This blog post is an excerpt from GovLoop’s research guide, “Fostering True Collaboration in Government
Increasingly complex demands and major sources of fiscal stress such as constrained budgets and slow tax revenue growth are affecting state and local governments. However, collaboration across state and local entities can cut costs, improve services and help agency leaders work more effectively. In particular, shared services arrangements and regional planning agencies allow state and local entities to take advantage of collaboration opportunities.
Take the Lone Star State, Texas, as an example. Contrary to its nickname, the state has fostered effective sharing of services among regional governmental entities to promote efficiency. The North Central Texas Council of Governments (NCTCOG) is a voluntary association of, by and for local governments. It was established to assist local governments in planning for common needs, cooperating for mutual benefit and promoting sound regional development.
In an interview with GovLoop, Monte Mercer, Deputy Executive Director at NCTCOG, discussed how the council has helped state and local governments collaborate and improve service delivery through shared services arrangements and regional coordination.
NCTCOG serves a 16-county region of North Central Texas, which is centered around the two urban centers of Dallas and Fort Worth. NCTCOG has more than 230 member governments including the 16 counties, numerous cities, school districts and special districts.
Although there are many differing opinions and experiences to manage in such collaborative partnerships, Mercer said that they yield benefits. “In the public sector, we all work for different councils, boards, commissions and have different responsibilities,” Mercer said. “However, when we bring these subject-matter experts together, we really have more in common than not, which leads to opportunities to learn from each other.”
Shared services help state and local entities identify common solutions and build stronger relationships across public-sector industries. Shared services arrangements promote cooperative opportunities as a way to avoid costs, improve service delivery or maintain services.
“With shared services, you get experts and leaders from various agencies who can contribute to the solution because they’ve been there before, maximizing program outcomes,” Mercer said. “Participation by these experts and leaders provides greater insight on who the service providers should be and what the services should look like.”
Often, shared services can take longer to organize than a program for an individual organization because there are more people, ideas and approvals involved. Still, shared services offer a large payoff for state and local governments when outcomes are successful.
For example, NCTCOG recently introduced its North Texas SHARE program, a new solution center designed to deliver a customer-focused marketplace to meet the needs of North Texas’s public-sector entities. The program is the direct outcome of successful shared services arrangements over the past decade. Local governments partnered to identify common needs in the North Texas area in order to combine volumes, standardize methodologies and develop scalable solutions through collaboration and cooperative purchasing efforts.
“However, forming collaborative partnerships and sharing services is not always a simple process,” Mercer said. It takes time, planning and coordination with stakeholders and subject-matter experts to ensure successful outcomes. Mercer offered three key success factors to other state and local agencies looking to explore cooperative purchasing opportunities and shared services initiatives:
- Don’t overreach. Focus on small steps and achievable outcomes first so that the collaboration efforts result in quick successes and keep the initiative moving forward. “Pilot programs can help you plan in stages and serve as a foundational launch point,” Mercer said. Agencies should plan carefully, listen to all members of the collaboration and take time in execution stages to make sure you’re achieving the desired outcomes.
- Explore all options. Take others’ experiences into consideration and make sure you’ve narrowed your project alternatives to the best option that works for everyone. “You don’t know what you don’t know,” Mercer said. “It’s important to explore every option and rule out what doesn’t work so you can get to the real issues.” At the same time, Mercer said not to be afraid to try new things and push the envelope a little. “If we’re not breaking a few eggs every now and then, then we may be doing what we’ve always done,” he said.
- Exercise patience. Don’t expect everything to go smoothly with the first program or project. “Just because the first attempt didn’t work doesn’t mean the next one won’t result in success,” Mercer said. He emphasized the importance of exercising patience and allowing individual agencies to voice concerns while having confidence in the ability to work together. “Be contemplative and reflective and take the counsel of others in various agencies.”
Ultimately, Mercer believes that regional and local collaboration offers tremendous benefits for government. “It’s such a great opportunity to learn from others and develop solutions,” Mercer said.
Collaboration is one of the most intellectually stimulating things I get to do. IT’s a privilege to take all the experiences I have and those of others to participate in finding common solutions to solve government challenges together and make our business better.”
As state and local government responsibilities become increasingly complex and demanding, leaders must constantly seek the best ways to provide services efficiently. Collaboration is the future of the public sector. Through partnerships and tactics like cooperative purchasing and shared services, agencies can share the costs, experience and knowledge needed to achieve desired outcomes.