Stop, Collaborate and Listen: EfficientGovNetwork Regional Collaboration Conference

Saturday, 15 October 2011

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.