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Symposium introduction: assessing multiple dimensions of collaboration.

Collaboration is standard operating procedure for addressing many of today's public issues. Organizations across sectors work with each other and the community at large using various forms and degrees of collaboration. While Salamon (2002) argues that collaboration is one of many policy tools available, some observers suggest that collaboration has now become a form of governance with both positive and negative implications (Goldsmith & Eggers, 2004; Kettl, 2006).

While an exponentially expanding set of researchers and practitioners conduct research, evaluations, and theory-building reports, articles, and books on the topic of collaboration, the efficacy of the strategy remains murky. Adding to the complexity of assessing and measuring collaboration is the continued importance of the situational argument: the success of collaboration depends on the situation, the actors, timing, and so on. As such, much of the current research on collaboration is case based, both describing and analyzing to draw lessons for smart practice. However, the question regarding how to measure and replicate collaboration success persists.

Earlier work argues that the definition of success is the first step for achieving positive outcomes from collaboration and should be determined through intentional participant processes that recognize the needs and perspectives of other stakeholders (Norris-Tirrell and Clay, 2010). At the same time, attention to the actual collaboration operations (such as the structures, procedures, and metrics) are equally important to success and requires that public and nonprofit managers understand how various collaborative practices may impact tangible and intangible, social capital and organizational outcomes (Agranoff, 2005, 2008; Chen, 2008; Koontz and Thomas, 2006; Schneider). Wells, Feinberg, Alexander and Ward (2009) suggest that collaboration decision making based on data is important to participant perception of the effort's community impact. Further, effectively examining the success of collaboration results from transparent processes and clearly articulate goals including specific deliverables and outcomes with large and small results in short term, intermediate and long term timeframes (Norris-Tirrell & Clay, 2010). These goals may also move beyond the outcomes of a specific collaboration to examine the increased capacity and competence of participants to collaborate productively, and potential created for future resources and opportunities related to the issues of focus (Norris-Tirrell & Clay, 2010). Keast, Brown and Mandell (2007) suggest that as collaboration research continues to expand, studies necessarily will become more sophisticated the variety of outcomes and impacts.

This symposium tackles the important challenge of assessing collaboration success in health and human services. Each of the four articles uses a policy arena, specifically, health care, pre-k education, childcare, and senior services, to set the context and then examines different dimensions of collaboration, including the influence of particular participants, strength and responsiveness of the collaboration itself, and development stage of the collaboration effort. Building on existing theory, each article describes the drivers, structure, goals and activities of the collaboration studied, uses empirical methodology to further examine the identified variables, and draws policy and practice implications from the findings.

The study by Hillary Knepper discussed in the article, "Testing a Model of County Government Influence on Health Care Safety-Nets," studies the role of county government in health care networks. Using primary data and structural equation modeling, the author poses an important research question focused on understanding the role of government in public-private partnerships: What impact does pervasiveness of county influence have on network performance? The findings confirm the influence of county government in health care network performance, particularly in the maintenance of health care safety nets. Complexity measurements of the number of organizations and the intensity of the relationships between the county and the community organizations are responsible for the largest predictive value of health care network performance.

The article, "Interorganizational Relationships of Health Partnerships: Characteristics of the Fulton County SPARC Program," by Brenda Sullivan also looks at county government collaboration with a focus on preventive health care to senior citizens. SPARC's general approach is to enlist collaboration among public, nonprofit and private health providers, local government agencies, community groups, and others to use existing community resources for delivery of preventive care for seniors. The study examines the implementation of the SPARC program as a new effort to build cross sector collaboration among providers in this policy area. A time-series design using data collected from expert interviews and two surveys is used to explore operational characteristics for partnership strength and developmental stages based on a network-collaborative continuum. The findings emphasize willingness to change as a key variable in collaboration endurance.

The article, "From Threat to Opportunity: A Head Start Program's Response to State-Funded Pre-K," by Sharon Wrobel examines the partnership between the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) Head Start program and the Little Rock School to provide services to Head Start eligible children, and their families, in the district's state-funded prekindergarten program. An anonymous web-based partner survey completed by teachers and administrators is used to measure the success of the collaboration. The findings suggest that the program leadership views the collaboration as a success due to a high level of communication between the agencies and the shared focus on clear, common goals despite significant challenges inherent in school district and federal program requirements.

The final article, "Human Service Delivery in a Multi-Tier System: The Subtleties of Collaboration among Partners," by Fred Mayhew, examines multi-level collaboration in the Smart Start Initiative, a public-private venture focused on early childhood education. The units of analysis for the study were the relationships between service providers and the local partnerships, and the relationships between the local partnerships and state level coordinating organization. Using survey data, the findings of the Analysis of Variance suggest that the service providers perceive their relationship with the local partnerships as more collaborative in nature than the partnerships perceive their relationship with the statewide agency. Levels of shared decision-making, more open lines of communication and a clearer understanding of the partnering organization's goals were stronger at the service delivery level while issues of accountability were prevalent at the administrative level.

Research on collaboration has moved beyond describing what works and what doesn't to assessing processes, outcomes and impacts. The goal of this symposium is to continue the dialogue about evaluating collaboration from multiple perspectives, encouraging the application of new quantitative and qualitative approaches, to build usable knowledge. Each article in the symposium examines collaboration to measure a unique element of collaboration productivity or success, offering practice-based and theoretical implications. A short commentary written from a practitioner perspective follows each article underscoring the real world push and pull of collaboration. The commentary by David Mirvis emphasizes the important role of county government in public health, and expounds on the barriers that often limit this participation. Anna Kathryn Word's commentary speaks to the realities of collaboration today particularly in why they are formed and the resulting difficulties in reaching success. In his commentary, Jason Sakran highlights the need for innovation in collaboration, particularly in policy areas where improving outcomes is difficult and resources are scarce. Finally, Rueben Leslie acknowledges the challenges of interorganizational collaboration, particularly when multiple levels of government are involved and concludes with the important reminder about the need for internal teambuilding to improve productive outcomes. Each commentary offers useful perspective on how and why collaboration continues to be an important topic of conversation and research. The Symposium Conclusion by Joy Clay continues the dialogue by examining the research questions identified by the authors to build a useful and far reaching research agenda related to collaboration.

As a group, the articles and commentaries confirm that processes focusing on transparent, regular communication and the shared understanding of the problem definition and collaborative goals can result in a shift in how agencies connect to each other, moving from a perspective of competition to one of cooperation. The assessment methods used add new information about measuring the processes, outcomes and impacts of collaboration, thus advancing our understanding of this important strategy for addressing today's public challenges.


Agranoff, R. (2005). Managing collaborative performance. Public Performance & Management Review, 29, (1), 18-45.

Agranoff, R. (2008). Enhancing performance through public sector networks: Mobilizing human capital in communities of practice. Public Performance & Management Review, 21 (1), 320-347.

Chen, B. (2008). Assessing interorganizational networks for public service delivery: A process-perceived effectiveness framework. Public Performance & Management Review 21 (3), 348-363.

Goldsmith, S., and W. Eggers. 2004. Governing by Network: The New Shape of the Public Sector. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press.

Keast, R, K. Brown and M. Mandell. (2007). Getting the right mix: Unpacking integration meanings and strategies. International Public Management Journal, 10 (1): 9-33.

Kettl, D. 2006. Managing boundaries in American administration: The collaboration imperative. Public Administration Review, 66 (Supplement), 10-19.

Koontz, T. and C. Thomas. (2006). What do we know and need to know about the environmental outcomes of collaborative management? Public Administration Review, 66 (Supplemental 1): 111-121.

Norris-Tirrell, D. and Clay, J. (2010). Strategic Collaboration in public and nonprofit administration: A practice-based approach to solving shared problems. CRC Press: Boca Raton, FL.

Salamon, L. (2002). The tools of government: A new guide to governance. Oxford University Press.

Schneider, A. (2009). Why do some boundary organizations result in new ideas and practices and others only meet resistance?: Examples from juvenile justice. American Review of Public Administration, 39 (1), 60-79.

Wells, R., Feinberg, M., Alexander, J.A., and Ward, A.J. (2009). Factors affecting member perceptions of coalition impact, Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 19 (3), 327-248.


University of Central Florida

Dorothy Norris-Tirrell is a professor, researcher and consultant in the areas of nonprofit organization governance, volunteerism, university-community partnerships and cross-sector collaboration in a variety of policy areas including community resilience. She has extensive experience as a nonprofit agency manager, board member, consultant and volunteer.
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Author:Norris-Tirrell, Dorothy
Publication:Journal of Health and Human Services Administration
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2012
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