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March 2012 · Volume 94 · Number 2

Cover Story

Harnessing the Power of Community Collaborations

Use Seven Tools to Get Results

by Lyle Wray and Paul Epstein

A Midwestern county with approximately 400,000 residents was concerned about a high number of high school students dropping out. Members of the county board and staff joined local mayors and school superintendents over several working sessions with teachers, parents, and students to review the facts about who dropped out, explore likely strategies that would be successful in reducing dropout rates, and develop an action plan. Later, in regular meetings, the working group looked at data on dropouts and developed ways to further reduce dropouts, including reaching out to new partners in various communities to help with the task.

This real-life example won’t seem unusual to local government managers. It is hardly new for a manager to lead or be part of a process of partnering with residents and other stakeholders to respond to an important community challenge or aspiration—from reducing high school student dropouts, to increasing community safety, to reducing childhood obesity—and spearhead action toward results.

Many challenges faced by communities are complex and resist easy solutions. Across the nation, communities of all sizes are grappling with challenges that fit neither a single solution nor a single organization. Too often, we try to assign to a single organization the burden of developing and implementing solutions that are beyond its grasp alone. Making a single agency solely responsible for a complex, hot issue is often a sure-fire way to dissipate community energy or to unite community energy against that organization.

Local governments, of course, have been coming together for a long time to address important issues and get results. What is different today is that the traditional impulses to work together as a community can be strengthened by complementary tools that should make these efforts more successful.

Most of the tools themselves are not new, but they emerged from different disciplines and thus are rarely used together. In this article, they are arranged into a community results toolkit, which is intended to help managers pull together community collaborations and solve complex problems. The toolkit can also help assure that action plans become reality and produce measurable community improvements.

In a 2006 book, Results That Matter: Improving Communities by Engaging Citizens, Measuring Performance, and Getting Things Done, the authors of this article along with Paul Coates and David Swain identified ways to improve community governance through collaboration between residents and organizations. Collaborations bring more assets to address community issues than organizations working in isolation, with some of the most effective collaborations involving measurable results that the collaborators want to achieve.

In a 2011 article for the Stanford Social Innovation Review, authors John Kania and Mark Kramer used the term “collective impact” to refer to the commitment of a group of important actors from different sectors to a common agenda for solving a specific social problem. Successful collective action involves a common agenda, a common [performance] measurement, a continuous communication, and a mutually reinforcing action among the parties.

The bottom line in the authors’ experience is that successful change often comes from better cross-sector coordination rather than from isolated interventions of individual organizations.

The community results toolkit brings together these seven tools to help make community collaborations more manageable, more responsive to community needs, and more accountable to the community for results:

  • Robust engagement of residents as partners in multiple roles.
  • Causal diagrams to diagnose the problem.
  • Evidence-based practices.
  • Strategy maps.
  • Performance measurement of drivers and outcomes.
  • Detailed action plans keyed to strategy, performance, and partners.
  • Community results compacts.

1. Engaging Residents in Multiple Roles

Too often we think of residents only as stakeholders in an issue or customers of a service, and we forget that they can play other powerful roles as partners in community problem solving. You can channel their energy constructively by supporting their efforts in multiple roles. This idea has been explored in previous PM articles1 and in Results That Matter, which includes a quick guide to supporting citizens in multiple roles (Table 1).

Resident engagement should not stop with building consensus to address a problem; instead, it should be used throughout the problem-solving process, as Table 1 suggests. Potentially, residents can be involved in using any of the tools outlined in this article.

2. Causal Diagrams to Diagnose the Problem

Stakeholders often come to the problem-solving table with different definitions of an issue and with different solutions in mind. To become productive partners, it is important that they reach a common understanding of the problem.

They need to define the problem in a way that sorts the complexities into root causes of the problem and other causal drivers of desirable or undesirable results so they can find where they can best leverage improvement efforts. Fishbone diagramming from the field of quality improvement is a reliable causal diagramming tool, as in the child obesity example shown in Figure 1.

An effective fishbone diagram can be created in a group exercise that will strengthen collaboration by generating a common definition of the problem. Once a causal diagram is developed, partners then can identify which root causes and causal drivers are most actionable, to help them find practical solutions.

3. Evidenced-Based Practices to Get Results

Using evidence-based practices for problem solving increases the chance of success. Solutions offered from a variety of viewpoints can be put to the test of whether there has been research or practice-based evidence to show that they in fact do work. That can help a community partnership avoid wasting resources on fashionable but ineffective solutions.

For some issues, there are evidenced-based guides available. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for example, has developed “The Community Guide,” an online resource (www.thecommunityguide.org) used across the country by local public health departments and their community partners that describes practices that have been subject to research and have been found to be effective in addressing a wide range of community health issues.

There is also research to be tapped for evidence-based practices on youth and education issues among many other fields; see “Developmental Asset Tools,” on the website of the Search Institute at www.search-institute.org/assets. Searches of research in appropriate fields—perhaps guided by academic partners—can help identify potential tested solutions for the problem at hand.

Also, city and county managers can draw on such benchmarking with other jurisdictions as that promoted by ICMA’s Center for Performance Measurement to identify communities with better results on issues or services of concern and find out which practices they are using.

4. Strategy Maps to Structure the Community Response and Improve Communication among Partners

Complex community problems rarely lend themselves to a one-dimensional solution. After identifying evidenced-based practices, a community partnership has to view those practices through the lens of its own community to determine a combination of solutions that will be effective.

The partners need to consider driver relationships among the different community actions they are considering, so they will implement them in a way that some actions will drive the success of others, ultimately driving achievement of desired community outcomes. A strategy map is an excellent tool for mapping out these driver relationships. For an example of a strategy map, visit icma.org/osceolacounty.

Strategy maps don’t have to use balanced-scorecard perspectives. They do need to show driver relationships in the community’s improvement plans. A strategy map not only structures the community’s approach to a complex issue; it also is a powerful communication tool to help partners find their roles in the strategy, and it shows how their efforts relate to efforts of others. A map can be used to break down silos between existing partners and to help recruit more partners to the cause.

5. Performance Measurement of Drivers and Outcomes to Sharpen the Strategy

Once drivers and outcomes are identified, they can be used to develop performance measures that reflect those driver relationships and become an integral part of managing the strategy to improve outcomes. If you are looking to reduce childhood obesity, for example, you might track after-school recreational programs and improved school nutrition programs.


Epstein, P., P. Coates, and L. Wray, with D. Swain. Results that Matter: Improving Communities by Engaging Citizens, Measuring Performance, and Getting Things Done. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006.

Epstein, P., L. Wray, and C. Harding. “Citizens as Partners in Performance Management.” Public Management, November 2006.

Kania, J., and M. Kramer. “Collective Impact.” Stanford Social Innovation Review, Winter 2011.

Search Institute. “Developmental Asset Tools.” No date. www.search-institute.org/assets.

Sirgy, M. Joseph, Don Rahtz, and Dong-jin Lee, eds. Community Quality-of-Life Indicators: Best Cases. Social Indicators Research Series 22. Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2004.

Truckee Meadows Tomorrow. “Community collaborations.” No date. www.truckeemeadowstomorrow.org/community-collaborations.

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “The Community Guide: The Guide to Community Preventive Services: What Works to Promote Health.” No date. www.thecommunityguide.org.

Wray, L. D., and J. A. Hauer. “Best Practices Reviews for Local Government.” Public Management, January 1996.

Wray, L. D., and J. Hauer. “Performance Measurement to Achieve Quality of Life: Adding Value Through Citizens.” Public Management, August 1997.

6. Detailed Action Plans to Add Discipline to the Strategy and Partnership

The use of detailed action plans is certainly not new to managers. Most probably have their own favorite formats for detailing tasks, timelines, and responsibilities. Action plans will be stronger, however, and more likely to lead to desired community outcomes if they are linked to a well-focused strategy, targeted performance measures, and community partners.

A key issue for developing plans for collaborative action is deciding who should be on the action planning team. Teams working on developing and implementing action plans ideally should be composed of contributors who can provide content expertise, community connection, and general support for the overall process. Composing teams is an art and one that will vary depending upon the issue addressed and the community involved.

In theory, performance measures and targets should be developed first, and then action plans developed for specific initiatives to hit the targets. In reality, performance measures and targets that are developed before action plans are often best guesses. You need some idea of how you will improve performance before targeting improvement. So, although it helps to have some critical performance measures and baseline data identified first, most measures and targets are set while action plans are developed.

7. Community Results Compacts for Partner Accountability for Results

Community compacts were used in the early days of the United States to pull together local governments, community members, and civic groups around common principles and efforts. In the past 10 to 15 years, several organizations around the country have revived the idea of compacts, involving organizations from any sector that commit to achieving a desired community outcome.

They are community results compacts if they are tied to improvement in performance measures that are drivers of desired community outcomes. A pioneer in results-oriented compacts is the nonprofit Truckee Meadows Tomorrow (TMT), whose Quality of Life Compacts have involved organizations from the public, private, and nonprofit sectors in addressing a wide range of community challenges in the region of Washoe County and Reno, Nevada. These include increasing voter turnout, improving the natural environment, protecting open space, increasing parental involvement in K–12 education, and increasing affordable housing (www.truckeemeadowstomorrow.org/community-collaborations).

The Healthy Eating, Active Communities (HEAC) program offers a comprehensive approach to obesity prevention that is place based. HEAC works to prevent childhood obesity by changing the environments children inhabit so these environments encourage healthy choices.

To achieve lasting change, HEAC focuses on improving policies and institutional practices. To ensure changes that work on the ground, HEAC pursues these goals through fostering partnerships within local communities and through linking the local work to statewide and national efforts.

Six California communities have implemented the HEAC model—each community in its own way—with place-based change and multisector collaborative partnerships, including neighbors, schools, public health departments, and the medical community.

Community results compacts can be even more powerful if used in combination with several of the other tools in the community results toolkit.

There will be, for example, more community legitimacy to compacts, more organizations likely to join compacts, and compacts better-focused on achieving important community results if:

  • Residents and stakeholders are involved in identifying the issue to be addressed and outcomes to be achieved.
  • Multiple organizations and community members participate in causal diagramming, evidence gathering, strategy mapping, or action planning that lead to the compact.
  • Performance measures in the compact relate to performance measures of drivers and outcomes in a structured collaborative strategy to get results.
Online Learning

If you would like more information on community results compacts, consider the webconference that was held in December 2010 with Lyle Wray. More details on this webconference availability is at learning.icma.org

Connecting community results compacts with a collaborative strategy involving performance drivers and outcomes can be particularly powerful.

If two desired community outcomes, for example, are to reduce the number of days per year of unhealthy air quality and to reduce the carbon footprint of the region, then:

  • Government and private organizations with large fleets could sign a compact to increase the percentage of clean-burning alternative-fuel vehicles in their fleets, which Washoe County did in an early TMT compact.
  • Gas stations in the region could sign on to make cleaner-burning blends available to all customers.
  • Private developers could sign on to produce a percentage of housing and commercial space that meets LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards for sustainable buildings.

Each partner is individually accountable for improving results for the performance drivers it can most influence, and, collectively, all partners are mutually accountable for achieving the desired community outcomes.

Use the Seven Tools

In a time of fiscally constrained resources, it is critical to leverage community members as partners, to offer the best available knowledge on what works, and to develop and carry out action plans in communities to address a range of significant challenges. Putting together the seven tools described here offers the prospects of effective collaborations to achieve results around important common goals.


1 Public Management (PM) magazine articles include L. D. Wray and J. Hauer, “Performance Measurement to Achieve Quality of Life: Adding Value Through Citizens,” August 1997; and P. Epstein, L. Wray, and C. Harding, “Citizens as Partners in Performance Management,” November 2006.

Lyle Wray, Ph.D., is executive director, Capitol Region Council of Governments, Hartford, Connecticut (lyle.wray@gmail.com). Paul Epstein leads the Results That Matter Team (www.RTMteam.net), Epstein & Fass Associates, New York, New York (paul@RTMteam.net).

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