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Does Cross-Sector Collaboration Really Produce Better Results?

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

By The Intersector Project
May 24, 2016

The practice of cross-sector collaboration appears to be increasing as a means to address complex social challenges. Yet, it’s difficult to demonstrate the benefits in comparison to a single-sector approach. Carey Doberstein, assistant professor of political science at the University of British Columbia, hones in on this dilemma by investigating collective decisionmaking around homelessness program policy in Vancouver and asking, “Are the policy outputs from collaborative governance substantively different from that which would have been produced from more traditional bureaucratic policymaking?”

JW - PATIMES_CollabAdvantage

The Metro Vancouver Regional Steering Committee on Homelessness comprises more than 120 members representing service providers, community-based organizations, business and all levels of government. Doberstein observed the collaboration in action for several weeks, interviewed members and reviewed data on how members ranked homelessness program proposals. The “collaborative advantage” he describes is a decision—with real world implications—that is unlikely to have been arrived at by one sector or silo deliberating alone. In email correspondence with The Intersector Project, Doberstein shared that participants in such collaborations “realize that while this type of work is tough, it is a great opportunity to better understand their sector and make a bigger difference than they could on their own.”

Through his research, Doberstein identified key design and management features that contributed to the collaboration’s ability to arrive at decisions that would have been difficult for policymakers in a single sector to achieve alone. His findings are relevant to managers of collaborations in which a kaleidoscope of expertise and actors shape decisions around prioritization and investment of public funds.

Takeaways for Practitioners

Select partners who are experts in their field but also open to hearing new information. Participants should be able to confidently communicate their knowledge of their field but also able to listen and allow their thinking to be informed by new information, instead of holding an uncompromising ideology or vision.

Collaboration managers may ask potential partners to complete a self-assessment that examines whether they are open to others’ perspectives and willing to make decisions that are best for the partnership. “Having a clear vision, a positive demeanor, a willingness to listen, accept new knowledge, and perhaps change their mind on issues, is essential,” Doberstein told us. Without these qualities, a collaborative advantage is less likely to be achieved and partners are more likely to simply bargain for their respective best interests.

Balance time limits on deliberation with flexibility in allowing for additional discussion that may arise. While the perfect balance may take years to achieve, a general guideline is for collaboration managers to allocate and communicate to partners exact time measures for deliberation while also anticipating where further discussion time may be necessary and remaining flexible. This keeps discussions focused but allows time to thoroughly address the issues. As Doberstein pointed out, “Without some time pressure and structure, collaborations will tend go in circles without achieving consensus.”

  • For an example of a meeting agenda that can be used to record time planned — and actually used — for discussions, see the Meeting Agenda Template.

Delegate complicated tasks to smaller groups that will work independently and report decisions back to project managers. Splitting a large group into smaller groups to handle tasks and make decisions will increase the collaborative’s efficiency. For example, the collaborative needed to take a close look at program proposals for homeless services, a task that involved detailed analysis and would be difficult for all 120 members to perform together. The managers divided the committee into smaller groups of five or six individuals, retaining the diversity of expertise within each of the small groups by ensuring that shelter providers, youth specialists and mental health professionals were not placed in one group.

This helps a collaboration move forward more efficiently while ensuring that it is still making “policy and program decisions with the most insight and expertise at the table,” which is “the whole point of collaborative governance,” noted Doberstein. During small group work, the manager and supporting staff were present to answer technical questions about budget and administrative regulations.

Consider items that are likely to produce consensus at the top of an agenda and those likely to produce dissension at the bottom. “Front-load [the agenda with] small, easy wins” Doberstein writes, to begin discussions with areas of agreement. This encourages cooperation early in a meeting, which may help partners better handle conflict later on. If the contentious issues do cause problems later on, front-loading small, easy wins will get “a few barrels of water out of the well if there is a chance that it is going to be poisoned later.”


Author: The Intersector Project is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing cross-sector collaboration as a way to address society’s pressing issues. We work to provide practitioners in every sector with the tools they need to implement collaborative solutions to complex problems.

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