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Public Perceptions of State and Local Government and Cross-sector Collaboration

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

By The Intersector Project
December 19, 2017

In 2015, Hart Research Associated convened six focus groups on behalf of The Intersector Project to explore citizens’ views toward the business, government and nonprofit sectors and toward cross-sector collaboration. This year, The Intersector Project released a report detailing takeaways from these focus groups, which can be helpful for practitioners of cross-sector collaboration in the public sector who are continually tasked with communicating the value of their work to others. A more thorough knowledge of how their own and other sectors are perceived can help practitioners communicate the need for and value of cross-sector collaboration to their constituencies by illuminating the assets they bring to the collaboration, and how the assets of other sectors can help them overcome their limitations.

When asked about the public sector (here limited to state and local government), citizens were ambivalent. They recognized and appreciated the services the public sector provides, such as libraries, public parks and maintaining and building roads and other infrastructure. They also understood the importance of government in providing order through laws, rules and regulations. One multi-sector worker in Chicago commended the public sector for its parks and for convening events that bring the community together.

The most positive quality citizens associated with the public sector was that it “protects” the community with the fire department and law enforcement. Those who work in the public sector often saw it as a high calling which attracts people with “integrity.” Ideally, they believed the public sector should work for the betterment of the community. As one public-sector worker in Chicago explained, “I am a steward of the citizenry.”

Several Democrats in Raleigh pointed out that they appreciate that the public sector is accessible to everyone. As one Democratic voter put it, “When you deal with the public [sector], usually it’s an equal opportunity for anybody to engage if they so desire.” Another Democratic voter added that city council meetings are “for everyone to come to discuss what the issues are.”

Due to its size and infrastructure, government was seen as having the greatest potential to enact change in communities. But the size of government also was a weakness in the eyes of many citizens. The public sector was seen as slow and inefficient, overrun with bureaucrats and burdensome regulations. “The government is exceptionally slow moving, and we [in business] can do things faster and better,” explained one Democratic voter in Raleigh. There was a perception among citizens that people working in the public sector do not have the freedom to take action when they see an area in need of improvement, but rather have to submit endless forms and wait for approval. All of these inefficiencies led to a perception of waste, both in terms of wasted time and, more importantly, wasted money.

There also was a pervasive sense of failed leadership in the public sector — a sense that cooperation has given way to constant infighting because elected officials care more about their political agendas than making positive change in their communities. The problem with the public sector in the minds of many of these citizens was that it is not living up to its potential. Government has the resources and the potential for impact, they said, but is not following through. As a Democratic voter in Raleigh explained, “I think the government has a lot of potential to do good. I just don’t think that it’s delivering on any of that now.”

Citizens, however, responded very favorably when the idea of the three sectors working together to solve problems was introduced as a potential approach to addressing problems. Collaboration among the sectors had intuitive appeal to most citizens for three fundamental reasons:

  • The involvement of all three sectors can mean that more resources, more ideas and more energy directed toward solving the problem. Just as a team is stronger than an individual player, it seems obvious to citizens that three sectors often can accomplish more than one.
  • Citizens believed each sector has discrete strengths. If each sector takes on responsibilities tied to these respective strengths, then together they will be able to do the job better than any one sector could.
  • Citizens believed each sector also has specific weaknesses or shortcomings. This makes it unlikely one sector alone can solve difficult problems.

But cross-sector collaboration was not top-of-mind for most focus group participants. Cross-sector partnerships increasingly influence how citizens’ tax dollars are spent, public policies are shaped, public services are delivered and public assets are built and maintained. A more robust and fully-formed public opinion on the costs and benefits of cross-sector collaboration could influence public officials to initiate new collaborations or lead public agencies and officials to undertake a more careful assessment of undertaking this work. The net result of this would be improved cross-sector collaborations, and thus public problem solving, in communities across the United States.

For more takeaways from these focus groups, read our full report online: How the Public Thinks About Cross-sector Collaboration.

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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