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Lessons of Collaborative Project Leadership: Potholes and Wrong Turns in Public Services For At-Risk Communities- Part Two

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

By Sidney Gardner and Larisa Owen
November 20, 2019

Welcome to part 2 of our examination of leadership. In a previous article, we highlighted some of the potential bumps that collaborative leaders might hit in achieving their mission. Identifying problems and barriers that collaborative leaders encounter provides much needed perspective—here we will continue to bring awareness to these barriers.

Clarity of Mission and Values: Mission clarity can sometimes drift or be lost when a leader fails to communicate the mission and then fails to monitor whether that mission is actually being carried out. If an agency is intended or funded to work with at-risk children, for example, but focuses its efforts on adults or parents, the collaborative may fail to understand that the whole family is intended to be the target of its shared efforts. Targeting issues—choosing which clients will receive emphasis and why—is often neglected by collaboratives in favor of picking a group that is easier to recruit and refer to services, or just serving whoever comes in the door.

Choices about serving harder-to-serve clients may be obscured, in part because of missing information about who is actually harder to serve, what obstacles they face to enrollment and completion, how much more they cost and the payoffs of investing in them. Collaboratives may also begin serving a small portion of a targeted group without clarity about how big the total group is. Leaders fail at times to make clear what client pathways a collaborative project is supposed to follow—how clients are intended to go from intake to screening to services and follow-up. This can result in each front-line worker adopting his or her own approach to working with clients in the absence of a clearly understood method and protocols for dealing with clients. Feedback from clients themselves can also help a leader understand how the agency is perceived. This can be related to…

Decisions on Priorities: Leaders have a responsibility to develop a dashboard or some other form of communicating to the collaborative staff and partner agencies, “What are the most important measures of our success?” Using the dashboard will help staff and leadership understand the actual impact of collaboration, answering the question, “Is it really worth all these extra meetings?” In the absence of such priority indicators, all data becomes of equal importance, and none of it has priority. Priority-setting is itself a major collaborative challenge, since each partner will bring its own priorities to the table. Collaborative leadership demands careful negotiation to make sure that a long list of, “Priorities,” does not undermine the most important tasks of the group. Priorities can be set based on a programs’ effectiveness, total need in the community, available resources or several other criteria. But the key task is to make clear what criteria are being used and to discuss the tradeoffs among different priority tasks and goals.

Data Importance: Leaders also at times fail to communicate to front-line staff why data collection matters—and to pay attention to their complaints when data collection appears to interfere with their ability to respond to clients. If a leader can’t communicate the imperatives of proving effectiveness, data collection will be under-emphasized, quality suffers and evaluation becomes more difficult. Efforts at quality assurance can worsen the tension, creating a new cycle of pressure on front-line staff for greater consistency, which means more time is needed to feed and check the information system. It is up to the leader to monitor the quality of the data while sharing the effective lessons from a strong information system in messages to outside funders, staff and champions of the collaborative. At the same time, the leader must keep in close touch with the staff whose daily work is the basis for those results. Leaders who leave evaluation to the evaluators may risk having both weak evaluations and stressed front-line staff.

Delaying Important Decisions: Slippage in response to staff and partner concerns—for instance, “We’ll get to that in our next meeting,”—can also undermine a leader’s credibility. If there is a reason for postponing decisions, a leader needs to communicate that reason clearly enough so that staff and partners in the collaborative understand that action is not being resisted, but considered in the time frame that careful decisionmaking sometimes requires. When an item raised by staff or partners seems to disappear indefinitely, or keeps getting postponed, a leader’s credibility can suffer.

“Compared to What”: Leaders need to always be prepared to answer a standard question in a system-changing project: “Compared to what?” That means that baseline information on the results of the current system is critical, even though not always available. If an innovative project achieves 30% improvement in clients’ measures of well-being, that statistic is useless unless the compared to what number is available. Baselines matter, but they can be sparse in some collaboratives’ initial efforts. With the built-in disadvantage of needing to work across incompatible information systems, it becomes all the more important to aggregate the available data to see the whole system rather than isolating efforts in pilot-sized initiatives. A data profile can surface the key missing data, which is often more important than the available data because of what it reveals about agencies’ inabilities to work with each other.

Staff Skills: Some staff are gifted at being able to work with clients, building rapport and knowing how to follow up with a client or family when an initial problem may have been resolved but underlying issues may not have yet be diagnosed or understood. In contrast, other staff may be more skilled in, “Working the system,”—understanding issues of eligibility, how to negotiate for services from agencies outside their own professional area of expertise. It is rare that the same staff member will be equally skilled at both of these, with inside and outside skill sets. Leaders need to recognize each set of skills and assign the right staff to the right tasks, rather than assuming that all staff can do both tasks equally well.

Authors: Sidney Gardner is president of the Center for Children and Family Futures, where he leads the knowledge management functions, closely tracking trends, legislation, funding and contextual events that impact the organization’s work. With more than 50 years of experience working with government agencies, educational institutions and public policy organizations, he specializes in the development of strategies that facilitate and enhance communication and collaboration across agencies. Gardner is the author of Beyond Collaboration to Results and Cities, Counties, Kids and Families: the Essential Role of Local Government. He can be reached at [email protected]

Larisa Owen has been program director with the Center for Children and Family Futures since 2004. There, she serves as veterans and special projects program director, leading veterans and military families projects across the organization. She is co-chair of the Children and Families subcommittee working group of the Orange County Veterans and Military Families Collaborative and member of the California State Military Reserve. Owen has held senior management roles in corporate and nonprofit organizations. 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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