One thing that I’ve notice is the increased chatter about collaboration from various corners of governments when they talk about delivering services in partnership with the NFP sector. I am not alone. This is something many notice and discuss discreetly. A proper, open conversation has not fully matured, which I think is in part driven by self-preservation. One overarching theme of the current collaboration potential is that it is not very clear what is meant by it; and, perhaps more importantly, there are growing fears that some organisations may see this as indirect management of the NFP.
I think this worries anyone who finds themselves unprepared. What is very obvious is that no one is clear on what models of collaboration governance are available, or should be adopted. I also see a major flaw in the idea behind the Australian government’s move to reward collaborations without first having a clear understanding of what risk measures they have; awarding grants with a lack of evidence on what the return on investment will be from some of these so called collaborations. Naturally, collaboration is a business driver and it should be utilised, but it can be a major risk when any critical systematic issues are not cleared up. The government should be focusing on some form of support specifically designed for the collaboratives it funds. While the case for input is clear, i.e. governments can save money by funding collaboratives to deliver services to the community, what level of responsibility is it prepared to accept when collaboratives fail to deliver? Failures are a common occurrence given that collaboratives cannot yet provide a mature form of service delivery. Collaborations can also be very disruptive and are not easy to manage when resources are scarce. Evaluation of the outcomes and impacts will also be difficult for the government as it is poorly equipped to work out what kind of collaborative is worth investing in, and what kind is not. Governments have in the past managed the governance and administrative practices of funded bodies, which has not been difficult given the maturity of organisational governance as a field. Collaborative governance is not that simple. So there is a risk, a very clear risk, that funding could be channeled to, for example, collaboratives with visible outcomes but poor governance models. As paradoxical as it may seem, in the short term it would be probable to get good service outcomes, however these may not be long lasting as governance issues tend to emerge slowly.
The government’s shift in its funding approach is no different than any other market disruption. While the government may not be too perturbed by its intention to improve its balance sheet, and in fact may be reacting prudently to major business drivers, no clear picture has emerged on the philosophical underpinnings of this approach. What I am trying to detect is how consistent collaboration is as a way of operating across all government. At the moment the most that is discernible is only a fraction of what collaboration is; a way of working together. Past that point most is left to the imagination. That lack of consistency in understanding of collaboration theory, practice, strategy, execution and policy will, over time, become markedly visible.
While, with my educator’s hat on, I would naturally be the first to advocate for collaboration, when I am wearing my strategist’s hat, I am also very critical of the way collaboration is implemented. Changing the ‘red tape’ process (either reducing it or otherwise) comes with a risk of diminished returns on investment. When that investment comes in the form of a not fully mature process, then there should be no surprises when the process comes under scrutiny. Collaboration is here to stay, and doing it poorly is not an option.