Interagency collaboration: Always the best option?

Interagency collaboration: Always the best option?

14 November 2012

The time is ripe for an honest conversation about some of the potential drawbacks of collaboration in the community services sector.

Collaborating with other organisations is always good for service users, right? Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. While interagency collaboration makes sense in theory, in reality it can be a process fraught with difficulties. 

What is meant by “interagency collaboration”? For a start, it goes beyond the informal connections and networks that are common to most professional sectors. It’s a high intensity, high commitment relationship between two or more parties that results in the production of “something joined and new, from the interactions of people or organisations, their knowledge and resources” (ARACY, 2009). It often involves both parties modifying their practices and “meeting in the middle”.

The collaborative approach represents an acknowledgement of the limitations of a siloed service system. Agencies that work alone (i.e., in “silos”) often struggle to tackle significant, intractable problems or meet the needs of those with multiple and complex issues.

Researchers Huxam and Vangen (2004) use the phrase collaborative advantage to describe what effective collaborations can achieve—positive outcomes that would have been unachievable by either organisation in isolation. Unfortunately, they argue, what often occurs in practice is collaborative inertia, where “the output from a collaborative arrangement is negligible, the rate of output is extremely slow, or stories of pain and hard grind are integral to successes achieved” (p.30).

Some of the most common causes of collaborative inertia in the community services sector are:

  • Partnership fatigue: Managing collaborative relationships can be complex and time consuming. Particularly in large organisations, where different projects or initiatives may each involve collaborating partners, the practicalities of collaboration can be exhausting. They can lead to what some have called “partnership fatigue”.
  • Disagreement over common aims: Service organisations usually operate according to their own defined philosophy or set of aims. When two or more organisations work together, philosophical conflict can result. For instance, in the domestic violence sector, the police, women’s crisis services and health care professionals all have the interests of victims of domestic violence at heart. However, they often approach the issue of violence from different perspectives and with different assumptions as to causes and appropriate intervention strategies.
  • Power imbalances: Another problem in many collaborative arrangements are real or perceived power imbalances. These imbalances may be especially likely to occur if one organisation is larger than the other, or if only one agency controls the purse strings. Individuals or indeed whole organisations can be unwilling to cede power for the benefit of the collaborative partnership.
  • Lack of trust: Lack of trust between collaborating partners is commonly cited cause of collaborative inertia. It can be especially acute if organisations are mandated to work together (e.g., by government policy).

Interagency collaboration makes sense. It has the potential to increase service use and access, enhance the quality of service provision, and enable clients to “be heard” and to avoid “falling through the gaps”.

Nonetheless, we shouldn’t let this blind us to the considerable difficulties that are often involved. Collaboration is an intense way of working. It requires a high level of commitment. It can be highly challenging because it asks people to question and adapt their usual ways of working.

For the sake of the individuals and families our sector serves, it’s time to start an honest conversation, in both the practice and research communities, about how best to overcome collaborative inertia.

This article is an abridged version of a paper published in DVRCV Quarterly, Edition 3 – Spring/Summer 2012.

For more information on interagency collaboration from the Australian Institute of Family Studies, see – Interagency collaboration

References

  • Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth (ARACY) (2009), What is collaboration? (Fact Sheet 1). Retrieved from <www.aracy.org.au/cmsdocuments/Advancing%20Collaboration%20Practice%20Fact%20 Sheet%20one%20(dated)%20WEB.PDF>
  • Huxham, C & Vangen, S (2004), ‘Doing things collaboratively: Realizing the advantage or succumbing to inertia’, Organizational Dynamics, 33(2), pp.190–201.

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Authors

Rhys Price-Robertson

Rhys Price-Robertson is a PhD candidate at Monash University, where he is investigating the experiences of families affected by paternal mental illness. He previously worked as a Senior Research Officer at the Australian Institute of Family Studies.

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