonprofit to get the addict on a path to recovery. As a former prosecutor, I know cases are often simply prosecuted and disposed of. But this public-private partnership -- encompassing a prosecutor's office, private hospitals and a nonprofit -- is tackling this opioid epidemic in an entirely different way, changing the norm and finding solutions through multi-sector collaboration.

Collaboration also can take the form of supporting and leveraging community resources that already are trying to deal with local challenges. Walgreens has hundreds of drop boxes where not just opioids but any kind of prescription or non-prescription drug can be taken out of the marketplace. CVS has pharmacists who are out educating youth about the dangers of opioids. Government can support efforts like these with public policy, creating collaborations to solve complex issues.

I think the most important part of building these partnerships is to get the right people on the bus. This idea, from business consultant Jim Collins' book Good to Great, is that, early on, leadership needs to get the right people in the right seats before leaders began to drive the strategy. Collins calls this concept "first who, then what."

Elected officials are in the natural position to build these teams. When getting the right people on the bus, elected officials play three primary roles, as adapted from research by the Brookings Institution: convener, champion and catalyst. These leaders not only bring the right members into the group but also create the vision and build trust to facilitate solutions.

These collaborations are already forming to solve complex problems, and we need more of them. I spoke about this topic at the National Association of Counties' annual conference last summer, and while talking with county leaders it became even more evident to me that our greatest challenges cannot be tackled by one sector alone. It is going to require a new era of public-private interdependence.

An adjunct professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management and lead for UnitedHealthcare's sales strategy for state and local markets
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