Across the country, state-run agencies create programs and resources to advance their missions — whether those are public health, higher education, child care, transportation or something else. Their goals typically center on supporting the health, happiness, prosperity and well-being of their states and residents.
During this process, clarity of purpose and collaboration are essential, as they seek to impact the same audiences from issue to issue: their states’ residents. However, cross-collaboration between departments can be elusive. It is inefficient and frustrating when the actions of one department or agency greatly impact the others. The solution comes in working to advance shared objectives across departments and programs, helping to achieve greater collective impact.
Colorado’s Department of Human Services (CDHS) and Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) are collaborating on a public health behavior change campaign that seeks to address the upstream factors that influence young people’s decisions to engage in healthy behaviors. The effort focuses on building stronger relationships among youth and between youth, their parents, and other adults in the community.
The campaign is a preventive approach to achieve better health and greater well-being for young people, such as reducing the use of vape, marijuana and other substances, as well as improving the mental health of young people. Both agencies are responsible for addressing these issues but in different ways. It’s a unique approach to affecting change and an extraordinary undertaking for these two departments, which are pooling their communications resources and working together to influence multiple health outcomes.
Our involvement centered on turning the shared vision and goals into messages that would effectively reach Colorado’s young people and the adults in their lives to encourage more connected relationships. Bringing two departments together to create a shared impact is not without its challenges, as each has its own objectives, culture and decision-making process.
CDPHE and CDHS used the following strategies to create a smooth process that helped to launch one of the most ambitious intra-agency public health campaigns in our state’s history, called Forward Together.
1. Be clear on roles and expectations.
We worked with both departments to identify the decision-makers who would oversee collecting feedback and providing clear direction on the project. We also created a “North Star” document to guide the project. While the document itself helps keep everyone pointed in the same direction, providing great value throughout the project, the process of creating the document provided the greatest value.
Creating a North Star document forces conversations through which teams get buy-in and agreement on project goals, guiding principles for how they will work together, and decision-making. It provides a focused effort where teams can practice working together before embarking on a full-blown campaign effort with many moving parts.
CDPHE and CDHS agreed on a “fist to five” voting structure to share feedback as a group on a proposal — with a fist signaling “no,” one finger signaling “I don’t love the idea but can support it,” up to five fingers, which signals enthusiastic support to the rest of the group. This was a helpful system for the project because it required out-of-the-box strategic thinking for this unconventional campaign.
2. Be patient, empathetic and understanding.
Collaborating on a successful project requires trust in the whole team to be successful. To build that trust, those involved have to take the extra time needed to overcommunicate, build relationships with others and gather feedback. Along the way, people will need to pause, regroup and reset to ensure everyone is informed at every step. This is time-intensive work but worth it in the long run to prioritize these facets of a partnership.
Both CDPHE and CDHS had to sunset smaller social behavior change campaigns to redirect their resources into this larger project. That meant engaging and communicating with a variety of stakeholders and funders around various issues. These types of decisions can be difficult to make, which is why patience and grace from one another are critical to the project’s success. It was incredible to observe the CDPHE and CDHS teams commit to letting go of projects that they were personally invested in and gave years of effort to with the hope and belief that this innovative new campaign would serve to better the lives of Colorado’s youth.
3. Be willing to openly share resources.
Cross-departmental collaboration is mutually beneficial. Instead of two or more departments investing limited resources into duplicative work — including separate media vendors, audience research, implementation, and campaign tracking and analytics — it can all be funneled into one communication campaign to save time and money.
The National Association of State Budget Officers’ recent analysis found that state spending has increased across the board, but there was an overall decrease in general fund revenue for the first time since the Great Recession. With shrinking budgets and allocation of resources going to the ongoing pandemic and states’ recovery efforts, cross-departmental collaboration will not only be advantageous but a necessity through 2021 (and likely beyond).
CDPHE’s Prevention Services Division Communications Director Abigail Kesner put it in perfectly simple terms: “This new approach will allow us to do our work more efficiently and effectively, resulting in improved health and well-being for the people of Colorado.”
Take it from Colorado: Competition may make you stronger, but collaboration makes you better.
Susan Morrisey is president and chief executive officer at Denver-based behavior change agency SE2 a collective of creatives, challengers, and change-makers on a mission to make an impact at the heart of today’s most important issues.