Better Together: Five Ways to Boost Cross-Sector Collaboration in Cities
By Simone Brody
No city can go it alone — nor should they have to. As U.S. cities work to meet the diverse needs of their communities while coping with strained budgets, local governments are increasingly turning to nonprofit, academic, and business partners to stretch local, state, and federal dollars and accelerate change. Collaboration across sectors is essential. It’s also challenging, but well worth the effort.
I have worked in multiple sectors — from venture capital to city government to nonprofits — with a focus on solving social problems. My colleagues working on similar issues across sectors have had strikingly similar goals, but each sector speaks its own language, faces unique challenges, and assigns different values to outputs, such as time, cost, quality, and reach. These differences can create gulfs that feel wide and that organizations must bridge for a partnership to succeed. We may all be tackling the same problems, but we are too often tackling them in silos.
In June, Bloomberg Philanthropies announced the American Cities Initiative, a $200 million investment to generate innovative ideas and advance public policy that moves the nation’s cities forward. This new program connects a number of cross-sector collaborations initiated by Bloomberg Philanthropies, including What Works Cities, a network of 85 mid-sized cities using data and evidence to improve the effectiveness of local governments.
We are increasingly seeing examples of effective collaboration between the private, nonprofit, and public sectors in our What Works Cities community, and across each of the initiatives in Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Government Innovation portfolio.
- Envision Charlotte is a collaboration between Duke Energy, Cisco, Charlotte Center City Partners, and city government to make buildings in Charlotte more energy efficient. The initiative aims to decrease energy use in Charlotte by 20%, and its success has already spurred 10 other U.S. cities to launch their own Envision programs.
- Denver, another What Works city, recently utilized its Housing Trust Fund, supported by donations from foundations and local businesses, to help residents who just miss qualifying for public housing to find homes.
- In Boston, Harvard University’s Achievement Gap Initiative partnered with several local for-profit, nonprofit, and public organizations to teach evidence-based ways of boosting child development to parents in the city’s poorer neighborhoods.
- In Milwaukee, the City partnered with The Water Council, an international organization headquartered in the city, to improve Milwaukee’s current water system, expand green infrastructure, and invest in new water technology.
There’s a lot of untapped potential to expand and improve collaborative projects. Here are five recommendations to make it easier:
- Cultivate multi-sector “translators.” We should expand programs that allow budding social change leaders to work in the public sector via internships or leadership training programs, like Coro, before developing private sector solutions to public-good challenges. If a startup CEO could spend just two weeks in a city hall, it could make a world of difference in developing innovative and achievable solutions.
- Invest in developing leadership talent across all sectors. The for-profit sector has refined models of management that drive its success and is committed to upskilling its leadership accordingly, but too often, leaders in the public sector do not have the same opportunities for professional development. The Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative helps mayors (city CEOs) develop critical leadership skills to tackle big social challenges and advance their cities, borrowing from the best of the business and public policy worlds. We should find additional ways of sharing these models to help all sector leaders be extraordinary in their roles.
- Play to each sector’s strengths — and minimize weaknesses. We should find ways to allocate risk based on what each sector can bear, such as through outcome-focused contracting models that push private sector organizations to produce outcomes in order to continue partnering with governments. We should also help all sectors learn to take risks in small bites, creating a culture that focuses on continuous improvement. For example: What Works Cities’ partner the Behavioral Insights Team (BIT) pushes cities to try new methods of engaging with their communities to “nudge” positive behavior, such as encouraging more residents to get free health checkups, attracting a more diverse pool of applicants to the police force, and increasing payment rates for code violations. Through this low-cost improvement process, BIT helps cities create a culture organized around innovation and using impact as the lens for decision-making.
- Create a common language for cross-sector collaboration. Without understanding how each sector operates, we can’t build effective partnerships. We need to build a shared definition of the impact a partnership seeks to achieve. Partners should work together to define problems, determine measures of progress, and develop creative approaches that leverage the best thinking from all sectors. Using a data- and evidence-based framework to define and track success can enhance collaboration by creating an impartial and measurable barometer of progress and providing clear parameters that help align everyone’s interests and maximize returns on the partnership. Through its partnership with What Works Cities, the Government Performance Lab at the Harvard Kennedy School partners with city governments and private sector service providers to ensure the work being done by cities’ outside vendors have the same definition of success and the right partnership structures to achieve those goals.
- Use a framework to structure collaborations. Cross-sector collaboration can work best when it follows a framework that governs the collective. The collective impact framework, for example, uses a “backbone organization” to guide collaborators and provide a governance structure. The backbone organization keeps the efforts focused on the collective goals and facilitates impact. It encourages each sector to push the boundaries of its standard practice to do better and share the burden of risk.
By approaching partnerships as cultural exchanges, we can transform them from transactional interactions to true collaborations. The upside of success is far too great not to try.