By Otis White.

I’m fond of saying that there are no silver bullets for cities but there are some bronze ones.

Here’s a bronze bullet: a healthy cooperation among governments. City councils sitting down with school boards. County governments managing projects with cities. Cities contracting with one another for services. State legislators working with mayors, school superintendents, and county commissioners on legislative strategies. That sort of thing.

The benefits of healthy cooperation are so obvious–lower costs, greater effectiveness, public approval–that it makes you wonder why it’s so rare. My theory: It’s because many leaders do not know how to create the conditions needed for collaboration. And because the conditions don’t exist, neither does the collaboration.

I’m going to set out four things that I think must precede collaboration, but first, a definition. Collaboration is cooperation by interests that don’t have to cooperate. That is, they could go it alone but choose to work together because they see clear benefits or because cooperation is, for some reason, expected. Often collaborators are organizations of equal or nearly equal size. To be a true collaboration, it can’t be an easy, one-off act, it has to be a sustained set of activities. (If I do something for you that’s unexpected and nice, I’m not collaborating. I’m doing you a favor.) And, again, it’s voluntary. If the cooperation is forced by an outside interest, it’s not collaboration; it’s compulsion.

The reason collaboration is so rare is that it requires us to think about things in different ways, and that’s hard. First, we’re not all that good at calculating the benefits of things that don’t exist, such as how things might be if we worked together. Second, we’re suspicious of interests that might be considered rivals. How can we be sure we won’t be taken advantage of? Finally, there’s inertia. If something seems to be working as it is, why change . . . especially if the change involves time or money?

To collaborate, then, requires an act of will. In local government, it has to be initiated by someone who truly wants to collaborate and sees the value of community institutions and governments working together. It takes, in other words, a leader. But it need not be a top leader. It can as easily be a city council member as a mayor, a commissioner as well as a county administrator, a school board member as well as the superintendent. What it requires is diligence and a sense of how one thing leads to another.

And that involves seeing collaboration as a process that depends on three things happening in sequence and then connecting with a fourth element. The sequence is understanding, trust, and transparency. I’ll go through them in reverse order:

  • Transparency is the key ingredient. You can’t have healthy collaborations if one of the parties feels it may be taken advantage of. So how can you guard against this? By being as open as possible. If your city is supplying a service to others, you have to be open about your costs and revenues. If the city is working with the school system on a joint project, it has to open its books. If the legislative delegation is meeting with local governments, legislators have to be honest about what they can accomplish, and the localities have to be honest about what they need most and what they can contribute to the cause.
  • But no one wants to be the first to lay his cards on the table. So in order to have transparency, you must have trust, the feeling that you know the person or organization you’re dealing with and that your openness won’t be used against you. Trust, then, precedes transparency.
  • And what precedes trust is understanding. Understanding takes time. It doesn’t come from a single meeting, it comes from a number of encounters, often in different settings. There’s a reason so many business people play golf. It allows them to size up potential partners and vendors outside of the office. As much as a pastime, then, golf is a vetting process. Your vetting process might include golf, but it could just as easily involve lunches, cocktail parties, or baseball outings.

So think about this in sequence: First, you seek to know those who might be potential collaborators and become known by them. Those understandings allow you to build trust. And trust opens the door to transparency, which is needed for collaboration.

But these things only make collaboration possible. Collaborations don’t actually happen until there’s a fourth element, which is the recognition of mutual interest. This involves someone spotting an opportunity for collaboration, calculating its benefits to all, and persuading others to give it a try.

Here’s the best part of seeing collaboration as a process: Anyone with standing in an institution can start it. If we’re talking about governments collaborating, that means any elected official or relatively well-placed appointed official. All it takes to begin the process is seeing a potential partner and picking up the phone.

Once you do so, don’t be in a hurry; understanding, trust, and transparency take a while. Often there are bruised feelings caused by years of government officials pointing fingers at each other. Be patient, don’t take things personally (when you start talking with your counterparts in other governments, be prepared for an earful about transgressions past and present), and try to be a voice for understanding on both sides. That is, explain your government to potential partners as calmly and objectively as possible, and be quick to speak up for other governments among your own colleagues. Nothing builds trust as quickly as the feeling that somebody over there understands us.

But what about that fourth element, the recognition of mutual interest? How do you prepare for that? Basically, you just keep your eyes open. As you build understanding, trust, and the willingness to be open, the opportunities for cooperation will present themselves. Some may offer great potential benefits, others will have only modest benefits. A good strategy may be to start with some modest collaborations and build toward the big ones, deepening understanding, trust, and transparency along the way.

It can be a long journey, so it may help to keep in mind how some unlikely collaborations came together in the past. Look around. There may be some great examples in your city. If you can’t find one, you can always look back to 1787, when one of the world’s most unlikely collaborations began. It started in Philadelphia that summer, as a group representing 13 bickering governments produced a document beginning with these words: “We the people of the United States . . .”