Making Collaboration Work - Enablers & Barriers

The devastating tornado that destroyed thousands of homes in Joplin, Missouri, in May 2011 is a key example of successful preexisting collaboration and after-action team building among city officials, business and community leaders, and residents. Resilient communities: (a) define and nurture collaborative environments; (b)identify collaborative enablers and barriers; and (c) understand the people and factors behind collaboration efforts.

In May 2011, a tornado hit Jasper and Newton counties in Missouri and tragically claimed 161 lives, injured 1,371 people, and displaced 9,000. A number of preexisting collaborative efforts used during the recovery period allowed volunteers to be utilized effectively. Part of the pathway to effectively utilizing volunteer organizations during recovery efforts stems from the area’s efforts to develop prepared partnerships among federal, state, local, private sector, voluntary, tribal, and nonprofit agencies and organizations. Collaborative networking existed throughout the lengthy recovery efforts. In terms of smart practices and guidelines to collaboration, these agencies had:

  • Established partnerships and communicated with each other before and after the incident to better enable response and recovery capabilities;

  • Created agreements between volunteer and state-level agencies that established procedures; and

  • Encouraged involvement of levels agencies from federal to local and NGOs in training exercises.

Defining & Nurturing Collaborative Environments

Homeland security and emergency management practitioners and leaders often work in environments where collaboration is necessary to achieve mission goals. In the past, collaboration frequently was limited to emergency incidents. However, an emergency scene is a challenging place in which to build collaboration. Preparedness and planning efforts in multiagency, multijurisdictional processes can be equally demanding. Collaborative efforts take work. It may appear simpler to approach issues from a single-agency perspective, but collaboration has proven to be more effective in preparedness and response. There are a number of models and theories of collaboration, and a pragmatic look at barriers and enablers to collaboration is revealing.

A variety of academic, military, and business literature exist on collaboration and the aspects of teamwork in preparedness and disaster response. The notions of stove-piped organizations and “wicked” problems also have been defined and discussed. In response to complex public problems, collaboration has become integrated into the problem process.

There are a variety of definitions for the word “collaboration.” Many authors writing on the topic begin by creating or adapting a definition. A 2006 study specific to homeland security defined collaborative capacity as, “The ability of organizations to enter into, develop, and sustain inter-organizational systems in pursuit of collective outcomes.” That 2006 study is particularly pertinent because the homeland security professionals participating were asked to “think back to a specific DHS [U.S. Department of Homeland Security] or other effort that included at least two other agencies or organizations that you consider to have been a successful collaboration in the preparation phase (not response phase) of DHS.”

Themes of success factors (enablers) to collaboration included:

  • A “felt need” to collaborate;

  • A common goal, or recognition of interdependence;

  • Social capital (especially trust);

  • Leadership support and commitment;

  • Collaboration as a prerequisite to funding; and

  • Appreciation of others’ perspectives.

Themes of barriers to collaboration included:

  • Divergent goals;

  • Lack of familiarity with other organizations;

  • Inadequate communication and information sharing;

  • Competition for resources; and

  • Territoriality.

Some barriers are simply opposites of enablers, whereas others are more nuanced. Some are organizational behaviors, and some are purely individual (people) behaviors and actions.

Identifying Enablers & Barriers

Collaborative enablers and barriers are both similar and unique within regions. Using the thematic factors in a 2010 regional study of collaboration revealed strong alignment with most of the themes, and some interesting dimensions to others. For example, in the study region, collaboration was viewed positively, while one mechanism to achieve it (joint powers agreements) was viewed negatively. Although agencies in this study were willing to cooperate around common goals, local needs had to be addressed. What that meant to the region was that, although the philosophy and benefits of collaboration were undeniable, agencies needed to fulfill their own missions as well as contribute to the regional effort.

Often the enablers began as pragmatic items for public administrators. The literature suggests that collaboration takes place when an agency recognizes that some benefit would make collaboration worth the cost. Organizations may seek benefits from collaborative partners and those benefits can be tangible or intangible. Partners may: bring resources or program expertise; enhance organizational legitimacy; and emerge from legacy relationships that result in lower transaction costs to begin collaborative efforts. Another reason that agencies collaborate is to share resources. That is, agency A has an ambulance that agency B can use and agency B has a radio system that agency A can use. The sharing of resources with many attributes – for example, functionality, importance, tangibility, and availability – can lead to complex relationships between agencies because the sharing partners may perceive each attribute differently.

Resources are not the only motivator to collaborate. In a 2008 book, entitled “The Collaborative Public Manager,” Professors Rosemary O’Leary of Maxwell School of Syracuse University and Lisa Bingham of Indiana University-Bloomington observed that agencies may collaborate because they are simply, “unable to accomplish their goals unilaterally, either because they do not exercise complete authority over the policy area or because they lack important resources.” Even so, organizations often prefer autonomy to dependence.

In the regional study mentioned earlier, activities that could be enablers and motivators to collaborate included:

  • Conducting joint training;

  • Developing common standard operating procedures;

  • Developing a regional plan;

  • Receiving mutual aid;

  • Developing a unified regional strategy;

  • Reducing program overlaps – for example, redundant plans;

  • Filling gaps – for example, deliverables not met;

  • Providing mutual aid to uncovered neighbors;

  • Developing a unified perspective on missions;

  • Merging funding streams from several sources to meet deliverables;

  • Gaining economy of scale for purchasing supplies, staffing, and other issues; and

  • Increasing capabilities.

Understanding People & Factors Behind Collaboration

With regard to federal collaborative efforts such as the Urban Area Securities Initiative (UASI), the Governmental Accountability Office (GAO) released a report in June 2009 on FEMA’s measurement of UASI efforts toward collaboration. FEMA stated, “The UASI program directly supports the national priority to expand regional collaboration.” The GAO found that FEMA “does not have measures to assess how UASI regions’ collaborative efforts have built preparedness capabilities.” Therefore, an assessment of UASI collaborative performance was not yet possible at a national level. Even so, the GAO also provided a table(Table 1) that delineates pertinent practices that enhance regional undertakings.

In the end, collaboration is a people process. Although understanding the processes and dynamics within a collaborative effort can be much more complex, beginning the effort with an understanding of why partners would wish to be in the room, or wish to be left out, can be a critical dimension.

Bruce Martin

Bruce Martin retired in 2012 as fire chief for the City of Fremont. He now works as a project manager for the Bay Area Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) and as an assistant professor of fire technology at the College of San Mateo. He holds a master’s degree in security studies from the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, a bachelor’s degree in business from College of Notre Dame, and an associate’s in fire science from Indian Valley. He is a Commission on Professional Credentialing (CPC) chief fire officer and was incident commander with others of the East Bay incident management team (Type 3).



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