In my first President’s Message, I noted that when doing my doctorate/post doc a few years back, I ‘dug deeply’ into the 6th rung of Sherry Arnstein’s 1969 Ladder of Citizen Participation (‘the partnership rung’). During these ‘scholarly’ years, I lived and breathed all things inter-organizational collaboration – a term that loosely means “where entities such as groups or organizations work deeply together through partnerships, alliances, coalitions networks – or variants of the above – to achieve some common or complementary objective” (Note: not to be confused with intra-organizational collaboration, a term that loosely means “where members in a single entity work together to improve that entity”; and certainly not to be mixed up with the more common everyday use of the word collaboration where any combination of individuals working together on anything garners the ‘collaboration’ moniker). Much to my surprise, and to the dismay of my friends and family, I became an expert in how to turn every conversation around to the topic of “collaborative process-performance and the 23 factors that can predispose a collaborative towards synergy” (z-z-z-z).
Although not as interesting as say, the nesting habits of the Syrian hamster (a topic my kids would have preferred), my deep knowledge of what makes for an effective and synergistic collaborative structure or process, combined with my own record of having built both failures and successes, have served me well over the past few years. As a type of ‘partnership doctor’ I have become pretty good at helping organizations – even governments – to reflect upon, assess and ultimately fix – or exit – their struggling collaborative projects. I have even helped some groups to avoid getting entangled in new efforts: they may have sounded good on paper but they were missing key synergy ‘helping’ ingredients, or had negative ingredients that were known to ‘hinder’ the emergence of synergy.
Suffice to say that when I begin to work with a new organization – as a volunteer, as an advisor or as an employee – I usually take steps to examine its collaboration history, habits and potential. When people start talking about collaboration I tend to listen and listen carefully. I am pretty alert to good ideas. I am also alert to the overuse or even misuse of words such as partnership, network and the word collaboration itself. Generally speaking, over the years I have observed that some people – and organizations – have developed an overzealous view of the power of or need for collaboration: it is NOT a cure all; more is NOT necessarily always merrier; silos are actually NEEDED if we are to get our work done.
Why is this important, and why am I writing about this in an IAP2 Canada context?
As P2 professionals we need to be good at helping others with their collaboration work: Inter-organizational collaboration (partnership to Arnstein) can certainly be a high-order form of P2. When an organization such as a government chooses to engage another organization, such as a service-providing NGO in a shared task, this is a significant form of involvement and engagement. For sure, most reputable scholars and experienced practitioners who have attempted to articulate a spectrum of possible P2 activity ‘keep a space’ for collaboration within their frameworks or descriptive tools. As such, in my view, P2 professionals need to be good at helping organizations to better engage their publics, but equally as good at helping them to build effective collaborative structures and alliances that also serve to engage. We need to be able to mentor, coach and support other agencies and groups to be ‘smart partners’. In my current job, with the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador we believe in this so strongly that all ten of our public engagement managers have been supported to participate in advanced ‘partnership-brokering’ training through the UK-based Partnership Brokers Association: (www.partnershipbrokers.org).
IAP2 Canada is a partnering organization: IAP2 Canada is an entity that is, has been, and will be in the future, involved with various types or forms of collaboration. We are a partnering organization that needs to be a good and smart partner. We need to model effective partnership practice. But given that collaboration is resource- and time-intensive, we will need to make choices. We can’t partner with everyone on everything. We need to avoid collaboration overload. We also need to be able to align form with function when it comes to our collaborative efforts (e.g., why build a big lumbering partnership complete with MOUs and policies and procedures when a more nimble sharing and learning structure might have sufficed?) .
Now that I have been in the IAP2 saddle for a few months, I am starting to ask myself some basic questions about collaboration and our organization. I don’t have all the answers but I suspect that between us we do have many of them: which existing collaborative relationships are or have been most fruitful and why? Are they all giving IAP2 Canada a synergistic bounce (whereby 1+1 = > 2)? Can under-performing relationships be repaired, or is it time to reinvent or even retire some of them? What other potential collaborators are out there (Note: while attending the Institute of Public Administration of Canada’s (IPAC) national conference last week – where policy innovation was a key macro theme, and where the need for better and deeper connections between policy-makers and the public was consistently stressed – I wondered, ‘could there be a future relationship between IAP2 Canada and IPAC?’). But do we have the internal capacity to take on new partnership work? How many collaborative projects can we become involved with before we exhaust our human resources? How can we build appropriate and simple structures that allow us to learn from and work with key partners on select issues, while not over-taxing the volunteers that make IAP2 Canada a success?
Going forward, I hope to incent a dialogue about these and other ‘collaboration questions’ among my Board colleagues. I hope to help IAP2 Canada ensure it remains or becomes involved with high-performing partnerships. I want to find out if there is any desire among our membership for enhanced collaboration capacity-building opportunities, whereby participants can ‘beef-up’ their partnership design, brokering, diagnostic and problem-solving skills. I’d like to float the idea of IAP2 Canada engaging in some ‘collaborative research’ on P2 themes. More generally I hope to highlight the importance and potential of inter-organizational collaboration in a P2 context, because in my view, practitioners with strong collaboration-building and -supporting skills are particularly good P2 practitioners.