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Collaboration for Impact: Lessons from the field

19 October 2020 at 5:53 pm
John Butcher
Dr John Butcher shares some key takeaways from his new book, co-authored with David Gilchrist, on the issue of how you make collaboration work.

John Butcher | 19 October 2020 at 5:53 pm


Collaboration for Impact: Lessons from the field
19 October 2020 at 5:53 pm

Dr John Butcher shares some key takeaways from his new book, co-authored with David Gilchrist, on the issue of how you make collaboration work.

Collaboration is often offered as a solution to so-called “wicked problems” in public policy, but to put it simply: collaboration is hard to do.

Wicked problems arise, and are perpetuated by a wide range of factors. And, because they usually straddle jurisdictional, programmatic, sectoral and organisational boundaries, no single organisation or sector has the remit, authority or capability to deliver solutions.

For example, the observed effects of entrenched intergenerational disadvantage in particular locales – including poverty, poor school retention, unemployment, low levels of civic engagement and social exclusion – might be perpetuated by characteristics of place such as a distressed built environment, a lack of social and cultural amenity, a lack of affordable housing, poor access to affordable transport, the absence of local educational and employment opportunities, or the absence of accessible primary or hospital care. 

Clearly, treating these problems requires interventions from multiple actors, and does not suit a public service that delivers responses from organisational or programmatic silos.

It comes as no surprise, therefore, that policy makers and policy practitioners in the public and not-for-profit sectors increasingly talk-up “collaboration” as an answer to the fragmentation of programs and services.

Beyond the rhetoric, however, it can be hard to find examples of genuine, effective and sustained collaboration. For a start, many things that are so labelled are not collaboration per se. They might entail communication, cooperation, or coordination, but fall short of true collaboration.

In 2016, David Gilchrist and I set out to uncover the key ingredients of effective collaboration. The springboard for our research project (jointly funded by the Australia and New Zealand School of Government and the John Curtin Institute for Public Policy) was a workshop convened in 2015 to explore the challenges of working across sector boundaries for social purposes. The workshop resulted in our book The Three Sector Solution (ANU Press) which offered useful reflections on the pressing need for more effective cross-sector working whilst leaving the “how” of collaboration largely unaddressed. 

To address what we saw as a “practice gap” in the collaboration literature we investigated five collaborative initiatives in Australia and New Zealand. Each was established to address a complex problem in public policy by convening collaborative spaces in which a broad spectrum of stakeholder interests could reach a shared understanding of the problem at hand and agree a way forward.

We spoke to frontline workers, policy professionals, academics, community leaders, and community sector organisations. Specifically, we wanted to know the answers to a fundamental question: “how do you make collaboration work?”

Front cover of new book Collaboration for Impact: Lessons from the field.From these many in-depth conversations we were able to distil a significant body of practical guidance which can be used as a point of reference for anyone embarking on a collaborative endeavour. These are now contained in our new book Collaboration for Impact: Lessons from the field which has just been published online by the ANU Press and is available as a free download.

Our book explores the key dimensions of collaboration practice. What follows are our headline observations:

  • If “business as usual” isn’t working, then a new “business as usual” is required.
  • Having a clear “path to impact” is a fundamental prerequisite for ongoing authorisation to collaborate.
  • The power of “collaborative intelligence” as a catalyst for sustainable collaborative action cannot be underestimated.
  • Collaborations and the operational framework that supports collaborative action must be  consciously designed – and preferably co-designed with stakeholders.
  • Collaborations cannot succeed without clear, unambiguous authorisation; systems to provide assurance to stakeholders; and governance frameworks that are “fit for purpose”.
  • Effective collaboration leadership is comprised of skills and aptitudes that are quite different to the skill sets valued in more traditional settings.
  • Good faith engagement with internal and external stakeholders is crucial for earning the trust, credibility and legitimacy necessary to establish a “social licence to collaborate”.
  • Although collaboration has the capacity to deliver bespoke place-based solutions, collaborative action is difficult to standardise and might be difficult to “scale up”.

It goes without saying that “collaboration” is a big topic, and our book is not the last word. That said, we hope Collaboration for Impact will provide a practical roadmap for anyone setting out on the collaboration journey.


About the authors: Dr John Butcher is an ANZSOG research fellow at Curtin University and The Australian National University (ANU). John has worked as an academic researcher, as a policy analyst for government in the areas of disability and housing policy, and as a performance analyst in the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO). He has published extensively on the evolving relationship between government and the not-for-profit sector.

Professor David Gilchrist is an accounting academic and economic historian at the University of Western Australia. He has worked in commerce, government and the not-for-profit sector in various senior roles. David has served on a number of community and national policy boards and committees, including as chair of Nulsen Disability Services and as a member of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission Advisory Board.

John Butcher  |  @ProBonoNews

Dr John Butcher is an ANZSOG research fellow at Curtin University and The Australian National University (ANU).

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