ASU professor creates tool for government collaboration

By

Paul Atkinson

Finding new and innovative ways to deliver public services is a challenge for many city and county managers, especially if it involves partnering with another government, nonprofit or company.

But now, thanks to a new tool developed by David Swindell, director of the Center for Urban Innovation at Arizona State University, public managers can better determine if a service partnership is worthwhile.

While government collaborations are't new, the assessment tool created by Swindell provides government managers with a new ability to assess whether collaboration is the right thing to do. And, if so, what kind of partnership has the best chance of success.

“The really cool innovations are happening at the local level,” says Swindell. “There could be some efficiencies to be gained by working with other partners through collaborative arrangements and maybe even increases in effectiveness as well.”

The new tool, itself, is the result of collaboration among Arizona State University’s Center for Urban Innovation, the Alliance for Innovation and the International City/County Management Association. It’s aimed at public managers who are tasked with delivering more cost-effective services that exceed the expectations of citizens.

“We are trying to provide them a useful tool that’s going to be applicable everywhere,” Swindell says. “It can be a school board, it can be a city council, it can be the township in Indiana. If you are a public entity, this framework is something you can utilize to determine whether or not the collaborative approach makes sense for your community given the service that you want to explore and then what kind of collaboration will make the most sense – would maximize the likelihood for success.”

Swindell, who is an associate professor in the School of Public Affairs at ASU's College of Public Programs, points to a Nevada public nonprofit partnership that illustrates the value of collaboration.

The cities of Reno and nearby Sparks found it difficult to keep up with the number of abandoned dogs and cats. They were forced to euthanize several thousand each year. In 2002, voters approved funds to build an animal shelter to be run by a new county animal services agency, not the cities.

The Nevada Humane Society contributed $2 million to help build a facility next door, taking in animals that would otherwise go to the animal shelter and cost taxpayers money. The nonprofit also offered low-cost spay and neutering, and helped unwanted pets get adopted. Within a few years, more than 90 percent of unwanted and rescued pets had homes, saving the county money, reducing the stress and burnout of staff, and improving public support.

“This is a good example of where a county is working in collaboration with a nonprofit agency to both absorb costs and share benefits in a true partnership,” says Swindell.

Swindell became interested in the concept of government collaboration after conducting an extensive literature review for an article he co-wrote with Cheryl Hilvert, the director of the Center for Management Strategies at the International City/County Management Association. In discovering patterns associated with communities' success or challenges, Swindell began constructing a model for a collaborative service delivery program.

“Local government managers know that collaboration is a truly viable alternative for service delivery, and given the economic climate, is one that we have to consider more often,” says Hilvert. "They simply need some help to get the dialogue started on the things that are really important to understand in a collaborative service delivery program.”

Hilbert and Swindell are helping get the dialogue started with a workbook that walks public managers through the process. To get them comfortable using the evaluation tool, it includes exercises on evaluating current collaborations underway by local governments. The two are speaking about the workbook at national and international conferences.

“The tool that David developed will help guide this process, allowing managers to fully understand the service itself and the context in which the services are to be delivered,” Hilvert says. “It will also help to identify the myriad of partners that exist locally in the community as well as nationally, so that partners can be identified beyond the “usual suspects.” All of this will help to make discussions and decisions on collaboration better informed and, hopefully, a little easier!”

If a decision is made to partner with another government, nonprofit or corporation, Swindell says one key to success will be to know what’s going on at all times.

“One of the things we harp on a lot in this is you got to stay engaged, you’ve got to measure what you’re doing,” Swindell says. “If you do don’t measure, it doesn’t exist. And these partnerships requiring a lot of networking – you got to have the communication.”