Summer 2014
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The Public Manager

Collaboration v.2: Respective and Collective

Friday, June 13, 2014

Let's move the discussion to the next level and examine the specific competencies, characteristics, and approaches collaborative public managers need to know.

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As public managers, we live in a world that increasingly depends on collaboration—between an agency and its workforce, among agencies and levels of government, between public and private sectors, and even among nations—to do the people's work. Read any morning's headlines ... almost everything government does requires collaboration. More importantly, almost everything government does requires collaborative leaders.

That's why The Public Manager devoted an entire Forum to this topic last summer. After witnessing the management challenges associated with interagency issues as diverse as the implementation of the Affordable Care Act and the response to Super Storm Sandy, we concluded that one journal issue on the subject wasn't enough.

Like last summer's issue, this Forum also focuses on collaboration. However, where our last effort focused on case studies of successful collaborations, we wanted to take that discussion to the next level and examine specific competencies and characteristics of collaborative leaders and approaches to collaborative leadership in the public sector. In other words, let's get down to the dos and don'ts of it.

What exactly is "it," this thing we call collaboration? Our first Forum adopted a rather eclectic approach to the term, essentially leaving it to the eye of the beholder. But there is a danger that the word collaboration becomes too vague and all-encompassing, especially if it is used to describe almost every positive interaction.

It is time to craft a more precise definition, one that practitioners can use to define what it is they may be doing, and the articles in this issue's Forum serve as a starting point. In that regard, it may be easier to start with what collaboration is not.

For example, it is not consensus, especially of the lowest-common-denominator sort, although consensus is often a product of collaboration. Nor does collaboration mean that one must compromise on fundamental interests, individual or organizational, to be successful at it. Collaboration is not negotiation, coordination, or even cooperation, although all of these may contribute to the process.

Rather, collaboration—at least as we choose to define it—is when two or more separate, largely autonomous organizations find ways to act in concert to achieve some shared goal. And more importantly for our purposes, it is when the leaders of those separate organizations find a way to work together in that regard, not because one has authority or power over the other, but because they've concluded that it's in their mutual interest—respective and collective—to voluntarily do so. As my colleague Thad Allen has put it, collaboration is about achieving unity of effort without resorting to unity of command. Our authors speak to this theme in the articles that follow.

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One thing should be clear in all of these pieces—it's the leaders of the organizations involved, public managers like you and me, who are doing the collaborating, often at some professional risk. It also should be clear that it takes (at least) two to dance this dance: Collaboration by any definition means collective action.

For many of us schooled in the arcane arts of public management, collaborative and collective action is often seen as an unnatural act, at least compared to the bureaucratic prime directive, to preserve and protect our own organization's parochial interests at almost all costs.

Bottom line: we have a lot to learn about collaboration. It is fast becoming the "new normal" for public managers, although whether we're any good at it is another matter altogether. That's the purpose of this issue's Forum—our hope is that by taking collaboration to the next level, we will help you become better at it ... and government better for it.

About the Author

Ronald Sanders is a vice president with Booz Allen Hamilton, and the firm’s first fellow. In that capacity, Ronald helps the firm’s most strategic clients deal with pressing human capital and organizational transformation challenges. Ronald joined Booz Allen after more than 37 years in federal service. Over the course of his career, he served as the U.S. Intelligence Community’s first chief human capital officer,  U.S. Internal Revenue Service’s first chief human resources officer, and the U.S. Department of Defense’s director of civilian personnel and equal employment opportunity. His most recent book is Tackling Wicked Government Problems: A Practical Guide for Enterprise Leaders.

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