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Leveraging Partnerships: Realms of Collaboration

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

By Thomas E. Poulin
January 30, 2023

It is hazardous to speak in absolutes, but there might be one immutable truth in public administration: public agencies face endless challenges with limited resources. Acting alone, we are unlikely to succeed. Most challenges are too complex, with many concerns crossing functional or jurisdictional boundaries into areas controlled by others. To have an opportunity for success, we must collaborate with others, but what does this mean? The term collaboration is broadly used. It might be helpful to consider the relevant concepts if we are to puzzle together the necessary resources for success.


It might seem odd to begin a discussion of collaboration with the concept of competition, but it is helpful to understand the antithesis of collaboration. Archetypical competition involves a win-lose environment. In a competitive environment, each organization focuses solely on their own needs, regardless of how this might affect others. They do not support one another, and they may intentionally interfere with the ability of others to succeed if this contributes to their own success. Our society often breeds this value, where it has uses in business and competitive sports, but it is dysfunctional in terms of developing a functional partnership when needed.


Collaboration involves working with others in a wholistic manner, which is paradoxical given the term has historically been defined as working with the enemy. In modern parlance, collaboration means partnering with others to achieve shared goals, and supporting each other in the achievement of individual goals. An idealized form of collaboration involves working closely with others in planning and implementation of all activities, seeking an optimized outcome for everyone. The goal here is win-win, and in a truly collaborative environment if one loses, all lose. An example of this would be a formalized regional governance agreement, where all political jurisdictions within the regional alliance seek to act in unison in areas where all benefit.


In a cooperative relationship, there are deliberate efforts to work together to achieve shared goals, but not necessarily to support others in achieving their individual goals. Unlike competition, in cooperation there is no win-lose proposition. There is no attempt to achieve success at the expense of others. It is a subset of collaboration, but the relationship is more limited. In a cooperative relationship, agencies discuss common and shared goals, determining how they might best approach these efforts in a unified manner. They then work together along narrow lines to achieve these shared goals. An example of this is public, private and non-profit health care agencies working together to promote health care for a specific health risk, but working alone or with others in all other areas.


As a subset of collaboration, coordination is when differing agencies willingly yield some level of autonomy when working with other disciplines, following their lead when addressing a complex challenge involving agencies from differing disciplines or jurisdictions. If hosting a large regional event, such as a state fair, Superbowl or political convention, it is common to see one agency take the lead. This helps to avoid duplication of effort or any notable gaps in service delivery. Other agencies yield limited authority to one agency, but only in this narrow area of concern, and then only for a limited time. There is a permutation of this known as “contingent coordination,” identified often in relation to large-scale disasters, though it has other applications. In contingent coordination, agencies yield limited amounts of authority to a single agency to coordinate their activities, but the coordinator’s role shifts from agency to agency depending on what the primary concern is at any given moment. It is reflective of a matrix organization where the primary and supporting roles shift with each function.

So What?

Much of this information is general, which begs the question—so what? If we appreciate we each have unlimited challenges with limited resources, we must also appreciate it would be beneficial to partner with others to achieve success. A better understanding of collaboration, cooperation and coordination may support us leveraging our strengths and the strengths of others to better achieve our shared goals. This will facilitate our use of our remaining, scarce resources to pursue our own individual goals as best we can. If we need partners, which we often do, it is imperative we find the right form of partnership to achieve optimal outcomes for our communities. In effect, we are attempting to create a single, understandable, approachable image with pieces from differing puzzles.

Author: Thomas E. Poulin, PhD, is an HR training and development consultant and serves as Senior Doctoral Adjunct Faculty at Grand Canyon University. He is Past President of the Hampton Roads Chapter of ASPA. Prior to this, he served over 30 years in local government and 10 years as a university professor. He may be reached at [email protected]

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