By Tiffany Ferguson.
It goes without saying that working with local government is not always easy. It can be confusing, mysterious, frustrating and full of fits and starts. Many of us know the challenges of partnering with local government well, whether we are working outside of government, or within it.
During a breakout session at The Integration Initiative Learning Communityconvening, members of Living Cities’ Public Sector Innovation team asked participants: “What are some questions you want to explore about working with the public sector?” The conversation quickly transitioned from proposing questions, to discussing shared experiences and common challenges, to rapid-fire idea sharing about tactics and lessons learned from their respective work in nine cities across the country. What came out of that fruitful discussion are seven key tactics for developing and maintaining effective partnerships with local government:
1. Get ahead of the political cycle or turnover: When an election is on the horizon, develop an outreach and engagement strategy months in advance. Educating candidates and newly elected officials is critical. Yes, it is time-consuming, but it should be non-negotiable. The smartest campaigners and grassroots organizers understand this tactic.
2. Locate allies at different levels inside of government: When dealing with changing political priorities, get to know those within government who have the power to be your ally after an administration changes. Remember, not everyone turns over. It’s critical to identify those who can continue to keep you in the loop as things shift on the inside. Exercising compassion with these allies is also important, as many times they too are navigating ambiguity and uncertainty about how the priorities may or may not change.
3. Seek out cross-sector allies: When trying to overcome competing interests between local government, non-profits and other key stakeholders the best tactic is to seek out others who are similarly motivated and build from there especially if they have access to the networks that seem most resistant to your work. There is no perfect solution to this one, since navigating the politics of multiple vested interests will always be a challenge for this work. However, alliances and coalitions that emerge can serve as tactical buffers.
4. Identify concrete shared messaging and appropriate messengers: It is critical to understand who is connected to whom and test a message that will move the shared result forward. One participant noted that their work around prosperity and jobs was more effective when the messaging included smaller children as the ‘workforce of tomorrow’ as opposed to high school aged youth.
5. Be clear and transparent about goals, metrics and progress: Partnership with anyone, government or not, is made difficult when interests are not disclosed, motives seem disingenuous, or commitment to the partnership feels like it waivers. This clarity will ensure that there is no room for others to misunderstand or misconstrue what you’re working towards.
6. Include community voices at the table: To make sure local government is held accountable; having a base-building strategy is also a good idea as it ensures you’ll have a community of supporter’s at-the-ready in case you need to drum up public support or pressure to maintain the integrity of your initiative.
7. Have data-sharing agreements and infrastructure: As one representative remarked, people often perceive that data-sharing is impossible, but there is room for creativity in what can be required in data-sharing agreements and MOUs for partnership or funding between your initiative and the local government. Don’t be afraid to ask for shared decision-making tables, as this means thinking strategically about the role each member representative can play and/or the resources they bring to bear. Partners who have discretionary funding and/or technology expertise can consider making the case for piloting a shared data infrastructure.
What is important about these tactics is that they strike the balance required of a critical friend or ally, which is often the role that those outside government play. Understanding how to engage with the public sector is critical to the success of any initiative intended to impact communities at scale. A new type of urban practice will require that those within and outside of local government are more intentional about building effective partnerships that can endure over the long-term to keep good work going.