Shared Services: Core Skills for Collaboration

“Identifying Best Practices for Collaboration”
by Lisa Perez, Ph.D., and Jason Jaber, M.A.
Organizational Effectiveness Research Groupcooperation
Minnesota State University, Mankato

For many community leaders in rural areas, collaboration is starting to look like the only way to beat the poor economies of scale that create difficulties for local governments. When it comes to providing services to residents, the small populations and large distances often increase the cost of providing virtually any kind of service.

In a recent study done for the Center for Rural Policy & Development, researchers from the Organization Effectiveness Research Group at Minnesota State University Mankato looked at a handful of successful collaborations (and one failed one) to get a better understanding of just why these joint projects worked. In each of the cases, units of government and even a private service provider, joined forces to come up with ways to provide critically important services in a better way for a better price.

Researchers met with four focus groups around Minnesota consisting of individuals who played key roles in the planning and development of the successful shared services agreement in their communities. The participants in these focus groups believed that to continue to provide quality services to their residents, rural communities will increasingly be pursuing cost-saving ideas. 

  • Brainerd IT Collaborative:  Providing IT services to the Brainerd area.
  • Kandiyohi/Big Stone Dispatch Collaborative: A collaboration to allow Kandiyohi County to provide 911 dispatch services for Big Stone County. Unusual in that Kandiyohi and Big Stone are not contiguous.
  • Prime West County-Based Purchasing Collaborative:  Over a dozen counties joined together to purchase health care coverage for individuals qualifying for public benefits.
  • Todd County & Todd County Soil and Water Conservation District Collaborative:  A merger between Todd County government planning, zoning, and GIS services and the Todd County SWCD.

 An additional interview was conducted with an individual involved in a group of several counties exploring the possibility of a shared services agreement in human services administration. This collaboration, ultimately, did not come together. The individual interviewed offers some insight into why.  

There were roadblocks in the collaboration process: justifying the cost vs. the benefit; human factors like territoriality, trust, power struggles, and fears about job loss; and personal risks to credibility and community standing. The successful groups found, though, that if they took on a handful of common-sense practices, they could work their way through the difficulties.

Three key principles emerged from the interviews:

• Communication, trust, and relationships are critical. These three essentials were entwined throughout the successful projects and each was dependent on the others.

• Collaborators needed to communicate a vision that highlights the project’s contribution to the greater good of the community. With the vision clearly in sight, stakeholders were less likely to become mired in turf wars, more willing to make sacrifices, and more able to earn the trust of others in the group.

• A final key theme was the importance of patience and persistence. Very little about the process of establishing these agreements was easy. Patience and persistence helped to overcome initial community skepticism and the real concerns some had about how the project might affect their own futures. 

 Click here to read the full report, including notes from the focus groups conversations.