Seven key ingredients for effective collaboration

How university scholars and policy practitioners approach partnership for the public good

Faculty members at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy regularly engage in collective problem-solving — with other scholars, of course, but also with policymakers and practitioners all around the world.

The goal of these collaborations? Finding better solutions, and mutually beneficial outcomes, to real-world challenges that matter.

Documenting human rights abuses in nations just emerging from conflict. Identifying effective ways to improve youth outcomes. Resolving longstanding environmental standoffs. Improving policing strategies. The list of collaborations at this school — America’s first to offer a graduate degree for aspiring public servants — is long and growing.

While the individual objectives of these collaborations are likely to vary significantly from case to case, faculty members employ a number of key strategies throughout the process. Here, we share seven key strategies for developing effective partnerships for the public good.

1. Listening attentively.

JOY ROHDE, author of Armed with Expertise: The Militarization of American Social Research during the Cold War (Cornell University Press, 2013), has recently been appointed to a National Academies committee charged with surveying the state of social and behavioral sciences. The goal: Identifying advances that can contribute to national security.

The job will begin, says Rohde, with listening. “Instead of starting with our own work — what each committee member’s research shows, and what we think is important individually — we’ll focus on understanding the needs and interests of a range of scholarly communities and government practitioners.

2. Responding to the needs of partners.

With a $2.6 million grant from the John and Laura Arnold Foundation, SUSAN DYNARSKI, BRIAN JACOB, and ROBIN TEPPER JACOB launched the Youth Policy Lab last fall. The goal: To provide real-time technical support to organizations that work to improve outcomes for Michigan’s youth.

The impetus for the lab, says Tepper Jacob, was the team’s prior experience running large, randomized trials — similar to the pharmaceutical trials employed in the medical sciences — to measure the precise impact of targeted policy interventions. That research took years to design and complete, she says, but “the organizations we were serving needed to act much more quickly.”

3. Engaging diverse stakeholders.

In addition to teaching, Professor BARRY RABE chairs an EPA-assembled committee charged with breaking a decades-long stalemate over the devolution of water permitting authority from the federal government to individual states. To do so, Rabe is working with two-dozen diverse stakeholders, including state and tribal government leaders, with a broad range of views on the issue.

The ideal is for stakeholders to come together around one viable agreement, says Rabe, but you can’t always get there on complex issues. Instead, the final report will highlight majority opinions, as well as dissenting views. The goal: Informing practices now with key insights from diverse stakeholders, while documenting concerns that will warrant continued attention in the years ahead.

4. Mobilizing students.

ELISABETH GERBER, who regularly leads an applied policy seminar at U-M’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, often taps students to assist with policy-relevant research projects for community partners. Since 2010, Gerber has managed more than 50 such partnerships for federal agencies, local government leaders, not-for-profits, and more.

“I work with partner organizations to scope the project, and over the course of the semester I work with them to guide and supervise and mentor the students,” says Gerber. In the end, she says, both parties benefit. The goal: To serve real-world organizations while creating hands-on learning opportunities for aspiring professionals.

5. Acknowledging context.

As senior legal adviser to the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam), JOHN CIORCIARI has spent many years helping to preserve the testimonies of victims and perpetrators of the country’s genocidal Khmer Rouge regime. More recently, though, Ciorciari and his colleagues have begun to advise new documentation groups forming in Afghanistan, Syria, and other nations emerging from conflict.

While DC-Cam has shared technical lessons, helped mobilize funding, and advocated for policies that protect and promote the documentation process, says Ciorciari, they tend to favor multidirectional learning. The goal: Fostering locally-driven solutions that fit each country’s unique historical, political, and cultural context.

6. Looking to the past.

“If there’s a rule or practice that doesn’t seem to make sense, you have to do some work to find out how it became that way,” says acting U-M Provost PAUL COURANT, referring to policies, practices, and strategies that cause problems, or thwart solutions, far into the future.

DAVID THACHER’s investigations of law enforcement policies, including those employed by one of the most prominent landscape architects in the world to police infractions in America’s first public park, have benefited from just this type of historical lens. By looking at history, says Thacher, you get more than a point-in-time description of contemporary problems. The goal: To identify weaknesses, gaps, and other blind spots that evolved over time.

7. Looking to the future.

Last summer, BETSEY STEVENSON was tapped by the White House to facilitate a meeting with leaders from 25 companies, some of them competitors, who hoped to work together to advance inclusion and diversity initiatives. Stevenson was delighted to help consortium members craft their mission and identify shared goals.

“These companies realize [inclusive] practices aren’t just good for women or families,” wrote Stevenson on the 45th anniversary of Women’s Equality Day. “By helping them attract and retain top talent, they also make good business sense.” The goal: Identifying practices that reduce gender and racial pay gaps while supporting business growth far into the future.

This story, by Erin Spanier, appears in the spring 2017 edition of State & Hill, the magazine of the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy.