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Public Sector Collaboration

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

By Andrew Vaz
May 1, 2015

Vaz - collaboration1There is an existing concept of joint partnership in the public sector: collaboration. Collaboration for public service delivery refers to the reciprocal and voluntary support that two or more distinct public sector agencies, or public and private administrations, including nonprofit organizations (NPOs), provide each other.

CEFRIO working paper on new models for service delivery states this support translates into a formal agreement between the parties about the purpose of their collaboration, sharing tangible and intangible responsibilities, resources, risks and benefits. As a general rule such formal written agreements are for a specific period of time and most often are presented in contract form.

Critical Discussion on Public Sector Collaboration 

In the era of new public management (NPM) where the government operates more as a business, it is expected that agencies will collaborate with each other. With less resources and finances, public sector collaboration is an ideal solution for delivering services effectively to the public. Although there are skeptics who see the public bureaucracy as slow and inefficient in comparison to the private sector.

In a 2012 Innovation Journal article titled “Collaborative Innovation in the Public Sector,” authors Eva Sørensen & Jacob Torfing recalled that Max Weber saw stability as the primary objective of public bureaucracy. They wrote:

“We can hardly deny that the thick layer of formal rules, the multi-layered hierarchies, the organizational silos, the lack of economic incentives and the divided political leadership in public bureaucracies tend to stifle public innovation. It has been argued that with the growth of public bureaucracies most of their resources are used to provide internal coordination and fight external border wars with other public bureaucracies,” the authors noted.

However, there are scholars who have argued in favor of the public sector.

Supportive Factors of Public Sector Collaboration 

Collaboration in the public sector often leads to innovation and increased opportunity for employees and citizens. Sørensen and Torfing suggest that the current focus on public innovation is conditioned by three historically contingent factors. “First of all, there is a growing cross-pressure between the rising demands and expectations to the public sector and the limited public resources that are further diminished by the fiscal crisis. Citizens are demanding better and more individualized public solutions and services.

The second factor, according to the authors, involves an array of situations including climate change, global migration and urban development. “These problems are characterized by being hard to define and difficult to solve. Specialized knowledge is needed in order to capture the complexity of the problem and efforts must be undertaken in order to reduce the risk of conflicts between the many different stakeholders.” Sørensen and Torfing suggest that such problems cannot be solved through standard solutions nor by sending more money. They suggest new and creative solutions are needed.

The third factor concerns globalization. “Globalization is discursively constructed as a competitive game that turns governments, regions and localities into winners or losers depending on their innovative capacities. Governments at different levels feel under pressure to enhance public innovation. In fact, it is not enough to spur innovation in the public sector to maintain a competitive edge. The public sector should also spur innovation in the private sector.

Rethinking Public Sector Collaboration 

The discussion on improving cross sector collaboration between public entities has been ongoing at the federal, state and local levels. In the 21st century, we must also focus on social enterprises and nonprofit organizations. Nonprofit organizations serve in a very similar capacity to public agencies and there are often areas for collaboration.

In “Contemplating Collaboration,” David Swindell and Cheryl Hilvert wrote, “While public-private partnerships receive more attention, local officials should be aware of the potential advantages nonprofit partners might afford for certain kinds of services.” The authors note that one of the benefits of collaborations with nonprofits is these entities do not work on a profit motive.

However, “while there are a number of potential nonprofits in a community, the number of them capable of being a partner may be more limited, depending on the type of service under consideration, according to Swindell and Hilvert. “A nonprofit with the expertise to manage a waste incinerator facility, for example, may be difficult to find, but one that has deep talent at operating a community homeless shelter may be an easily identifiable partner with which to address a community need.” 

Public sector collaboration requires governments to understand the issues and problems facing communities in order to address them. Going forward, many governmental agencies will develop new innovative programs that will require the assistance of private and nonprofit organizations in order to be effective in the community.


Author: Andrew R Vaz, M.S., M.P.A. is a doctoral student in Public Policy and Administration program at Walden University. He is a graduate of the Master of Science in Criminal Justice and Master of Public Administration double master’s program at Florida International University. He 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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