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3 Forces Hindering Public-Sector Collaboration

If collaboration is so great, then why isn't everyone doing it?

In a time when the public sector must do more with ever-tightening budgets, collaboration is imperative. And as shown by a 2012 GovDelivery poll, 96 percent of public-sector employees said they believed that stronger relationships with consultants, other agencies and the public would be beneficial to their own agencies.

While public-sector leaders likely read the same best-selling books explaining how to collaborate, how to innovate and how to change government as we know it, there are only a few who actually start meaningful collaborations or actually innovate. Most people agree that collaboration and innovation are good things, so what’s stopping the changing of government?

Because the public sector has additional forces at work that routinely prevent successful collaboration from happening, says Rob White, Chief Innovation Officer for Davis, Calif., who has experience with collaboration from his time as director of economic development in Livermore, Calif. 

In this position, White reached out to Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratories to begin mutually beneficial, long-term partnerships -- a collaboration that was a turning point for Livermore, he said. Not only did it create new research opportunities for the labs, but it also provided a way for the labs to get around certain lobbying rules. It created new jobs for the region and provided new resources for the city, and before too long, Livermore was being invited to participate in the Bay Area Council and the Silicon Valley Leadership Group. To state it simply, collaboration put Livermore on the map.

White is now studying for his professional doctorate in policy planning and development at the University of Southern California, and researching collaboration in government, he said, has given him a lot of time to think about why people aren’t collaborating. “Collaborations are the hardest types of partnerships to manage,” White said, adding that there are three core forces that hinder collaboration in the public sector.

1. Fear. 

People fear the unknown and dislike change. In creating a new collaboration, people fear what will become of their routine, White said -- what will become of their job, their career, their family and their way of life. There are too many question marks, so it’s best to just avoid the whole thing altogether and continue business as usual.

2. Threat

People in government feel they can be threatened if they don’t play their cards close to their chest, White said. 

“We in public sector are all clamoring for being noticed in different ways,” he explained. “If I cede my control by getting into a collaborative effort, I’m no longer the driver at the table.” 

And once someone is no longer in the driver’s seat, no longer a regulator, no longer the chief authority figure in their realm, White said, then their position is threatened -- or at least that is the perception.

3. Lack of rewards or incentives for taking risks

“You don’t get a lot of accolades; you don’t get a lot of notice,” White said. “Rarely are people celebrated beyond their own organization for their individual contribution. Unlike the private sector, where you may get a bonus or a raise or be accelerated up the chain, you don’t see those same immediate reward responses in the public sector.” 

And if there’s no obvious reward for a scary collaboration, why pursue it?

These are the forces at work, White said, but they can be overcome – check tomorrow for part two of this story: how to overcome these challenges.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock


Colin wrote for Government Technology and Emergency Management from 2010 through most of 2016.