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Many inter-agency collaborations are too fragile to make adjustments mid-course

September 19, 2019


True inter-agency collaboration is so central to projects like SB93 but is so truly difficult to achieve. Grand visions of system change may emerge when different ASD stakeholders gather in day-long retreats to imagine better outcomes. These often  stand in stark contrast to the day-to-day realities of the agencies these stakeholders typically represent.  Each agency might have limited personnel experienced in program development, limited resources to spare, limited time to demonstrate results, and a limited appetite to revisit established policies... the list goes on!

Barring a strong history of trust and collaboration across participating agencies, these realities often result in a network that is in fact very fragile. Under these circumstances, an agency dissatisfied with the overall plan or progress, or questioning the commitment of another key agency, is unlikely to raise such concerns openly.  Collaborations are more akin to a marriage of convenience than a strong and lasting relationship. Like a marriage of convenience, partners might just stop doing anything together - they may not even bother trying to have a meaningful conversation - instead of working through their disagreements! Meetings might continue for a time, but with key stakeholders sitting quietly, or sending a surrogate with no authority in their stead. The entire network grinds to a complete halt, without a sound. Anyone who asks the difficult questions about the pace of progress risks being sidelined because they are "not a team player".  And advocates who ask these questions must thread a needle with a rope: if you are too polite, nothing changes, and your community becomes more frustrated; if you are perceived as critical or ignorant, you risk becoming a stakeholder to be placated, instead of an equal partner to be taken seriously.

The symptoms of a healthy or a unhealthy collaborative network are too complex and too important to try to summarize here. For purposes of this essay, we can focus on one possible symptom: the polite but deafening silence likely when progress is problematic.  Because key stakeholders might be reluctant to speak, we can only speculate about what might have led to SB93's silence. What makes this likely to occur, especially in a small state like Delaware?

It is important to recognize that the decision by any one agency to join forces in network initiatives like those funded through SB93 itself requires important investments by that agency... commitments of time, other resources, future planning to tie the agency's activities to those of the network, and so on. And of course the commitment to a network is an investment of reputation: an agency's press release announcing their participation in the launch of a multi-agency initiative can stake the agency's own credibility to the fate of the network. Fortunately, the opportunities created through collaboration far exceed the risks, as long as the agencies are not significantly under-resourced, and, like in a solid marriage, commit to work through the disagreements and stick together through the hard times.

But there are other clear risks to members who raise questions about a collaborative.  For agencies that might be directly funded through a network, questions about progress can directly threaten their bottom line. The credibility of the individuals or agencies that advocated for funding is also at risk (for SB93, that would include state legislators who sponsored the bill).  Questions surrounding progress not only jeopardize an agency's or legislator's current credibility and funding, they can cast a long shadow over all related future proposals.  These risks are magnified in a small state like Delaware, where there may well be only one agency within a given sector (e.g., one major university, hospital, and so on) with the capacity to help move a network forward.  In these cases, the loss of one partner can be disastrous.   Given all of these factors, it is a miracle that anyone in Delaware would even think to raise questions or concerns about progress!!



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