Peter Shergold | CSI blog

I was lucky enough last month to visit Canada as a guest of Human Resources and Skills Development Canada although, unfortunately, not quite lucky enough to go skiing.  So, instead of Whistler, Big White and Lake Louise, my itinerary incorporated Vancouver, Victoria, Toronto and Ottawa.

The trip was centred around the promotion of social innovation.  It turned out to be a genuine ‘thought holiday’.  I have returned energised.  A full account can be found at “Postcard from Canada”.

In Vancouver, British Colombia (BC) I had the opportunity to deliver a public lecture to a well-informed and engaged audience, on the potential of cross-sectoral collaboration to catalyse creative approaches to the production of public good.

I took as my text for the evening one of the key thematic motifs from the discussion paper, Together:  Respecting our Future.  The document has been developed by the BC Advisory Council on Social Entrepreneurship.   It reflects on the scale of the task at hand: 

“The social, economic and environmental challenges that we face are shared problems that require shared solutions … we know all this, but working together is still difficult.  Our sectors and systems are not currently organised to support collaboration and collective action.  Our three main sectors – public, private and not-for-profit – often function in isolation and operate with different sets of rules and practices.”

In Canada as in Australia.  Why, I reflected, is it so difficult?  What is needed for change?  How, in particular, can professional public services and community-based organisations work together in pursuit of public and social innovation?

In both countries the traditional methodology of government, based on consultation and submission, is clearly proving inadequate.  So, very often, is the advocacy of community organisations.  Both founder on the rocks of asymmetric political power.  Too often political outcomes are debated and negotiated between those on the ‘inside’ and the ‘outside’ of democratic governance.  Opportunities to work together as equals on solving the wicked problems of society remain rare.

In structuring my ideas for the evening I came to the conclusion that there were five new ways in which greater connectedness could be built.  These seem to me the essential ingredients of ‘partnership’.

First, the delivery of government programs (particularly human services) needs to empower the community organisations that are contracted to deliver them.  Bureaucratic red-tape needs to be reduced to the minimum required for public accountability purposes.  Reporting needs to focus on performance not compliance.   There should be no risk-averse micro-management of outsourced providers.  Rather organisations need to be appropriately funded for the services they deliver and actively encouraged to be innovative in taking new approaches to the implementation of government policies.

Second, the design of government programs needs to incorporate the front-line experience of community organisations.  Tendering is important.  Public services generally do it with integrity and probity.  Even more important, however, is engaging outsourced deliverers in framing the administrative guidelines under which they will deliver the program. 

Similarly, citizens should be encouraged to take responsibility for the budget management of the government support that they require.   A number of jurisdictions, led by Western Australia, are enabling people with a disability to organise and purchase the ‘self-directed’ services they need to live a full life.  Such opportunities to ‘co-produce’ government can be extended to other individuals (e.g. those struggling with mental ill-health) and tailored to the needs of communities (e.g. remote Aboriginal settlements).

Third, the funding of social innovation needs to be facilitated by government.  Public funding and philanthropy will never be sufficient.  Government can play a major role in helping to harness private capital for social impact and, by doing so, drive public innovation.  Recent moves by Australian governments to provide capital start-up funding to mission-driven social enterprises, to support community development financial institutions as intermediaries and to encourage social benefit bonds based on public policy outcomes suggest a willingness to trail new approaches.

Fourth, the full benefits of public policy and social enterprise need to be audited and measured.  Too often government evaluations of programs is narrowly conceived.  If governments are to be persuaded that public funding is investment rather than expenditure, the benefits of intervention need to be articulated and assessed.

Fifth, and underpinning these criteria, governments and public services need to take a new approach to doing.  A focus on ‘customer service’ needs to be accompanied by a commitment to citizen engagement.  Collaboration needs to be more than a statement of principles.  The world of wiki and crowd-sourcing can harness social media to engage civil society in framing policy and rewriting legislation.  Cross-sectoral ‘design laboratories’ can drive innovation from the ‘outside’ but it is equally important to develop collaborative mechanisms on the ‘inside’ of the public service.  I think the Partnership Forum that I chair in Western Australia represents one effective approach:  but so, too, is the establishment of the Not-for-Profit Reform Council at the Commonwealth level.

The podcast of my speech will soon be available on line, courtesy of ISIS at the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia. A blog on the lecture by one attendee, Susan Brinton, is now available.

In the meantime I welcome your views on how to improve and sustain collaboration between the public, private and community sectors.  I’m pretty sure I understand the problems but far from satisfied that I know the answers.  I’d appreciate your views.

Peter Shergold is the Macquarie Group Foundation Professor at the Centre for Social Impact (CSI) at UNSW. This blog post first appeared on the CSI blog.