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Partnering: Experiences from the Public Sector

In 1989 the Cecil Field Naval Air Station in Jacksonville, Florida was upgraded to the National Priority List under the Superfund statute for environmental cleanup. Involved were three heavyweight agencies with clout, deep pockets, and savvy: the Navy, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. Yet three years later, and after more than a million dollars had been spent, these agencies were not yet ready to address the fundamental question: where do we start?

Worse, that lack of progress was not uncommon. For years, environmental remediation of U.S. military bases was characterized by conflict, miscommunication and mistrust among the agencies involved. Regulators viewed the military as uncaring of the environment and trying to pinch pennies at the expense of thorough cleanups. The military viewed regulators as attempting to assert undue authority over them and make the military spend excess money.

But that was then. Today, many a regulator or military cleanup manager would probably exclaim that the storm clouds have cleared and may never come back! They attribute this remarkable change to a process called “partnering.”

Partnering is a new approach to dealing with disputes among parties to a public process such as construction or site clean-up. Its intent is to circumvent or solve disputes so they don’t interfer unnecessarily with the project that brought the parties together in the first place.

It works by building relationships among agencies and their contractors and among agencies themselves. It involves a range of joint activities—training, formulating groundrules for how problems will be handled, and most of all building dispute-handling procedures appropriate to the relationship.

These ideas and methods are being used widely—especially when large capital projects require long-term coordination and cooperation among multiple actors.

Agencies now work cooperatively. Instead of keeping each other at arm’s length or competing against each other, they search for mutually beneficial ways of achieving their shared goals through team-building and consensus-building. Since 1992, even Cecil Field’s cleanup has progressed, thanks to partnering.

Widely used outside the military
The military’s best-known use of partnering may be the Army Corps of Engineers’ use of consensus-building and team-building processes to complete construction projects with contractors. Nevertheless, partnering is by no means the exclusive preserve of the armed services. Managers involved in clean-ups of military sites in the Southeast (EPA Region IV) say their applications of partnering are being adapted for use elsewhere by a variety of government agencies. Partnering is also used in the private sector, especially on construction projects.

In partnering, disputants work together to build a clearer understanding of what the “rules of engagement” will be as they try to resolve the issue dividing them. People also get involved in preliminary activities meant to help them interact and communicate more constructively.

Most partnering efforts go through a number of key steps:

  • Training in the principles of collaborative problem solving.
  • Relationship-building activities.
  • Formulation of ground rules or principles that will govern day-to-day interactions.
  • Communication inside their own organizations, groups or constituencies to ensure that everyone understands the ground rules.
  • Team discussion to assess how they are handling their interactions.

All of these steps are usually assisted by a facilitator.

The cycle of failure
Partnering helps parties resolve conflicts by first helping them find a way to work together. Prior to its application, parties often could not get beyond their adversarial relationships.

Agencies got bogged down by “ongoing lengthy arguments about whose authority would trump the others,” says Jon Johnston, federal facilities branch chief for EPA Region IV, which first turned to partnering to break the stalemate thwarting a clean-up of Cecil Field.

“Each group was conducting unilateral studies. Navy would conduct a study and we [EPA] would find it to be inadequate and vice versa. We had a design for failure.”

Government agencies often communicated only through legal channels; fines and penalties were commonplace. Comments were so sharp and colorful that court reporters made it a point to attend nearly all meetings. This vicious cycle fed on itself.

“We were stuck in our more regulatory statutory enforcement mentality,” says Johnston. “The traditional way to regulate is to look at what power a regulator has to make the regulated do something. [But if] we take a traditional regulatory approach, in the end we are not one step closer to improving environmental or public health, since all we’ve done is establish who has authority.”

The benefits
Some claims of financial savings have been impressive. Tom Sims, director of the Air Force regional environmental office in Atlanta, Ga., reports that the Air Force has saved $1.7 million at the on-going clean-up of Shaw Air Force Base. The Navy claims to have saved about $24 million on several base clean-ups in EPA Region IV. Facilitator Gayle Waldron, of Management Edge in Largo, Florida, reports that the Dept. of Energy saved more than $200 million in only three months on the clean-up of a contaminated nuclear site half the size of Rhode Island, in Hanford, Washington.

“It is a cliché but it is true. We have limited resources and we need to take the money we have and do the most we can with it,” says Eric Nuzie, federal facilities coordinator for the Florida Dept. of Environmental Protection. “Through partnering we are able to make most efficient use of these resources.”

How it works
In most partnering collaborations, decision-making is typically organized into three tiers of teams. Tier I is commonly made up of the Remedial Project Managers (RPM), who are charged with responsibility from their respective agencies to make day-to-day decisions on how to accomplish, say, a particular environmental cleanup. These teams are comprised of eight to 15 counterparts from each organization involved. Tier I teams meet at least once every six weeks.

Tier II teams include the state-level managers of multiple cleanup projects, usually within a single state. They oversee all of the Tier I teams and meet at least quarterly to develop statewide policy. This is the level at which EPA Region IV-type partnering began.

Tier III teams are regional; most are currently still being developed. Participants already see problems that need to be addressed.

“The most difficult [teams] to work with [are] Tier III,” says David Smith, of Smith/Associates, Tulsa, Okla., a Tier III facilitator in EPA Region IV. “They are very bright people and have lots of clout, but there are too many of them and they only meet twice a year. At the last Tier III meeting we had 54 people… At the Tier III level it is very different business, which is largely political.”

Too good to be true?
One shortcoming of partnering has more to do with its image than any actual failures. Many regulators fear that everyone from taxpayers to other public officials will think they are not doing their job, performing strict oversight. Jerry Delli Priscoli, senior advisor to the Army Corps of Engineers’ Institute for Water Resources, says this worry is unfounded because partnering allows a regulator to be more effective by being proactive.

“The danger of being in bed with the regulated is not a problem,” he says. “There is nothing illegal about [partnering]. Instead, it leads to more responsive oversight.”

A different problem is that partnering is resource-intensive and requires a large up-front investment, even though it saves a time and money in the long-term. Its high initial investment is why partnering is not used on small projects.

Inertia can be another problem. Because it is a new way of doing business, it can take a while for some team members to trust the process and to stop resorting to old ways of interacting with the other agencies.

Its unfamiliarity can also make it difficult to win backing from senior managers. Sims says, “We need them to really support this and say that this is the best way of going about our business. This means that they have to be willing to accept a lot of the soft touchy-feely stuff. Partnering is new and different and usually people like to look at the regulations and data and not pay attention to this softer stuff.”

Working with “softer stuff” is also a concern for those Tier I RPMs, who are often technocrats more interested in working with scientific information than in building relationships.

Facilitator Waldron adds, “It does put people in the uncomfortable situation of relying on something that they don’t see as proven. It requires a leap of faith, which is why manager-support is so important at the beginning. Usually after the training, when the teams experience some success, they relax and trust the process.”

Another built-in problem is that team members come and go because most projects take so much time. Delli Priscoli says, “When the personalities and leadership change it can cause some problems in the partnering relationships. The new person isn’t part of the team. He may not understand the way the team works. He needs to get his feet wet quickly in the process part of things.”

Finally, there are people’s sometimes excessive expectations, stemming from partnering’s early successes. Sims says, “It is almost like we found a way to turn lead to gold. People assume we can partner anything. Some people ask too much of the process.”

Jim Creighton of Creighton & Creighton, Inc., (a Los Gatos, Calif., firm that provides services and tools in support of collaboration and mutual problem-solving) adds, “Partnering can only do so much. If you have ineffective personnel or dramatic change in the specs or you run out of money these things can swamp partnering even when it has the best of intentions.”

Focus on a common goal
So is this remarkable innovation in the way that these agencies do business, known as partnering, too good to be true? “No,” says Delli Priscoli, “it is common sense. You just get together and set up some agreements and try to treat people as people. You make commitments to one another. You focus on a common goal and put a team together. That is always better than an adversarial process, where everything goes through lawyers. Partnering is good government, in that we are trying to streamline the process to integrate the missions and mandates of the different agencies.”


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