Overcoming Hindrances to Public-Sector Collaboration

Replace fear with something positive, and allow yourself and your agency to become vulnerable.

by / April 5, 2013

While most people agree that collaboration and innovation are good things in government, Rob White, chief innovation officer of Davis, Calif., says the public sector has additional forces at work that routinely prevent successful collaboration from happening – fear, threat and lack of rewards for taking risks.

And Phil Bertolini, CIO of Oakland County, Mich., agrees with White’s identification of these three negative forces. 

Like White, Bertolini has years of experience managing successful collaborations in government. Part of his county’s experience with collaboration, he said, came from the fact that it ran out of money before most other counties did: Around 2003, the county realized it was going to have to find new ways of doing business, and a few years later, almost everyone else was in the same situation. And Bertolini said he doesn’t expect finances to get back to normal for at least another 10 years.

With that in mind, Oakland County places a heavy focus on long-term partnerships and collaboration, perhaps most notably running G2G Cloud Solutions, a technology sharing service that allows other governments to piggyback on the county’s existing services, creating cost savings for all partners.

As proven by successful collaborations in Oakland County and Livermore, Calif., the three hindrances can all be overcome, White said. 

Fear and the threat of being overtaken by others can be overcome by replacing fear with something positive. “‘I don’t have to be an authority figure, because I’m innovative,” he said. “I’m creative. I’m going to out-create. I’m going to out-innovate all my other co-partners.” The spotlight should be moved away from what can be lost and toward what stands to be gained, he said.

As for the perceived lack of rewards, White said, leaders in government need to realign their goals. 

“We need to stop worrying what the rewards look like and instead tell ourselves and change our mentalities that our rewards should be great customer service, should be inventing ways and creating ways that are delivering better value to our customer base, to our communities,” he said. “And that should be the inherent reward.” 

Many government leaders talk about running the government like a business, but it’s not a business, White said. “If the public sector acted like a business, then you should really have business be doing that work,” he noted. “The public sector should only be taking on those aspects that the private sector can’t deliver.”

And ultimately, to get a successful collaboration started, White said, someone has to be the first one to give up. “If we just immediately say, ‘Let me just tell you what the deck looks like from back to back. Let me be straightforward with you and deal with you in an open environment,’ That typically is a little bit disarming, and it takes people a little bit of time to recognize that you’re not going to be gaming them,” he said. “But after a few meetings, people begin to realize that the story remains the same and it continues to be, ‘Here’s my open-source.’ And then people start to do the same thing.” 

It just takes the first step of allowing yourself to be vulnerable, he said. 

And Bertolini agreed that there are ways around those forces. “Collaboration is everything now,” he said. “The only way we can sustain these technologies longer term is to work together and share services.” 

If you fear that, Bertolini said, the question is why you fear it. “I believe that people who fear the results of collaboration may or may not be confident in what they have,” he said. “If you’re confident in the technologies that you have and the abilities you have, there shouldn’t be any fear in regard to other people who do it better.”

In fact, Bertolini added that with all the different services government is expected to provide, it becomes silly not to seek help from others in order to share in the risk and reward. “To be able to share some of those initiatives with other governments makes sense,” he said. “Wouldn’t it be better to simply consume the technology than to have to own and operate it, and manage it yourself? The fear and the threat is that you would lose control over it, but what’s wrong with that? How else are you going to survive? Not everyone has this endless pot of money to do everything themselves anymore.”

Although the benefits of collaboration are obvious to Bertolini, he said he understands why people are sometimes hesitant to go all-in -- and that was a consideration when creating G2G Cloud Solutions. “We have to be equal partners,” he said. “They don’t want to feel like they’re being lorded over or they’re being taken over. Bring them to the table as an equal.” 

Oakland County approaches other governments keeping the idea of equal partnership in mind, Bertolini said, and that’s the reason the G2G brand was created. “The last thing a government wants is another government’s name stamped all over their technology. It’s a neutral identity,” he said of the G2G brand, which is a manifestation of the county’s equal partnership philosophy and a token of its successful collaborations. “It’s government-to-government, and we can just work together.” 

Both White and Bertolini agreed that there needs to be a culture change in government in order for people to let their guard down and start collaborating -- and to start looking for ways to create true innovation. But there’s so much ground to cover that most people don’t know where to start. 

One approach is to start small, said Ravi Pendse, CIO and professor of electrical engineering and computer science at Wichita State University, who doesn’t just teach students and lead research projects. He also acts as an adviser to government IT leaders. And in a recent presentation to about 75 local CIOs and IT leaders, Pendse attempted to shed some light on why collaboration and innovation are such difficult things to achieve. 

At the start of his presentation, Pendse polled the audience – below are two questions and the general responses from audience members. 

“How receptive are you to change?”

Given four answer choices, a majority of the audience said they liked change, while a plurality of the audience stipulated that change processes should be well explained and include those affected by the change in the change-making process.

“How receptive are people in your organization to change?”

This time, the results were swapped. About 42 percent of the audience said they thought the people in their organization did not like change. A third slide asked about the community each IT leader oversaw. Again, a majority of the audience said their communities were opposed to change.

“You believe that you’re ready for change [but] that your staff is not ready for change,” Pendse said. “You believe that the community you supervise perhaps is not ready for change. So what do you think is the problem? What do you see wrong with this picture? Either they are the problem, or there is an obvious communication gap.”

Pendse emphasized the importance of including those affected by change in the change-making process. If being inclusive is a crucial component of the change-making process, and almost all IT leaders believe they cultivate an atmosphere of innovation, then why do they also believe that others aren’t ready for change? Understanding this disconnect, he said, is crucial to fixing the problem.

Though Pendse said his audience was interested in his presentation, engaged with his ideas and open to the prospect of applying some of what they had learned, there was still the problem of how to apply the knowledge. “What will they do with it when they go back?” he asked. “What should you do? Should you do anything? Should you just forget about it?” 

It’s not an easy question to answer, which is why Pendse suggests starting small. IT leaders don’t have to change everything at once – they can start with a single innovative project, but they are responsible for that change. “You’re the leaders -- you are the change leaders,” he said. “So make change happen.”


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Colin Wood former staff writer

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

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