In our current era of limited government resources, enlisting the business and non-profit sector in the design and delivery of public services is alluring. Indeed, cross-sector collaborations that aim to refine or even replace traditional public service delivery approaches seem to be as en vogue as ever.
One telltale sign of this trend is the small but growing industry of training and advisory organizations that have appeared in recent years to support cross-sector collaboration in the United States. Fortune 500 companies, major foundations, and well-endowed non-profits routinely turn up on the client lists of these groups. Yet our exploratory research at The Intersector Project—where we work to empower practitioners to work across sectors to solve complex problems—suggests the public-sector may be underserved by this industry.
Are those of us who seek to improve cross-sector collaboration in the United States to improve public welfare forgetting what could be our most important client—the public sector?
Consider this: Our exploratory research of a robust sample of the industry revealed at least $30 million was spent on cross-sector support services and training in the United States in 2013. A significant majority of the beneficiaries of these resources are business and non-profit organizations. Notably, our sample is limited to program service revenue listed in form 990s from a set of advisory and training organizations, but it supports what we’ve heard in conversations with practitioners and industry participants over the past years. Public sector practitioners often tell us they “go it alone,” working to diagnose, design, implement, and evaluate complex collaborations without the kinds of tools and standard processes that have become commonplace in other areas of public administration–risk management, for example.
Admittedly, the public sector can be a challenging client. Talent development budgets can prohibit public sector practitioners from being candidates for fellowship and leadership development programming. Some have pointed out the dominant mindset in the public sector is narrowly focused on service delivery rather than broadly focused on problem solving. Most importantly, public sector managers, especially at the local level where cross-sector activity frequently occurs, often do not have the budget for cross-sector project support services, arguably making the public sector an unattractive client.
Yet one could argue that, more than any other sector, it is the public sector that should be well-equipped to diagnose the appropriate opportunities for collaboration, and design, implement and evaluate collaboration; a meaningful amount of public resources are used in these collaborations, and after all, collaborations often aim to solve complex public problems.
Readily available one-size-fits-all, collaboration-related resources that do not consider the unique incentives, constraints, processes, and culture of the public sector, we would argue, aren’t good enough. One example of this is the fact that most openly available resources for cross-sector activity do not address compliance or regulatory processes that are critical to how public sector professionals interact with other sectors when negotiating, designing and managing shared decision-making processes.
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