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Sustaining Public Services Through Partnerships

Strategic partnerships, when done right, provide participating organizations with a chance to learn and benefit from one another and to achieve results they could not achieve alone. These joint ventures are not only beneficial between businesses. In the public, non-profit and government to business environment they allow organizations to leverage their respective strengths, minimize their weaknesses and pool resources to attain goals both large and small that would otherwise be impossible because of competitive environments, shifts in technology, demographics and changing stakeholder interests.


These partnerships usually come together due to four pre-conditions:

  • Reduced and restricted funding to achieve a clearly defined objective that benefits all and is established up front.
  • Multiple independent organizations: most often two or more agencies collaborate successfully by recognizing and addressing the differences in cultures, goals, management structures, constitutional, statutory and budgetary restraints.
  • A mission that cannot be achieved without the aid of the other and an interdependence of missions that holds the venture together.
  • An agreement on the supporting elements of objectives such as target activities and completion dates including a joint oversight committee who agrees to take responsibility for outcomes and progress.

Typically, these ventures take on a form which may be loosely, moderately or tightly constrained. In a loosely coupled relationship, the agencies agree to pool resources and to pursue opportunities such as a county and city pooling advertising dollars to attract economic development or conventions. An example of this is when Tempe and Chandler, Arizona Agreed in 1996 to jointly build an outlet mall.

In a moderately coupled relationship, the agencies form a more formal relationship such as jointly defining a development corridor. An example of this is when Queen Creek, Arizona and the town of Gilbert, Arizona entered into an intergovernmental agreement to set a mutual boundary in an unincorporated area so that a major residential development, golf course and resort could be built on more than 1,000 acres of orange groves straddling the boundary.

In a tightly coupled relationship, the agencies formally integrate resources such as infrastructure, services and processes. This kind of venture requires legal contracts due to the greater interdependence and the depth of the relationship. Often a new organization is created such as the Cambridge Family Health Center created by the Clark County Nevada Health District, the Clark County Health Access Consortium and the Nevada Health Center to provide options for the medically underserved and uninsured members. The Cambridge Family Health Center now provides care to 35,000 individuals each year, which translates to 70,000 patient visits per year.

The eleven-step process to successful partnerships starts with trust between the partners which may need to be built and ends with accepting the fact that the relationship will run its course and conclude so that an exit strategy should be planned from the beginning. In between, the relationship should be managed as indicated below:

  1. Building trust
  2. Defining mission goals and objectives
  3. Defining community benefits and the public interest served
  4. Completing a self-evaluation
  5. Knowing the partner agency and stakeholders involved
  6. Establishing relationship boundaries
  7. Determining initial projects (When in doubt, start small)
  8. Maintaining independence until the relationship gels
  9. Maintaining the relationship so that it becomes strong
  10. Living up to commitments
  11. Developing and delivering on exit strategies

Making the relationship work requires the establishment of relationship boundaries, determining what initial project will be pursued, maintaining both independent oversight and nurturing the relationship. Too often, there is a rush into a strategic partnership without first identifying and establishing boundaries and clearly understanding legal and budgetary constraints. Boundaries can be set by looking at the following areas as a kind of frame for the future relationship:

  • Current Relationship – how well does the relationship work today with regard to interfaces between elected and appointed officials, middle managers, specialists or professionals, and information technicians.
  • Emerging or Future Relationships – how the partnership is envisioned including a best-case and worst-case scenario of how the relationship could end, grow and prosper.
  • Processes – how well each agency understands the different processes that it uses to operate and manage its responsibility to meeting the objectives laid out and how these processes might change by virtue of working with the other agencies.
  • Procedures – how rules providing guidelines and direction will be executed and completed and by whom.
  • Interface with Citizens – how the partnership will be communicated to individual citizens and to the community as a whole.
  • Decision-making – how decisions will be made and what steering committee, legislative body, hierarchy or intergovernmental agreement will rule.
  • Conflict Resolution – how conflict will be managed because disagreements always occur at the same time relationships are built.
  • Culture – how values and belief systems that guide and establish the uniqueness of each agency will be acknowledged and addressed because ignoring them may mean the difference between success and failure.

Often, strategic partnerships are talked about but never come about because success requires that the right project providing real value to all parties be identified and pursued. The right project must have a commitment to success from the agencies and their leaders and it also must have real value in the eyes of the community and targeted stakeholders. Usually this means conducting a detailed resource requirement review and coming up with an equally detailed timeline, because without a definition of success for each agency, there is no success. Cross-functional teams need to be developed so that there is an opportunity to experience diverse functions, challenges and opportunities. When the strategic partnership has run its course and is about to end, all parties should be better off as a result of having been involved. When this happens, the vision involved in a strategic partnership is realized and the public interest is truly served.


Author: Christine Gibbs Springer is the Director of the Executive Masters Degree in Emergency and Crisis Management at UNLV, the only program of its kind in the United States. She has served on Congressional Panels developing performance metrics for DHS/FEMA grants, a FEMA panel to develop core competencies for college curriculum and degree programs, and on the Congressional Panel evaluating FEMA post-Katrina last year. She also serves on the Nevada Citizen Corps Board of Directors and the National Academy of Public Administration’s Board of Directors. She is also a member of InfraGard. She is founder and CEO of a strategic management and communications firm, Red Tape Limited, incorporated in 1986 with offices in Nevada and Arizona. To contact Springer, email [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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