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Asking the Right Questions to Understand a Cross-sector Collaboration

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

By Cara Weinberger
May 18, 2018

Cross-sector collaboration can be complex and sometimes opaque, bringing together multiple stakeholders with differing institutional logics, motivations, and practices, who are often navigating ambiguous decision-making processes with varying formality. At The Intersector Project, we produce resources to try to help practitioners navigate these complexities. Last year we created an extensive list of questions intended to help those interested or involved in a particular cross-sector collaboration better understand the complexities and nuances of the program or initiative.

Because there are many approaches to partnership, not every question on the list will be useful for every cross-sector collaboration. But considering the answers to many of these questions can be helpful for a range of users, including:

  • Individuals or organizations who are developing a case study about a specific cross-sector collaboration
  • Individuals or organizations considering becoming involved in a cross-sector collaboration who want to know more about the health of the initiative (e.g., potential funders or partners)
  • Individuals or organizations involved in a cross-sector collaboration who are tasked with communicating key information about the collaboration’s work to external stakeholders (e.g., members of the press)

To get you started, here are the first two categories of key questions to consider. Explore more questions and download the list of questions to share with your stakeholders and cross-sector partners on our website.

Who’s Involved

  • What offices, agencies, organizations, and companies are partnering in this collaboration? What individual(s) will represent each of them within the partnership?
  • Have the partners enlisted the assistance of a facilitator, negotiator, manager, or other third party to assist with the design, implementation, or evaluation of the collaboration? If so, who is this individual or organization, how was the individual or organization chosen, and what is their track record of success in previous cross-sector collaborations? Who is providing funding for this assistance?
  • Have the organizations and individuals involved worked together previously? If so, were those relationships successful (e.g., were they characterized by trust and goodwill and did they produce desired outcomes)?
  • Have the organizations and individuals involved participated in previous cross-sector collaborations, whether with these same partners or with others? If so, were they successful or not?
  • How is partners’ current collaborative work similar to or different from their previous work? (e.g., What differences or similarities are there in goals, governance, resources?)
  • What process was used to determine whom to include in the partnership?
  • Have any critical partners been left out? If so, who are they, why were they left out, and what are the potential downsides of their not being included?
  • Has the public been consulted on this partnership’s work in a meaningful way? If so, how (e.g., through public meetings or hearings, formal surveys, public comment periods, ballot measures)? If not, are partners considering a public consultation process of some kind? Was/Is the public consultation process required or voluntary? Has/Will this process focus on engaging members of the public who are most likely to be affected by the collaboration’s work?
  • What is the collaboration’s process for acting upon the feedback received through the public consultation process?
  • What signs of public support or opposition are observable, if any? What is the reason for this public support or opposition? Does the opposition pose a risk to the work and outcomes of the collaboration? If so, how will the collaboration mitigate that risk?

Why Was a Cross-sector Approach Chosen?

  • What is the partnership’s “genesis story”? When did it begin to take shape? What individual(s) or organization(s) initiated the partnership, and what initial problem, issue, or event led them to do so? When and why did each partner get involved in the partnership?
  • What other approaches were considered or attempted before choosing a cross-sector approach? Did an individual or organization consider or attempt addressing this problem on their own before pursuing a cross-sector solution? If so, why wasn’t that effort successful? If not, why wasn’t that attempted before involving cross-sector partners?
  • Why was a cross-sector approach ultimately chosen over other potential approaches? What evidence, if any, was used to make that decision? If the public sector is involved, was a formal analysis used to determine why a cross-sector approach was pursued?
  • What problem or issue is the collaboration aiming to address?
  • In what terms is the problem being defined? For example, is the problem being defined financially (e.g., cost issues), in terms of values (e.g., accessibility issues, equity issues), operationally (e.g., ineffective program), or otherwise?
  • Do all partners agree with how the problem is defined? If not, where are there differences? Do partners anticipate that those differences will create problems for the collaboration? Do partners have sector- or organization-related biases related to how the problem is defined?
  • What information and data are partners reviewing to understand the problem or issue?
  • What program or initiative is the collaboration proposing to address the problem or issue?

Explore the remaining categories (“What Resources Are Involved?”, “What Risks and Rewards Is Each Partner Taking On?”, “How Are Partners Working Together?”, “and What Are the Potential or Actual Outcomes?”) by visiting our website.

Author: The Intersector Project is a non-profit organization that empowers practitioners in the business, government, and non-profit sectors to collaborate to solve problems that cannot be solved by one sector alone. We create accessible, credible, and practically valuable resources that are publicly available in full through our website. Visit us at intersector.com.

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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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