Collaboration and the Outcomes We Need

Competition in government service delivery is powerful, but it isn’t sufficient. The best leaders are recognizing that.
by | March 8, 2012 AT 11:00 AM

Recently I watched Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley conduct a session of StateStat, the process he has implemented to make the state's government more efficient. I had expected more of a pure-management focus on streamlining the internal workings of state government--breaking down silos, improving coordination of state agencies and programs, and holding government managers accountable for measurable improvements. To be sure, there was some of that. But when O'Malley and I talked afterward, I mentioned that I was struck by how much of the focus in the meeting was on working with counties, nonprofits and others to get things done. Yes, he said. "Collaboration is the new competition."

When I discuss government performance in terms of community-level outcomes, I'm frequently told that government is not responsible--that many of our problems are beyond government's reach. I once had a police chief, for example, tell me that his department was not responsible for crime in the city. I wanted to tell him, "Give me back your gun and the $200 million we're giving you and I'll see if we can find someone who can make the city safer." The fact is, the purpose of government is to create outcomes for people that they cannot create in their individual capacities.

That requires collaboration, and collaboration requires leadership. As O'Malley knows, improving societal outcomes does indeed require working across lines with lots of different players. No one player can do it alone. But leadership from the government executive is essential. No one else can do the things that have to happen to move the needle on major social issues.

• Bluntly calling out the issue.

• Setting a challenging goal.

• Accepting accountability for achieving the goal.

• Convening the players who can impact some part of the issue.

• Engaging in dialogue about the costs and consequences of the issue and a path forward.

• Creating transparency by continually collecting and publishing data on the issue.

• Consistently following through.

Competition remains a powerful tool, but it is internally focused. When they are done well, processes like managed competition and public-private partnerships can deliver services better, faster and cheaper. That's necessary, but it's not sufficient. The most effective leadership is externally focused. A mayor or governor manages a government, but leads its citizens.

Here are the kinds of goals I see some government leaders taking responsibility for: Gov. O'Malley is working to eradicate child hunger and restore the health of the Chesapeake Bay. Mayor Mick Cornett of Oklahoma City, acknowledging that his city was one of the fattest in the nation, put the city on a "diet," prompting its residents to lose a million pounds. And Athens County, Ohio, Commissioner Lenny Eliason is working with Live Healthy Appalachia to achieve measurable improvements in health and wellness in an area that has some of the country's highest chronic-disease rates.

During a recent visit to Governing, the leaders of the National Association of Counties echoed O'Malley's theme that "collaboration is the new competition." The results they want to achieve for their constituents and their communities require them to convene and work with nonprofits, developers and representatives of other units of government. They see some governors as understanding and fostering this but many others as working unilaterally.

My guess is that when you grade states on societal outcomes, you'll see that governors who take responsibility for gathering data, convening parties and focusing them on major issues will do better at improving outcomes in their jurisdictions than those leaders who only "color within the lines" and pay attention only to their own specific legal powers, their own responsibilities and those of the jurisdictions they were elected to lead.