Tuesday, January 13, 2015

3 Levels of Cross-Sector Collaboration

Cross-sector collaboration is required to bring change within the complex, messy civic systems that make up our communities. But what kind of change do we desire?

There are at least three different kinds of change sought by advocates of cross-sector collaboration.

Some advocate for collaboration because they think it is the best way to lower costs. Cost-driven collaboration can be disguised as promoting shared resources and alignment of efforts. You know your collaboration is really about costs when the initial conversations (and the subsequent ones) focus on organizational revenue and expenses rather than outcomes.

Sometimes collaboration is designed to help a community deal with decline. This is similar to the cost-driven collaboration, but it's not just funding that is in decline. Communities that face declines in population, weakening assets (like universities or critical industries), and even decline in civic pride often promote collaboration. Indeed, communities where stakeholders work well together are better able to manage decline. Unfortunately, they can also get stuck managing decline. Communities can only tolerate so much decline before a threshold is crossed and infrastructure collapses. In a worst case scenario, the community becomes a ghost town.

Communities that are stuck managing decline need to find ways to get off the down escalator and start collaborating for growth.

In the most promising level of cross-sector collaboration, stakeholders are able to set a bold goal that shifts the conversation and the expectations about what is possible. The focus is not on "doing more with less" but on being more. Being a more vibrant, healthy and attractive community. This kind of cross-sector collaboration is focused on outcomes. Outcomes that are tied to those bold goals.

While there can be value in the first two levels of cross-sector collaboration, sustained positive change is only possible if we learn how to excel at the third level.  

Wishing for New Year's Resolutions

2015 will be a much more pleasant year if we resolve to redefine two critical words: “regionalism” and “economic development.”

These words are ubiquitous in civic conversations, yet their meanings vary widely depending on both the messenger and the audience. What we think those two terms mean has great influence over what programs we support and the actions we take.

First, regionalism is not about government consolidation. That is called government consolidation. Regionalism is too important to be defined by such a narrow, and relatively insignificant, issue. Our governments are not regional, our economy is. The exchange of goods and services (including labor) is concentrated within a geography (called a region) that extends beyond political boundaries (cities and counties). That our economy is regional requires us to be able to think, plan and act regionally about key priorities that shape a regional economy's competitiveness; issues like talent, innovation and entrepreneurship.

Regionalism also involves strengthening local assets and connecting them to the regional economy. Those assets include our residents, our public infrastructure, our natural assets, our centers of innovation and our businesses. Cities and counties don’t have economies, they have assets. Local leaders should be focused on asset development rather than misusing the term “economic development.”

Much of what is touted as “economic development” does not result in an expanded regional economy. Where is the economic growth in the building of a new shopping center or an office building that simply causes existing structures to be emptied? Such developments may increase a community’s tax base, but that’s called “tax base development” not “economic development.” Jason Segedy, who runs the municipal planning agency in greater Akron, warns that in the absence of population growth our propensity to sprawl is both unprecedented and unsustainable.

A simple definition of economic development has eluded me, but if public and/or philanthropic dollars are to be spent in the name of "economic development," I would hope the funded actions result in both a larger regional economy and increased economic opportunity for residents who are presently disconnected from the economy.

Advancing a growing, opportunity-rich economy requires us to excel at both regionalism and economic development. We should all resolve to agree on what those words mean and what it takes to excel at them.