One of the core elements of the Integration Initiative is the “one table approach” – building a resilient civic infrastructure where decision-makers from across sectors and jurisdictions formally convene and work together to define and address complex social problems. Such problems, like poverty or health disparities, go beyond technical fixes and have no known solution. By convening at one table, key stakeholders can address these systemic problems and work towards solutions that create impact at scale, rather than continuing project-level interventions owned by one sector.

However, simply bringing stakeholders together doesn’t guarantee that leaders will leave their agendas, beliefs, or emotions at the door and begin a productive conversation. And that’s OK. As Ronald Heifetz writes, “the stakeholders themselves must create and implement the solution because the problem itself lies in their attitudes, priorities or behavior, and only a change within and between them will produce a solution.” The challenge is in structuring the table so that leaders can grapple with tension, address disagreements, and figure out a shared path forward.

For about the last year and a half, the five Integration Initiative sites – Baltimore, Cleveland, Detroit, Newark, and Minneapolis-St. Paul – have been working through these tensions and are demonstrating the challenges and power of bringing together cross-sector leaders for a shared purpose. In the coming months, we’ll share insights from each site team on the one table approach in action, and share what they’re learning about building a new form of civic infrastructure. To launch this series, I sat down with Living Cities’ staff leads for The Integration Initiative, Marian Urquilla, Director of Program Strategies, and Robin Hacke, Director of Capital Formation, to learn how the one table approach became a central part of the Initiative, and what they have seen over the past year.


How and why was the one table approach developed for The Integration Initiative?

Marian: It came both out of the work with STRIVE (a cross-sector partnership working to drive better results in education) and Ben Hecht’s commitment to working beyond silos and driving an ecosystem approach to urban problem solving. We thought that, in order to take a complex approach to the work, multiple actors had to address the different components of the challenge.

Robin: One of the things that got baked in very early through The Integration Initiative request for proposals (RFP) was the notion of the “ecosystem view.” We asked the sites to map their ecosystem and to try to think about their existing relationships, and who were they going to need to add to their circle. The presumption was that the work we would support was already underway and would not be built from scratch, but that there would be incremental pieces of stakeholder engagement that would need to be done. Our hope was that by doing the ecosystem analysis, they would be able to focus on what wasn’t there.

Marian: We were really looking for an existing table that would be strengthened in the context of this opportunity.

What do you consider the key concepts and/or frameworks that are embedded in the “one table” approach?

Marian: The cross-sector group has to be working on a large-scale, ongoing problem, not a one-time project. They are not coming together to put on the Olympics. They are not coming together to rebuild a waterfront. They are coming together to solve a complex problem in complex ways. They must build solutions that are not currently in their skill set, rather than just doing what they know how to do at a larger scale.

Robin: Also, these have to be people who are in a position to make decisions and not just implementers, and they have to be willing to invent or adapt solutions rather than just applying principles or models they got from somewhere else.

What types of new skill sets do you see sites developing from working on the one table approach?

Marian: Part of it is being able to have authentic relationships and engagements with one another rather than ceremonial or informal engagements. And that means risking conflict and learning how to have productive conflict and getting past politeness or just relying on informal relationships to get work done. It means being all right with not having the whole solution or playbook figured out before you start. These are big problems and if there were easy off-the-shelf solutions, well, it would be a whole different world. It also means not rushing to solutions, but really taking the time to build a shared understanding of the problem. One of the patterns we’ve noted is that people skip this step of shared study and analysis, which results in a table that’s not united around the big result they are trying to achieve.

How has the reality of the one table approach differed from what you expected to see from the sites?

Marian: One of the challenges is working with the public sector in a new way, both for the public sector and for the other leaders. The public sector has a really hard time not owning the work and doesn’t quite know how to participate when they don’t own it. I think another challenge is that these tables brought together leaders working on different pieces of the same issues, so now turf issues are on the table, so to speak, and they have to be dealt with if the work is going to go forward.

Robin: To an extent, this is an emotional process as well as a professional process. People are coming to the table as human beings who care deeply about their city and not just as representatives of institutions. It’s also been interesting to see the different configurations of the one table and how in some places there really are two tables because you have a senior table and an implementation table and the connections between those two levels get worked out in a whole bunch of different ways.

I also think that the challenge of engaging with folks with whom you don’t normally work is present at every stage of the process. How do you get people you don’t know to be engaged in work when you know it’s important for them to be there but you don’t necessarily have the relationship or the authority to get them to the table? I think the sites have struggled a little bit with that.

In your view, what has distinguished sites with strong tables and weak tables?

Marian: I think the staffing is an important dimension; it’s a very big deal. What kind of authority will the staff have? Who supervises the staff and to whom are they accountable? I think the other question is how membership is determined. Is there rigor in selection/invitation? Are there enough people who have different points of view or is it an “Amen chorus”? Do folks know they are there to do joint problem solving? In the end, it’s all about breaking down the ceremonial table and setting a working table.

What major changes have there been so far that were a direct result of the stakeholder tables?

Marian: You can see this with the recalibration of funds in the Twin Cities. They are working on developing a regional transit system that advances economic development and ensures that people of all incomes and backgrounds share in the opportunities this creates. Their work has attracted different funding from Living Cities, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Ford Foundation – funding to support different organizations doing similar work. The stakeholders there made the decision to align these funding streams under one governance board, which is overseeing an evaluation process that includes the necessary metrics for reporting to all of their funders. As a result, the funds are being used efficiently and strategically to fund aligned and mutually reinforcing activities that are all driving to a set of big results.

Robin: In Baltimore, the table is working to expand opportunities for low-income residents and communities by unifying job opportunities with revitalization investment. TRF, which is leading the financial aspect of the work, has commented on how much learning resulted from bringing program people and finance people together; they held a “real estate development 101” session for their partners, and have had conversations about how to truly integrate the capital and workforce systems. By working together, the program and capital teams have identified ways to create “win-win” situations by getting developers to commit to local hiring and helping to identify suitable recruits.

What have been your major takeaways from working with these tables of stakeholders?

Robin: I think we’re on to something. Having financial intermediaries participate in leadership discussions from the earliest stages helps them build the relationships they need to identify high priority deals and overcome the inevitable obstacles that make deals a challenge. Their perspective on markets and on how to structure catalytic investments also contributes a lot to the quality of decisions made by the group.

Marian: I think it’s an exercise in distributed leadership. This really is about building the future. As our communities become more and more interconnected and we understand more deeply how seemingly disparate issues, such as health, education, economic development and transportation, reinforce one another, we have to build problem-solving infrastructure that is sufficiently complex and robust to actually solve big problems.

As the sites continue to work through the one table approach, we will provide you with insights from the Living Cities team and our partners. Stay tuned for our next “Reflections on One Table” post where Monique Baptiste discusses the challenges and progress they are seeing through Newark’s table so far.