Not much in life is certain, but of two things I am sure:
- The secret to improving cities lies in collaboration. That is, in getting numerous independent interests working in coordinated ways on big problems.
- One of the secrets of effective collaboration is knowing what each partner is good at, so each contributes from its strengths.
If I’m right about this, then we need to think deeply about what each participant can bring to a collaboration. And we should begin with government, since it will be central to almost every ambitious civic undertaking.
But first, let me urge my friends in government to give up that most human of instincts, defensiveness. If we aren’t willing to acknowledge that there are some areas where we don’t excel, then we’ll never work effectively with others.
This can be difficult in public life because governments face a chorus of critics ready to pounce on any shortcoming. What can I say? It takes courage to be a leader. But it also takes faith that, as you build successful collaborations, your list of critics will grow shorter as your list of admirers grows longer. So have the courage to say where you need help.
What would those areas be for governments? Most likely they would include coming up with new ideas, which tends to occur early in the collaboration process.
Why aren’t governments good at creative new ideas? Because they tend to be like old-fashion department stores. They offer many things, most of them as commodity services. This rewards a wide view and clearly thought-out routines, but not innovation.
Some of the interests governments collaborate with, by contrast, will be more like niche retailers: They sell one or two things but do so at amazing depth and variety and are constantly looking for new ways of doing things. So why not use these groups’ knowledge, passion, and focus to bring new ideas to civic undertakings?
Having trouble picturing this? Think of a collaboration aimed at attracting more young people to a city. The city government will surely be one of the partners, but others might include the chamber of commerce, the local university, entertainment venues, apartment developers, and, one hopes, some actual young people. Which participants in this collaboration would you expect to offer the most promising ideas?
Collaborations are about more than ideas, of course. They’re about creating workable solutions and seeing these solutions put in place. So as a collaboration moves toward decision making and implementation, the strengths of government become critical. The three most important strengths that a government offers are fairness, scale, and steadfastness.
Fairness is a value that you’ll have to help your partners understand and appreciate. They’ll see it, at first, as delay. But government processes are designed to ensure that everyone gets a voice—and, in doing so, they can reveal the flaws in our plans and show us their unintended consequences. So while government officials should accept others’ leadership in generating new ideas and approaches, their partners have to realize that public decision making depends on . . . well, the public being involved.
The other two, scale and steadfastness, are obvious but rarely appreciated strengths of government. The best example of scale at work is water conservation. By making changes in their building codes (mandating that new construction and renovations use more efficient plumbing), cities have dramatically reduced the amount of water each household uses over time.
New York, for instance, was consuming 1.5 billion gallons of water a day on average in 1979. By 2009, it had reduced its daily consumption by a third to just over 1 billion gallons even as its population grew by nearly 12 percent . . . with almost no one noticing the changes. Now, that is scale!
It’s also a lesson in steadfastness. Unlike businesses and even nonprofits, governments tend to stick with what they do. The reason New York reduced its water consumption so dramatically is the government never wavered in its commitment.
So as you begin collaborations, government leaders should ask for help with ideas. But they should outline what their partners can expect in return: The government will listen widely and decide carefully. But, once committed, it can offer real, measurable change. And by and large, it will keep its promises.
A version of this posting appeared on the Governing website.
Photo by torbakhopper licensed under Creative Commons.