Collaboration in a crisis

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Part of Leading through Covid-19

Leading through Covid-19

Since at least the 1960s, policy-makers in high-income countries have struggled to improve education outcomes in deprived communities. In the United States, foundations have poured billions into education projects with limited impact. Yet there are occasional, dramatic successes. In the mid-2000s, the Strive Partnership in Cincinnati brought together schools, universities, local government and the voluntary sector to get more students into higher education. Rather than focusing on one problem, say improving teaching in schools, they combined forces to improve the entire education pathway from ‘cradle to career’. By the early 2010s, enrolment in higher education was up by more than 10 per cent.

There are common features to knotty social problems such as improving education, reducing rough sleeping, tackling obesity and, as is becoming clear, the current public health crisis. One is the number of organisations whose actions contribute to success or failure. Another is the interconnections between different parts in the chain. Getting a deprived child through school to university and a career is like carrying a bucket of water over the Himalayas. So many separate things need to go right. One slip is enough to bring the endeavour crashing down.

During the initial phases of the UK’s response to Covid-19, the focus was on emptying hospitals, expanding intensive care units and purchasing ventilators. However, it quickly became clear that what happens in care homes, supermarkets, public transport, schools and households is just as important as what happens in hospitals. It also became clear that each group depends on others to achieve any measure of success. Hospitals cannot care for the sick without protective equipment and rapid testing. Care homes cannot protect residents without support from the health system. Nobody’s hard work will count for much if there are weak links in the chain.

Given these interconnections, it is critical for organisations to continue to put aside individual priorities in favour of a collective approach. While we are seeing this in local areas, it runs counter to the dominant model where organisations may focus more on what happens within their walls than on their contribution to the whole system. Rather than heroic efforts to deliver isolated projects, the focus switches to effective cross-sector co-ordination, aligning efforts, and contributing to mutually reinforcing activities.

Success stories like Strive tell us a lot about the principles for effective collective action. Leaders across organisations need to:

  • develop a shared understanding of the problem and a common agenda for addressing it
  • focus on broad rather than narrow measures of success that encourage joint rather than siloed working
  • invest in regular communication between key partners to share information and address problems, despite the pressures organisations are working under
  • put aside formal or informal hierarchies and give weight to each organisation or group’s perspectives and concerns
  • apply the guiding principles of altruism and reciprocity: how can we use our resources to support our partners in delivering their parts of our shared agenda?

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This article draws on theory and research on collective action to address adaptive problems in complex systems. It relies particularly on John Kanier, Mark Kramer and others’ work on Leading boldlyStrategic philanthropy and Collective impact. Other researchers including Louise Comfort and Lee Miller have highlighted the relevance of these concepts to disaster management.

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