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The Complex Problems That Government Can’t Solve by Itself

Some of them need collaboration that draws on the strengths of all three sectors -- public, private and nonprofit.

Former President Ronald Reagan
Former President Ronald Reagan
(Shutterstock)
In Ronald Reagan's first inaugural address, referring in 1981 to economic problems the nation faced at the time, he famously said that "government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem." while many, particularly on the left, decried this as an unwarranted attack on public service, there is now general agreement that President Reagan was at least half right: It is undoubtedly true that many of the problems that government is asked to solve cannot effectively be addressed by government alone.

This has been true, of course, for a long time, but over the last couple of decades both academics and practitioners have been more systematically focused on examples and prescriptions where the sectors work together to address public problems. This is much broader than contracting out or public-private partnerships, as typically these more traditional arrangements involve a collaboration among two sectors -- public and private, or public and nonprofit -- but not all three. These are questions not of how government will address these issues, but rather questions of governance that involve all three sectors. Among many current examples of public problems where all three sectors need to be, and in some cases already are, part of the solution:

• The costs of the opioid crisis are well documented. Any solution will necessarily involve regulatory activity by government, educating the public by both public health agencies and nonprofits, and changes in behavior by doctors and insurance providers working in both the public and private sectors.

• Many cities need to increase the supply of affordable housing. The problem of both increasing the number of affordable units and making sure that there is a way to appropriately allocate that scarce resource cannot be the sole province of a single sector. Governments establish incentives (through tax policy, zoning and permitting, for example) but typically the units are built by private developers and public education and advocacy are handled by nonprofits.

• The recent Supreme Court decision permitting states to legalize sports betting has many states scrambling to figure out how to appropriately respond to this development. While the venues (online and brick and mortar) that will be the locus of the sports betting enterprise will be private, states will adopt regulatory and tax policies to control this activity, and the nonprofits that already exist to confront gambling addiction will play an increasingly important role.

These three examples are not anomalous. Other policy areas such as infrastructure development, education, disaster planning and assistance, economic development, and cybersecurity are replete with cases where all three sectors must work in concert.

This is not to suggest that collaboration among the sectors is always positive. There are well documented examples where such partnerships have gone off the rails. Private prisons, for example, have in some cases compromised providing needed services and security in an effort to save money and increase profits. Some public-private partnerships have resulted in higher costs to the taxpayer than more traditional public solutions. And government contracting, whether with private firms or nonprofit agencies, can invite corruption and favoritism.

Collaborative governance, nonetheless, is here to stay. The relevant question is not whether the sectors work together. The important questions involve whether such collaboration is appropriate in a given circumstance, how such partnerships can be successfully structured and how well they work in practice.

These are difficult questions to answer, and state and local governments considering such arrangements may have a dearth of objective sources where they may be able to turn for advice or examples. I have recently become aware of such a source: A nonprofit called The Intersector Project (TIP) has been producing case studies and other tools that can be used to provide input into proposed cooperative arrangements among the sectors. The TIP website includes 40 case studies of intersectoral collaborations from across the country.

Most of these case studies deal with state and local issues, covering areas such as community revitalization, health, infrastructure, education and the environment. They are located in very large places (saving shelter animals in New York City; transforming public housing in New Orleans) and smaller ones (improving labor relations in Jamestown, N.Y.; economic revitalization in Bethlehem, Pa.). TIP has used these case studies to develop a 47-page toolkit for those considering intersector projects that follows the potential collaboration from diagnosis to design to implementation to assessment.

Work like that being undertaken by TIP couldn't come at a better time. In an era of scarce resources at all levels of government, leaders must find creative solutions to complex problems. In such a context, it is even more important to consider ways that the sectors can work together and to consider how such partnerships can lead to the delivery of high-quality public services in the most cost-effective way possible.

Professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy
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