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Innovation, Barriers and Technology in Public Sector Collaboration

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Srdana Pokrajac
May 29, 2015

goals peoplePréfontaine and colleagues (2000) define public sector collaboration as “the reciprocal and voluntary support that two or more distinct public sector agencies, or public and private administrations, including nonprofit organizations (NPOs), provide each other in order to deliver a “public” service.”

Wim Oosterom, Global Government Leader at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC) says, “The public sector is, collectively, the world’s largest service provider. Any incremental improvement in public services positively impacts millions of people.” In order to successfully deliver services, governments need to understand their citizens better. Moreover, PWC identifies creating a more connected government as an essential step toward success.

Collaborative Innovation

In an article from 2012, Sørensen and Torfing explain how collaborative innovation can be a key determinant in the improvement of public policy and services. Collaboration involves multiple actors and provides a larger pool of knowledge, imagination, creativity and resources.

One of the key drivers of innovation in the public sector is citizens’ demand for better public services. According to Sørensen & Torfing, public money is constantly under scrutiny and innovation is driven by limited resources. Innovation in the public sector is also driven by intractable problems such as climate change and income inequality that demand new approaches to finding solutions. Finally, globalization also drives innovation among governments worldwide that perceive the latter as a competitive advantage.

Need for A Cultural Shift

In a 2012 survey of public sector employees by GovDelivery, 96 percent of respondents held the opinion that stronger relationships between government agencies would be beneficial. In particular, they would enable the delivery of better services and connection to the public, better decision-making and greater participation in government processes, as well as increased efficiencies and decreased time responding to critical needs.

Interactive forms of governance such as networks and partnerships, and more recently, digital platforms, have the potential to entice collaboration. For example, the state of Hawaii launched the Exemplary State Initiative through Collaborate.org – a platform that enables real-time interaction and data sharing among different organizations. The Exemplary State Initiative is not limited to government agencies, and it is an effort to involve multiple stakeholders from different sectors to collaborate and build a stronger knowledge base about the  current state of Hawaiian biodiversity, climate and human health.

At times, organizational culture barriers exist that might be preventing initiatives to deliver the promise of innovation. Rob White, Chief Innovation Officer with the city of Davis, California, identified three main forces that hinder public sector collaboration: fear of change and the unknown; threat of losing control over a position or area of expertise; and the lack of rewards or incentives for taking risks.

These obstacles can be overcome. White suggests replacing threat of losing a position of authority with a positive attitude, such as giving more importance to being creative and innovative. When it comes to addressing the lack of rewards, White says that working for the citizens and delivering better services should be an inherent reward.

Sørensen and Torfing suggest that managers have an important role in overcoming barriers to collaboration. Managers must be conveners and motivate other employees to collaborate and explain the importance and value of collaboration. Managers must also act as mediators and facilitate collaboration. Finally, managers must be catalysts of innovation by re-framing problems and encouraging out-of-the-box thinking.

Public Sector Collaboration and Information Technology 

Increases in the use of information technology (IT) both in business and everyday life have prompted citizens to demand better government services. IT increasingly supports many public sector services, as well as operations.

Open government and open data initiatives aim to provide additional ways for more effective public sector collaboration, with the particular focus on citizen participation. Some of the benefits of open data often cited in the literature are:

  • Cost savings from responding to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.
  • Avoiding duplicate internal research.
  • Discovering complementary data sets held by other agencies.
  • Empowering employees to make better-informed and data-driven decisions. 

Transparency, collaboration and participation are the three pillars of the White House Open Government Initiative. Citizen participation might open a new dimension of public sector collaboration, one that might consider citizens as partners. If governments can provide faster and more effective ways for citizens to express their satisfaction or dissatisfaction with policies or services, democracy could perhaps be reinvigorated.

Public sector collaboration has the potential to drive innovation in public policy and services. There are many ways in which collaboration can be initiated and encouraged such as through networks, partnerships and digital platforms. However, cultural hurdles need to be overcome first. Even though emphasis has been put on IT as a way to improve government collaboration and services, alone it will not provide enough momentum until people are on board.


Author: Srdana Pokrajac is a graduate student in Public Administration at Presidio Graduate School of Sustainable Management in San Francisco. She is a graduate of HULT International Business School with a master’s degree in International Business. She can be reached at: [email protected].

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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