Cracking the collaboration code

It will not have escaped notice that calls for collaborative solutions to difficult policy problems have become louder and more insistent.

Such calls have their roots in the early ‘noughties’ when the policy conversation was all about joined-up governance, networks and relational governance.

Back then speculation was rife that New Public Management (NPM)—with its implicit faith in the power of contestable markets to deliver consumer sovereignty, choice and responsiveness—was on the brink of giving way to something called ‘New Public Governance’.

At the time it was thought that rules-based transactional governance would be replaced by relational governance based on trust, reciprocity, shared values, implicit standards and consultation.

Although the rumoured death of NPM—like that of Mark Twain—was exaggerated, collaboration has taken root—imperfectly—as an aspirational ideal.

The Power of ‘C’

Words like co-design and co-production are now well established in the Australian policy lexicon.

At best, this signals a willingness to embrace multi-party approaches to treatments of social problems. At worst, the use of such language is the policy equivalent of virtue signalling and is belied by the persistence of institutional rigidity and bureaucratic silos.

Collaboration is a relatively recent addition to the partnership rhetoric employed by Australian governments.

However, organisations in both the public and not-for-profit sectors often talk about collaboration when they really mean coordination, or cooperation, or information sharing—and this suggests an incomplete grasp of collaborative practice.

It don’t come easy

Collaboration is not “an easy answer to hard problems but a hard answer to hard problems”. So say Bryson et al in their 2009 study of a cross-sector collaborative effort to reduce traffic congestion in the Twin Cities metropolitan area of Minnesota.

Acting collaboratively does not always come easily or naturally, especially in public sector organisations where longstanding incentives reinforce territorial behaviour.

At the same time commercial imperatives endemic in competitive tendering lead non-state service providers to jealously guard commercially sensitive intellectual property, thereby creating disincentives for collaboration.

Collaboration is hard to do—many attempts never get off the ground.

Although, collaboration tools are available—such as the Collaboration Health Assessment Tool (CHAT) developed by researchers at the Centre for Social Impact—the fundamentals of collaborative practice are not widely known or understood.

Indeed, it is commonplace for people at the frontline to liken their collaborative efforts to “building an aeroplane while it’s in the air”.

Cracking the code

With this in mind, in 2016 the Australia and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG) and the John Curtin Institute of Public Policy at Curtin University co-invested in a comparative case study of five collaborative initiatives in Australia and New Zealand.

Our purpose was to identify important factors influencing the success of collaborative approaches.

We would like to share a few “take homes” from our research.

1. Bespoke solutions for complex problems

A major strength of collaboration is its capacity to enable bespoke local solutions, addressing local priorities, with local stewardship.

The downside is that collaboration requires an acceptance of complexity, uncertainty and diversity of approach, as well as a preparedness to share power—uncomfortable territory for a public sector that tends to favour standardised, uniform treatments of social problems.

2. A dual operating system

Writing in the Harvard Business Review (2012), John P. Kotter, suggested that many organisations address the challenges of complexity and rapid change by establishing a ‘dual operating system’ comprised of: a primary operating space that embodies formal, hierarchical rules and processes; and a secondary operating space, in which difficult conversations can safely occur.

In each of our cases, collaboration has occurred within a secondary operating space in which fidelity to collaborative aims takes precedence over formal hierarchies and operational norms.

Such spaces might be regarded as a threat to operational orthodoxy—especially by those in middle management where incentive structures reinforce rules-based behaviours—and remain viable only if they have unambiguous executive support.

3. Collaborative intelligence

Our study highlights the importance of ‘collaborative intelligence’ (CQ).

CQ combines an acute sensitivity to the interpersonal dimension of human interaction with an astute appreciation of systems, relationships between organisations, and the “baggage” brought to the collaboration by various actors.

Unfortunately, rigid, rule-bound, hierarchical systems can inhibit the expression of CQ: the challenge for collaboration partners, therefore, is to curate spaces in which CQ is encouraged and rewarded.

4. Long lead times

The intensive and complex processes of relationship building, establishing legitimacy and trust, collectively framing the problem, and agreeing ways of working needs big investments of time, commitment and emotional energy.

This can seriously test the resolve of partner organisations impatient for results and looking for orthodox impact metrics.

5. Viva la revolución?

Because collaboration often occurs in hybrid spaces that sometimes operate with an air of impermanence, it can be difficult to maintain the founding purpose, sense of mission and personal commitment that got it off the ground in the first place.

On the flip side, formalising and codifying collaboration can undermine its dynamism and sense of collective purpose.

What now?

Yes, collaboration is hard to do; it requires special skills and aptitudes; it needs both formal authority and the permission of those affected; it requires big investments of time and emotional energy; and it is hard to sustain.

It is also unavoidable—complexity demands it. Many public sector leaders acknowledge that traditional skill sets aren’t up to the task: many not-for-profit leaders claim collaboration as part of the sector’s DNA.

There is a way to go, obviously.

Slowly, but surely, we are cracking the code.

About the Author

John Butcher is an ANZSOG Adjunct Research Fellow based at the Australian National University. A recovering state and Commonwealth bureaucrat with deep roots in the Australian social policy landscape, John’s research focuses on gaining practical insights into the working relationships between government entities and non-state actors, principally in the not-for-profit sector. John and his colleagues, David Gilchrist (UWA), John Phillimore (Curtin University) and John Wanna (ANU) commenced their case studies of multi-party collaboration in late 2016. In 2016 he and David Gilchrist curated and edited The Three Sector Solution: Delivering public policy in collaboration with not-for-profits and business, published by the ANU Press.