In their new book, Collaborate or Perish!, former Los Angeles and New York City Police Chief William Bratton and Harvard Kennedy School senior researcher Zachary Tumin talk about how learning to work together is imperative for the nation’s future -- and what that means for state and local governments.
The title of your book suggests collaboration isn’t just desirable, it’s essential. Yet government is full of agencies that collaborate poorly, if at all. What’s changed to make that unacceptable?
For more than a generation, government agencies have wrestled with issues around automation and IT technology. They still do, of course, but today everyone is automated -- that’s no longer the issue. The issue is what we do with all that automation. Keep it dumb and locked down in stovepipes and cylinders, or combine and transform into high performance? Collaboration is the difference.
What are the most common things that block effective collaboration in the public sector?
It’s critical to overcome the mindset against collaboration, the idea that, “Sure, we’ll collaborate, but only as a last resort.” Sometimes there’s an attitude of pessimism: “This is as good as it gets.” Sometimes, it’s an attitude of arrogance: “No one does it better.”
You tell people to “have a vision,” but also to “right-size the way forward. Make it doable.” But in New York City and Los Angeles, Chief Bratton famously set -- and achieved -- crime reduction targets that were widely viewed as unreasonable. When should leaders set “blue-sky” goals, and when should they go for a modest win?
Set “blue sky” stretch goals, but then right-size the problem to get value in the hands of users fast and prove to everyone, “We can do this.” You can’t see the end of the journey from the beginning. A vision keeps you moving, but oversized problems defy progress. It’s that combination -- a blue sky vision, a right-sized problem -- that shows the path forward, delivers the win and value fast, and gets people going.
People usually think that right-sizing a problem means breaking it down into more manageable issues. But you argue that sometimes right-sizing means making it bigger.
It depends on what you need for success. And you go back and forth between both approaches as you progress. Sometimes you need to make the sandbox bigger, involve more folks. But that’s all to make progress on a problem that everyone agrees is just the right size: big enough to make a difference, small enough to win against.
You write that a shared platform is the essential component of a successful collaboration, and “the platform is the strategy.” What do you mean?
It means your platform for collaboration shapes your results and has to align with your stated goals. If you want information sharing but your platform doesn’t support it; if you want engagement but your platform has no capability for it; if you want visibility and transparency but your platform obscures or hides it, then that’s your de facto strategy, whatever else you might say. So make sure that the platform supports your goal and mission because at the end of the day, your platform will either make mincemeat of your stated strategy, or make it soar.
OK, you have the vision; you’ve right-sized the problem; you have a platform. How do you get other agencies -- and other people -- to play?
Collaboration has to pay. It can pay financially or in mission effectiveness or in conferring status and stature. It’s best if collaboration helps people do what they’re going to do anyway -- only together it gets done better, faster, cheaper. You need to signal with the A-team that this is going to be a win for all. You need to show that you have executive cover and support, that there is leadership that gets it and expects it. That all adds up to making collaboration pay.