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Location: Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Facilitating Contingent Cooperation: What are the mechanisms?

In my work, I keep bumping up against the same big issues time and again, including:

  • the difficulties people have in sustaining multi-stakeholder, cooperative initiatives for any length of time;
  • the difficulty in achieving horizontal coordination within any level of government (let alone between levels!) even with apparent political will and resources available;
  • the difficulty P3s have in achieving goals that may be more complex than simple vendor-supplier relationships (here in Canada, almost all relationships between government and the private or civic sectors have been redefined as ‘partnerships’ even when no partner relation exists); and
  • the huge gap between stakeholder positioning on issues and their willingness to resolve problems.

In all of these you will most likely recognize the thread of the collective action problem (also known as social traps, prisoners’ dilemma, etc.) – i.e. how to get people/organizations to act in their collective interest when their individual interest may suggest less fruitful actions or actions that are even collectively harmful. This collective action issue has come up again and again in my own work as I’ve explored how groups of stakeholders try to accomplish together what they could not do alone. I know that the starting place for cooperation is the “can’t do it alone” realization and that this should lead the participants to undergo some form of collective learning. I know that champions are essential, that trust building is necessary, and that ongoing assessment was important as well. Technology could be helpful but was not in itself sufficient. What I was missing, until recently, was a key that put all these pieces together.

The key seemed to appear in an interview I did with a regional development officer in Windsor, Ontario last winter who was a leader with a collaborative community portal initiative. The person indicated that they would not have taken on the leadership of a certain taskforce without knowing that others like him were doing similar tasks which would also benefit his organization. He knew the other prominent leaders were contributing from his involvement in the steering committee and from frequent conversations with the project facilitator.

I don’t know how many times I had heard a similar story before, but that time his comments connected to something Howard Rheingold said in Smart Mobs a few years back, about contingent cooperation and monitoring. Suddenly, many of the coordination activities I had observed in various partnerships and collaborations over the years (what most funders consider as overhead) made a lot more sense. These were all ways for the contingent co-operators to reaffirm their commitments by verifying the ongoing contributions of the other partners. In retrospect, when partnerships got into serious trust problems, it was because these tit-for-tat contributions could no longer be confirmed or they became unclear, a consequence of ineffective monitoring. (more thoughts on contingent cooperation on my blog)

One of the most puzzling and sometimes troubling things I’ve observed is seeing a group of dedicated, knowledgeable, well-meaning people get together for a specific purpose only to find in the end that they will not do the things they know need to be done. Now I can understand that this was not some sort of esoteric aberration of human nature but the mundane consequence of ineffective monitoring. As you yourselves have probably observed, good intent is never enough.

So I’ve been on a bit of a hunt of late for mechanisms that can help move groups beyond their well-meaningness into sustained collective action. I drafted a template of some things groups could do and posted to my website. The angle of contingent cooperation and its requirement for monitoring suggests that the tools/ techniques that are needed should increase information flow among the partners but in a trusted way.

This is a long winded way of getting around to asking -- has anyone thought to prepare or know of any kind of inventory for the mechanisms groups use to satisfy their contingent cooperation? I keep wondering if I’m forgetting about something. I’m talking about things like:

  • the use of facilitated meetings that involve joint activities like learning, reframing, or prioritizing;
  • the use of a partner coordinator/ facilitator/ trusted broker who constantly goes around talking to people;
  • the undertaking of joint research or assessment to identify and share the knowledge of benefits;
  • the use of online forums/ groups/ threaded discussions to share knowledge and expertise;
  • the use of social gatherings to strengthen trust;
  • the use of annual MOUs to define contributions and gauge progress;
  • the use of email newsletters for quick updates;
  • the use of media announcements to celebrate success and strengthen moral contracts; and
  • From one partnership I learned that they secured a group price discount on Billberry’s and then directed it to the mangers in their partner organizations to encourage them to comply in a more timely way with their partnership reporting needs.
  • Other creative ideas??

I know this may sound like pretty basic stuff but most practitioners are only vaguely aware of the information obligation imposed on them by cooperation. They know they have to do certain things with certain budgets and certain timeframes but they don’t know they need to keep telling everyone about their progress. And they are usually only marginally interested in what others are doing, until, of course, the trust starts to break down. Partnerships may do some information sharing in ad hoc ways in response to events, or even just out of politeness, but rarely by design from the outset. Nonetheless, information sharing is crucial to maintaining partner trust.

I feel that the more these types of mechanisms can become a credible part of a practitioner’s toolbox, the more likely it will be that they are seen as a central function of maintaining healthy partnerships and receive the resourcing they deserve. Also, the more they can be understood as integral parts of the job description for partner management, the more they’ll be used routinely.

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by Sam Rose at Social Synergy Wiki


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See journal article published Spring 2007 by Optimum Online: The Journal of Public Sector Management at

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