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Moving From Collaborative Processes To Collaborative Communities – Building Our Agenda

This essay was written in recognition of the tenth Anniversary of the Program for Community Problem Solving. October 1999

Collaborative approaches to problem solving in communities have multiplied faster than all but the most optimistic proponents imagined during the 1980s. The desire to further collaborative approaches has changed local institutions, defined federal to local policy, reshaped university degree programs, influence philanthropic strategies, and even created consensus-based models within the power-focused world of community organizing.

In 1987, prior to the formal founding of the Program for Community Problem Solving (PCPS), we struggled to find 150 persons who would attend the “Collaboration and Conflict Resolution in Community Problem Solving” conference. Now the Healthy Communities Coalition estimates there are over 1,200 such initiatives while the Together We Can collaborative has over 10,000 persons on a mailing list of community collaboratives. A recent University of Michigan study found over 450 community-based collaboratives focused on environmental issues. Clearly, we have multiplied.

Witnessing this rapid growth, optimistic proponents of collaboration would also have expected profound outcomes – significant amelioration of urban poverty, visibly revitalized neighborhoods, reduced racial tension, or increased environmental restoration. And indeed, some of those successes dot our community landscape. When one points to the revitalized waterfront and eco-strategies in Chattanooga that emerged from their community-wide visioning, the elimination of youth homicide in Boston for several years, or southeastern Oregon’s Applegate Partnership effort to restore the environment and maintain economic viability, collaborative approaches seem to have fulfilled their goals.

All too frequently though, when I visit with those participating in community collaboratives, I find efforts that have not found their footing and individuals sharing varying degrees of frustration, disillusionment, disappointment, and anger at the lack of progress. Related efforts in the same community often share the same traits. Digging deeper uncovers more dysfunction. No one wants to be “turfy,” but sees everyone else protecting his or her turf. Unaddressed racial, cultural, gender, and class issues palpably beat just below the surface, hampering honest interaction and collaboration. Members dicker over programmatic options, none of which reflect good science or best practice. Public institutions act as if the collaboratives are not there and remain impermeable to change. And in oxymoronic displays, competing collaboratives vie with each other for seemingly limited resources. Perhaps most amazing, the diehards continue to attend, some to protect their turf but others finding hope in the very fact that they are still meeting.

Policy analysts, advocates, elected officials, and funders look at this all too common picture and wonder whether this purported paradigm shift only works in theory but not in practice.

That is the crossroads I believe we are at. Those involved in some of the better funded efforts are particularly perplexed. Millions of dollars of technical assistance, cross-site meetings, and significant funding for the collaborative itself have not been sufficient to help the collaborative develop a full head of steam.

These divergent paths are most prominent in the politically-charged world of environmentally-focused community-based collaboratives. Several of these including the Applegate Partnership in southeastern Oregon and the Quincy Library group in northern California have received national attention for the way in which they brought together warring factions – environmentalists, loggers, ranchers, and others. Quincy’s proposed forest management plan for the northern Sierra was unanimously passed by Congress despite opposition from the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, and other national environmental organizations.

The San Francisco Chronicle in an August 19, 1999 editorial captures the tension,

The Quincy proposal caught the imagination of Washington policy makers because it was germinated in meetings between local environmentalists, loggers, and politicians in the only place they could meet without screaming at each other: the town library. It has been widely hailed as a model of collaboration, a solution to the timber wars that have caused so much strife and so many lawsuits in so many places.

The editorial ends on this note:

Quincy did not solve the timber wars, it merely redrew the battle lines. The fight is not just about harvest versus preservation, but about whether the management of a national forest is only for locals to decide. The logging-focused Quincy plan shows the danger of a narrow view.

No one is suggesting that all collaborative efforts are wrong-headed or ill-suited to our day and age. Indeed, the notion that collaborative approaches are a cornerstone of maintaining a civil society and solving wicked problems still ring true.

What strategies can be employed to increase our success. Two are self-evident. First, we can seek to articulate a series of criteria focused on readiness and appropriateness in order to delineate when collaborative approaches are appropriate and when not. Secondly, we can develop more intentional designs to address situational needs and develop stronger supports to ensure success.

While I believe both approaches have some merit, there are confounding considerations as well. The first is whether we should expect profound substantive outcomes within the funding life of a given collaborative. Consider, for example that many collaborative focused on core city neighborhoods are seeking to reverse negative trend lines that have been created by decades of disinvestment undergirded often by racism, involving institutions that allowed the decline and are now “here to help.”

This situation mirrors patterns in communities around the country suggesting a wide range of broad societal forces as well. Often these collaboratives conduct their work in an atmosphere where important players in their community are not collaborating, racial politics dominate, and many are more concerned about power than results. Leadership and management are issues as well. Running collaboratives is sophisticated business, yet there are few ways to learn the ropes other than through trial and error.

This analysis suggests that policymaker and funders need to buffer collaboratives from the demand for results and support longer developmental periods for collaboratives to mature, especially when they are operating in an unfriendly political climate.

The other confounding consideration is nested in the role and structure of local institutions. Work conducted several years ago by the National Civic League and the Institute for Educational Leadership highlighted this issue. They worked on an obvious challenge. If all the schools in a school system were participating in site-based management, how would central administration’s roles and functions need to change to support, guide, and oversee all of the site-based management teams. Of course, the answer is significantly.

Collaboratives usually function at the interface of many institutional entities. Whether it is the state department of human services or the federal Bureau of Land Management, if key institutions are not structured to support and participate in collaborative efforts, collaboratives will find their work that much more difficult. Some collaboratives believe this part of their work is much like beating their head against a wall.

While all of these challenges are difficult, they are surmountable. Indeed, it is out of these challenges that our agenda for the next decade may begin to emerge.

The first area we must attend to is on the ground. Communities, especially larger ones, need centers of support for collaborative work. These community collaboration support centers might meld functions now housed in disparate places. These centers might start with providing meeting facilities designed for collaboration including computer equipped meeting rooms with group decision support software. The staff could include those skilled in facilitation, mediation, organizational development, and training – blending support offered by such institutions as community mediation centers and nonprofit support centers. The center could serve as a data warehouse, pulling together various local sources of information as well as a link to state and national resources. Five years ago, PCPS commissioned a paper examining very nascent efforts. Now is the time to more forcefully articulate their need and support their growth.

Communities must also be encouraged to continue their hard work on issues of race, class, and culture. Too many collaborative and community building efforts are hampered by lurking unaddressed issues in these areas.

The “systems reform”agenda – or what others might call reinventing government – needs to expand its horizons beyond improving services, reforming procurement, and focusing on its “customers” to encompass how governmental entities effectively support collaboration with and among citizens and partner institutions. PCPS has worked with a key element of this with its focus on systems reform in local government. Future work must look at a broader array of institutions.

The issue of “vertical alignment” remains central to the success of collaboratives. Vertical alignment is when neighborhood, city, county, state, and federal strategies are synchronized. Recent efforts by PCPS and others to design and support state-local negotiation processes to attain shared outcomes offer an important vehicle. Others need to be developed and ultimately institutionalized to attain this goal.

Governance is an elusive, but central topic in this work. How can and should all of the collaboratives work together in a community to find synergy? Is there a role for a community collaboration center or other entity to support collaboration among the collaboratives? How can and should collaboratives relate to local government, school boards, and other institutions? The growth of community collaboratives is fundamentally reshaping the ways our communities address issues and make decisions. We need to be more conscious of this change and guide it in order to support effective governance over time.

Like governance, we also need focused information gathering and analysis on the literally hundreds of formal federal, state, and philanthropic initiatives so we can begin the process of systematically learning from our successes and our failures. This work can support future policy and resource decisions.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, community collaboratives need alliances and coalitions among themselves so they offer a collective voice that represents their shared interests. My colleague Marty Blank and I have dreamed of the first National Congress of Community Collaboratives. That is essential work for the coming decade.

Collaboration remains hard. But it remains right. Developing an explicit agenda for the coming decade will help catalyze this work so the outcomes for children, families, neighborhoods and communities are attained.


William R. Potapchuk

William Potapchuk is a nationally-recognized leader in the applications of collaborative processes and the development of collaborative partnerships to address urban public policy issues. President of the Community Building Institute, Potapchuk has advised state and federal agencies (including FNS) on the design and implementation of programs to catalyze and support… MORE >

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