The public sector plays a critical role in solving the complex problems facing cities today. Their formal authority, ability to use the bully pulpit, and access to significant resources uniquely positions them to help transform the systems that currently contribute to inequality. In tackling these big challenges, local government can increase its impact through more effective collaboration – including as a key player in the formation and sustainability of collective impact partnerships.
Living Cities has experienced the promise of innovative local governments and collective impact partnerships first-hand through our investment in Strive Together.The national Strive Together network has developed a rigorous framework for bringing leaders from the public sector together with those from the private, non-profit, and philanthropic sectors to intervene in the education system. Collectively they create a new civic infrastructure, harnessing and aligning their financial resources and influence to change the systems that impact student achievement. In Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky, the local Strive Partnership used this approach to move the needle on education outcomes, including a 9% increase in kindergarten readiness, 11% increase in high school graduation, and 10% increase in college enrollment. With Living Cities’ support, the national intermediary Strive Together helped spread this innovative framework to 90 additional communities. In our work with this network, we’ve learned that public sector actors play critical roles in the formation and sustenance of these partnerships.
To better understand the role of the public sector in collective impact partnerships, we began to explore how local government officials influence collective impact partnerships in their cities. Understanding this role is a first step to effectively leveraging government’s significant resources to improve outcomes for low-income students and communities.
Through interviews with project directors of seven Cradle-to-Career collective impact partnerships, we learned how partnerships themselves understand political leadership, relationships, data, and the tension between process and action in their work. Here are 5 of our emerging lessons:
There isn’t just one way for the public sector to engage in collective impact . In collective impact Cradle-to- Career partnerships, leadership can be found at several levels within local government. Across sites, both mayors and superintendents are key contributors to these partnerships. In many of the cities, mayors provide visibility to the partnership and champion its agenda. In other cases, they are even more deeply involved; mayors have participated in the partnership’s governance table, incubated the partnership within the Mayor’s Office, and/or provided initial staffing to the partnership itself. On the other hand, Superintendents, while often less publically visible, are consistently critical to advancing the on-the-ground, day-to-day work of the initiative. In all sites, the role of the mayor, superintendent and all public sector actors is heavily dependent on local context. In places like Washington D. C. or Chicago, for example, the Mayor has significant influence over the education system. Yet in other places, such as Dallas, the Mayor and city government have less control. These differences in local context will shape how public sector engagement looks across different regions.
Relationships are critical to both catalyzing and sustaining collective impact partnerships. Relationships are central to public sector engagement through a collective impact framework. On one hand, deeply involved Mayors or other elected officials can leverage their relationships to catalyze and regularly convene the collective impact partnership. On the other hand, the relationships offered by a strengthened civic infrastructure can be a selling point for public sector engagement in a partnership itself. In at least one site interviewed, centralized access to a region’s leading influencers in education has helped a partnership withstand mayoral and other public sector official transition.
While the public sector often holds needed data, the specific gatekeeper will vary by place. The use of data for continuous improvement is a critical pillar of Strive Together’s collective impact framework. Most sites interviewed have been able to access public data on the state level. Specific student-level data, however, has often been more challenging to access, often for privacy and confidentiality issues. Strong relationships with public sector officials can be critical here for gaining access, depending on the local context. In several sites, for example, the city government has a minimal role in collecting or holding student-level data, a role held by School Districts. In these places, superintendents can provide the institutional support needed to access the data. On the flip side, cities with mayoral control over schools will mainly need the Mayor’s buy-in.
To soften political pressure, community members should be strategically engaged. Collective impact partnerships are often caught between an appetite for victory and an impatience for results. When local government actors are already closely engaged in the partnerships, they often recognize and understand that the collective impact process is a long-term one. In these cases, greater pressure to see results comes from community members themselves. Cities interviewed approached this tension in a couple of ways – from educating the public on the vocabulary of collective impact to involving parents in the process to manage their expectations. Many partnerships also identified the importance of celebrating and widely sharing both small and large wins more frequently. These tactics help maintain momentum and support for the work, both internally among the partnership and externally with community members.
As collective impact partnerships evolve over time, so will the role of local government. As collective impact partnerships evolve, so will the role of different government stakeholders. For example: a mayor’s office may incubate a partnership within the city government at the onset. But once the partnership matures and becomes an independent organization, the leadership role of the mayor’s office may have to transform accordingly. One partnership in particular saw the need to move away from being housed in the Mayor’s Office to a community foundation for long term sustainability past administration turnover. Collective impact partnerships face different needs in their evolution and the public sector must adjust accordingly.
Public sector engagement in collective impact efforts is one essential element to advancing their work and impact. We hope that these early lessons will begin a conversation about how to support fruitful and productive engagement of public sector leaders in collective impact partnerships across the country.