The imperative of cross-agency collaboration

150 150 Jim Mayer

The following is a transcript of remarks given on October 16 to the California State Senate Education Committee briefing on community schools 

CA Fwd is a nonpartisan catalyst for improving public outcomes. One of our goals is to transform public services so they provide the best value to Californians. We have pursued this goal by adapting, advocating and deploying performance approaches to fiscal, policy and management decision-making.

CA Fwd has one project that is working at the regional scale to identify actions needed to advance triple-bottom line vitality: simultaneous progress toward our economic, social and environmental goals. Nearly 2,000 community leaders were involved this spring in regional forums conducted by our regional partners in the California Stewardship Network, more than 400 experts and advocates served on action teams this summer to develop specific proposals that will be considered by nearly 500 leaders at a state Summit on November 8 in Los Angeles.

A second CA Fwd project, our Partnership for Community Excellence, is working with counties and their numerous partners to develop cost-effective community correctional systems as an alternative to the expensive and ineffective state prison system. The challenges and the strategies associated with community corrections have a lot in common with community schools. The most promising systems involve government agencies, nonprofit service providers and community organizations passionately working together to develop data-driven programs to improve outcomes.

The “Imperative of Cross-Agency Collaboration” lies at the intersection of these two projects.

From the Summit perspective, the imperative is nothing short of reviving the California dream.

With each of the last four recessions, California lost a portion of the middle class that never recovered. And that is what we are experiencing today. While highly skilled jobs are coming back strong, semi-skilled jobs are not.  And even during the high points in the economic cycle, California has persistent pockets of poverty that don’t go away, and are getting larger. They include the Inland Empire and portions of the San Joaquin Valley. But they also include communities embedded in more successful regions.  The chorus of voices involved in the Economic Summit is increasingly singling out education as the most important among the set of priority actions.

The core of the California dream is really the potential for upward mobility. While naturally the benefits accrue to those who are getting ahead, all of us ultimately benefit from a growing middle class.

In some cases, even today, California is losing jobs because – despite high unemployment – we do not have the skilled workers needed to keep or grow those jobs in California.

Without focused attention, this situation will grow even worse as most of us retire in the next decade.  Several academic projections show that California will struggle to replace skilled workers.

Preparing our children to succeed in the next economy is clearly an imperative. One that will require the collaboration we see happening in community schools.  It also will require collaboration among K-12, community colleges and universities.  It will require collaboration between colleges, universities, employers and industries.  

There are other hurdles and opportunities.  We need to be smarter and more creative in how we design regulations to protect the environment and public health.  We need to be smarter about infrastructure investments. We need to be careful in structuring taxes and tax credits.  All of these will require cooperation if not collaboration. But none of them will matter without a skilled workforce.  Where California leads the world, it is leading with human capital. 

Former Justice Cruz Reynoso, one of our Leadership Council members, points out California will not have a political democracy until we have an economic democracy.

From the other perspective – from the community service perspective – collaboration is essential because complex problems require sophisticated solutions. As we heard on the tour, in lean times we need to think in new ways.

But it is important to realize that collaboration is required independent of the resources available, because no one government agency, no one program can address the inter-related factors that thwart or support academic success, self-sufficiency, health and well-being.

We seem to understand this in California.  We have been creating pilots for a generation, encouraging collaboration. For example, AB 1741, which created the pilot program for a comprehensive and integrated approach to at-risk children and families in six counties, was originally passed in 1992, and was extended a number of times.

In 2010 and 2011, CA Fwd conducted a series of stakeholder discussion to distill what we have learned about smart government strategies.  We also identified and examined 11 significant efforts to integrate services. Without exception, those efforts could identify improved outcomes and often reduced costs.  And these are important outcomes: reducing the number of children in foster care, in locked psychiatric facilities, and in juvenile jails.

For all of the successful pilot projects, we honestly have struggled to inspire and sustain system change. A couple of observations that might help us break through:

  1. Significant analysis supports the conclusion that integrated, data-driven, outcome-oriented strategies are the best path forward against a range of stubborn and important public challenges, especially in education, health, safety, well-being and self-sufficiency of families and communities.
  2. Developing these integrated, data-driven and outcome-oriented strategies will require building the capacity, developing the culture and encouraging the champions to make and sustain improvement.
  3. Sustaining improvement will require effective public-private collaboration – not just collaboration among government agencies.

Just a few more words on each of those three:

  1. Integrated, data-driven and outcome-oriented strategies: Some of the stops on the tour really captured the importance of these characteristics.  Which data, which outcomes, and who is involved will change from circumstance to circumstance, but both experience and research says these attributes are important to focusing efforts, changing how resources are allocated, adapting the way services are delivered and sustaining a commitment to the hard work.  They are the glue needed to forge and hold collaborations together.
  2. Capacity, Culture and Champions: Bureaucracies are built on spreadsheets and propped up by compliance manuals.  Calendars are driven by reporting requirements.  We have mountains of data, but usually not the data we need.  We also have counties, cities, schools and community organizations that have started to collect the data they need – to understand what is working and what is not.  Too assess individual needs and use that information to tailor a response, and to provide continuity in the efforts to assist individuals. They are using this capacity to develop new cultures of sharing information and working together, of seeing the whole. The tour clearly showed the importance of champions.  There is no substitute for leadership, and we need to find ways to grow leaders, to support them and help them remove hurdles.
  3. Public-private collaboration: Collaborations are long-term strategies.  They are built through relationships of people and organizations.  The literature of transformational change in the public sector frequently points out the importance of having private sector involvement as a way to sustain commitments through transitions in public leadership and to provide gentle yet assertive pressure against the bureaucratic tendency to resist change.

We should not underestimate – or miss – this moment in time. 

Not just because of the recession, but because of the new economic realities – public programs must be able to deliver better results with restrained resources.

And not just because of the community or regional impacts, but the impacts on individual lives and families. California has made some significant policy shifts – from AB 109 public safety realignment to the Local Control Funding Formula – that are creating new opportunities, and a sense of urgency, to develop collaborative and integrated approaches.

We must and can solve problems at the community and regional scale.  And both the state government and nongovernmental partners need to play active support roles to nurture and sustain collaborations.

Jim Mayer is the President & CEO of California Forward and a member of its Leadership Council.


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