Stop, Collaborate and Listen: EfficientGovNetwork Regional Collaboration Conference

On Thursday 13 October 2011, I used a vacation day to attend the EfficientGovNetwork Regional Collaboration Conference on behalf of the Cleveland Coalition/Transparency Action Plan Summit. I met up with Pepper Pike councilwoman Jill Miller Zimon and we carpooled down to Akron. Jill was there on behalf of The Civic Commons; they are helping with outreach/education for #EGNetwork.

This conference was designed to help local governments learn how they can work together to save money. If you need more background or context, click the links. A bit of note transcription with elisions and partially polished spots is what you get next, with a bit of commentary at the end.

Notes

Brad Whitehead from the Fund for Our Economic Future had the opening remarks. He said that the Fund’s purpose for sponsoring this conference is to help the economic health of the region. His main points were:

  1. Regional Government collaboration is important;
  2. Successes will be cumulative (no such thing as a big fix), and;
  3. It’s going to be hard work.

He mentioned that the combined economic power of our governments is around $20 billion, which translates to 10% of the region’s total economy. He conceded that this kind of collaboration & efficiency is harder for governments to accomplish than it is for businesses, and mentioned that it takes a combination of will and skill to be successful in these types of endeavors. He tasked the attendees to learn from each other.

His remarks were followed by a plenary session that provided the conference attendees with some food for thought regarding collaboration.

Tom Pascarella, the Administrative Director of Tallmadge, OH spoke about how his town dealt with a 10% drop in their revenue by consolidating their dispatchers with Stow and by joining the Regional Income Tax Authority. This saves them $880,000 per year.

John Hoornbeek, Director of Kent State’s Center for Public Administration and Public Policy told us about 4 good things and two challenges about regional collaboration.

  1. This conference and other conversations are good, as are;
  2. The applicability of collaboration across many different policy areas;
  3. The statewide attention the collaboration is garnering, and;
  4. The development of networks for collaboration.

This remains challenging, however, because collaboration is hard and the region isn’t well organized right now.

Ed Jerse, Regional Collaboration Director for Cuyahoga County, spoke about the ways to get communities to work together, specifically, by doing what we already know works. He spoke of the need to recognize that collaboration is an evolutionary process, and there will be dead ends as a result of this. He said that it is very easy to have an idea, but it is even easier to kill one, and that it takes courage to try new things in the face of that challenge.

Dave Kaminski from the Canton Regional Chamber of Commerce spoke briefly regarding the differences between government and business efficiency. His main points were that businesses think that government should be run like a business, but they need to understand that governments are required to provide services, even if they impact the bottom line. He got a lot of laughs with his on-point line that you can’t layoff  the 3rd grade.

The question & answer period resulted in the following points:

  1. Top-down pressure (or buy-in) is needed to force collaboration & good networking.
  2. It’s easier to collaborate if you’re not an elected official.
  3. Building trust before collaborating is imperative.
  4. Collaboration should be redefined to extend beyond working with “whomever looks like us.”
  5. Forming a collaboration habit makes further collaboration easier.

Breakout sessions followed. I attended the IT collaboration breakout. Much of the discussion centered around collaboration that had already been implemented and the lessons learned during the implementations. Let me know if you’d like further details. For the most part, the breakout sessions were somewhat inside baseball/hyper-specific, so I’m not going to say much about them here.

During lunch a fistfight broke out and while everyone was distracted at my table, I ate their desserts. Paying attention again? Good. Actually, during lunch Randy Cole from the State of Ohio spoke about the ways that the Kasich administration has made it easier for local governments to deal with the huge cuts in State funding. Afterwards, I got the sense from a few different people that it seemed more like a press conference than anything particularly useful for the government folks there. There’s a $45 million state fund for collaborative projects, but the committee isn’t fully assigned and they haven’t met yet, so there are no details regarding what would qualify for the funding. Mr. Cole mentioned the State Auditor’s Shared Services portal, which is something I hadn’t been previously aware of.

After lunch I divided my time between the Economic Development breakout and the Mergers breakout. In the economic development session I learned a bit about Joint Economic Development Districts (JEDDs) but, as important as Economic Development is, I still find it hard to keep attention focused when they get to the nitty-gritty. Dan Mamula spoke about his work with the Mahoning River Corridor Initiative and how they’ve managed to get communities 40+ miles apart to collaborate on economic development issues. I really enjoyed listening to him speak about the work they’ve done.

By the time I got to the Mergers breakout session, they were deep into the details about the proposed #burbmerger of 4 communities in the eastern part of Cuyahoga County. This seemed like the perfect example of what the theme for the day was: “Collaboration is Hard”.

Commentary

I thought this conference was a decent start. I think there needs to be a well-turned-out follow-up meeting (The follow-up meeting is on November 10th at 9am at the Richfield Town Hall) and some sort of technical support persons to wrangle and facilitate continuing conversation about collaboration between the collaborators. I didn’t get the sense that any of that was in place.

While there were many great examples of money-saving collaboration opportunities, most of them were fairly antiquated. I don’t know how many examples I heard about communities who had combined their dispatchers. Both of the IT initiatives that I heard about were a decade old, and it appears that there aren’t any particular leaders pushing for new and innovative collaboration opportunities. To reframe using the watch-phrases from the conference: “Collaboration is hard, so do what already works first.” I agree with this. However, it needed an addition that wasn’t present. The theme should have been more like: “Collaboration is hard. Do what already works first, but make sure you seek out other opportunities at the same time.”  As someone commented in the IT session, all of the collaboration mentioned was at the network layer, and nothing at the application layer.

Three final thoughts:

  • I felt that lunch would have been better if there hadn’t been a speaker. Quite a few fruitful networking discussions were cut short.
  • I thought there should have been a discussion or some speakers specifically addressing the reasons these communities haven’t felt the need to collaborate until now. The reason they are collaborating now is obvious. The money ran out. If they’d been collaborating beforehand, this pickle wouldn’t be such a big dill. (NO APOLOGIES).
  • I thought there should have been some sort of action item or umbrella goal for the participants to leave with other than the super vague “collaborate”. Is the Fund for our Economic Future going to act as a liaison or networking and technical support source for this initiative, or is the expectation that ad hoc collaborations will be the norm. I feel that if there is an expectation for regional collaboration, there should be a group wholly dedicated  to promoting that.

Someone at the conference said that collaboration isn’t something you can do part time. I completely agree and think that applies to transparency as well. These are the hot new paradigms, and if you can’t give them the effort they deserve, you shouldn’t try them at all.