A how-to guide for local government collaboration and innovation

150 150 Teresa Acosta & Rick Cole

“We are out of money . . . we are going to have to think.”

Those were the exasperated words of a member of the British War Cabinet during the darkest days of the Battle of Britain. These are challenging days for local government, but every crisis brings opportunity. California, after all, is the birthplace of trail-blazing companies like Apple, Google and Intel.  Who are the local government leaders in California that will take us to our finest hour?  

They are out there. And many of the most forward thinking of them are forging new partnerships to tackle the big problems that can’t be solved by government alone. They are bringing together strategic alliances to plan and implement ambitious community-wide problem-solving.  And it’s working.

The key is collaboration, a skill everyone talks about but is never as simple as it seems. Too often, our definition of “collaboration” is “you help me solve my problems.”  No matter how serious the crisis faced by local government, sustainable partnerships are forged from shared agendas that start with listening. They are built on common values and common interests.  Collaboration encourages diverse perspectives, breaks down silos, identifies best practices, and connects individuals with varied expertise. Simply put, collaboration fosters the kind of innovation that Californians demand yet seldom have the patience to truly nurture.

There is no magic shortcut to collaboration. But now there is an easy-to- follow handbook distilled from the hard-won experience of successful community collaborations across California. It pulls no punches. It cites the triumphs and the setbacks, pointing out pitfalls along the way.  Building successful partnerships to solve community problems and improve local quality of life is not easy.  But with the Handbook for Community Solutions, a new online tool from California Forward, you will have a road map for the route to success.  The free guidebook is available at www.cafwd.org/handbook

Handbook Offers a Flexible Model

The Handbook for Community Solutions is a “how-to” guide for local problem solving that comes directly from the real-world experience of local government, civic, business and educational leaders. It offers a flexible model for collaboration that can be adapted to community planning efforts of various sizes and scales.  The model advises on structuring and organizing a collaborative effort while not being prescriptive. It provides a menu of the ingredients you need to start and a recipe that lists each step from working out a shared definition of “the problem” to following up to measure results.  Each section includes case studies and tips from leaders “who’ve been there.”

What is the most important challenge facing your community? Rising gang violence – or shrinking supplies of drinking water? Erosion of high-wage jobs – or swelling ranks of homeless? These kinds of issues cross city borders and agency boundaries. A large-scale planning effort would include government agencies, business, civic, religious and community-based organizations working together across sectors to more efficiently and effectively target the problem and its causes. This kind of plan is what California Forward terms a “Strategic Community Action Plan.”  

A small-scale planning effort would tackle a more limited issue, such as no funding for libraries or parks – or divisive battles over development in a smaller geographic area. Since these collaborations are less complex, they may be easier and faster to organize and mobilize to develop a plan and implement it.  The Handbook includes first-hand accounts of several of these planning efforts.

Fundamental Steps in the Handbook

The Handbook names and explains the fundamental steps to successfully build a collaboration that will create and implement a community plan. Drawing from dozens of established and scholarly sources like The White House Council on Community Solutions and Stanford University, as well as first-hand narratives from California practitioners, the Handbook includes advice for local government leaders on:

  • Inviting others to the table and carefully planning meetings
  • Deciding on actions to take 
  • Measuring success
  • Collecting and applying data to help evaluate the success of the effort
  • Creating a comprehensive Strategic Community Action Plan
  • Learning from mistakes along the way
  • Finding funding for the project
  • Understanding the terminology in the field

Adopt the Handbook and Share Your Stories

The Handbook for Community Solutions is a fresh tool for local government leaders to innovate through collaboration. With its flexible model, communities of all sizes can adopt the Handbook to their needs.

Since it lives online, rather than in print, the Handbook is easily improved and refined with feedback and suggestions from readers. Local government and community leaders are encouraged to send additional feedback and stories of collaboration innovation to Handbook@cafwd.org

These may be tough times. Successful communities won’t emerge from this crisis without circling the wagons to face tough times together. We can’t make it alone. We are going to have to think . . . and act . . . together!

Teresa Acosta, a former public affairs manager for the League of California Cities and long-time field representative for State Senator Jack Scott, is the lead consultant for California Forward on the Handbook for Community Solutions.

Rick Cole, a member of the Advisory Group for the Handbook for Community Solutions, served 15 years as a city manager (of Ventura and Azusa) and 12 years on the Pasadena city council.  He currently splits his time working with the Local Government Commission and Mission San Buenaventura.


Teresa Acosta & Rick Cole

All stories by: Teresa Acosta & Rick Cole