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Understanding New Models

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In the last decade, countries all over the globe have sought to deliver public services through new working relationships among governments and private and nonprofit organizations. The defining characteristic of these collaborations is the voluntary combination of separate organizations into a coherent service delivery system supported by advanced IT. The rapid evolution of these technologies has created important new opportunities for governments to redesign services through collaboration.

A two-year project carried out by an international network of field researchers in the U.S., Canada, and Europe (Table 1) is summa- rized here. The teams are con- ducting case studies in their respective countries using a con- sistent method of data collection and analysis. The goal is to understand what fundamental elements of this worldwide phe- nomenon transcend cultural and national boundaries. For each case, the researchers review for- mal and informal documenta- tion and interview 8–12 individuals who represent the various partners and the customers of their services. The interviews are taped, and the notes are transcribed, coded, and analyzed according to a standard scheme that reflects a preliminary model of the collaboration process.

We define collaboration as: "A reciprocal and voluntary agree- ment between two or more dis- tinct public sector agencies, or between public and private or nonprofit entities, to deliver gov- ernment services." In general, these relationships involve a for- mal agreement about roles and responsibilities. The participating organizations share a common objective aimed at the delivery of a public service. They also share tangible and intangible risks, benefits, and resources.

The cases themselves represent a wide variety of public service domains including tax process- ing, workers compensation insurance, business start-ups, tourist information, and portal-type Internet services for public access to government. (See Table 2 for a representative selection). They encompass collaborations entirely within the public sector, as well as between government and private or nonprofit organizations. A few cross all three sectoral boundaries.

During the first year the research team completed the case study interviews and identified preliminary themes that appear to cut across the different case types and national boundaries. While more analysis is needed, we offer this first look at the emerging themes:

Table 1. Research partners.
Center for Technology in Government, University at Albany/SUNY
University of Maryland Baltimore County
Indiana University
Le Centre Francophone d'Informatisation des Organisations (CEFRIO)
University of Quebec at Montreal
University of New Brunswick cole des Hautes Études Commerciales École Polytechnique de Montréal
École Nationale d'Administration Publique
École des Hautes Études Commerciales
École Polytechnique de Montréal
Centre Interfacultaire Technology Assessment, Belgium University of Bremen, Germany
University of Bremen, Germany

Table 2. Selected cases.
NYS Geographic Information System Coordination Program.
Data sharing and development of expertise
Access Indiana
Public access to state government information and transactions
IRS e-file
Filing of personal income tax returns
Public access to federal government information
Casdastre Quebec
Real property tax mapping
E-Commerce for Occupational Health and Safety Claims
Claims processing for workers compensation
Quebec tourist information and transactions portal
Service Ontario Self-Service Kiosks
Network of kiosks allowing renewal of driving licenses and Social Security cards
One-Stop Business Registration
Unique kiosk allowing electronic filing of all forms required to open a new business
Bremen On-Line
Public access to city information and transactions
Job offers portal

Each collaboration rests on an understood (but often tacit) working philosophy. Collaboration has many meanings and different projects operate on dif- ferent working assumptions. The underlying norms of each project shape how key roles and func- tions (such as leadership) are assigned and conducted. For many, the underlying normative structure reflects the historical evolution of the project. Some grew out of a grassroots commu- nity of interest while others started with a high-level man- date. As a consequence, the cases exhibit a wide range of work styles and working situations ranging from highly structured to quite informal. For some, equality is important, in others consensus among unequal partners drives decisions. Hierarchy remains a strong philos- ophy among others.

Collaborative relationships are evolving and dynamic. Each collaboration offers continuous opportunities for feedback and learning. They often employ trial-and-error experimentation, the outcomes of which strongly influence the growth of trust among the participants. In addition, existing and potential participants form and amend their perceptions of the initiative based on their experi- ences and observations. Roles and responsibilities shift in different stages of the life cycle of a project. In many instances, observations of early performance strongly affect later actions, perceptions, and results.

Data-intensive collaborations face issues of data ownership. In all of these collaborations, data is treated as a valuable asset. As a consequence, the col- laborators are beginning to face issues about the data ownership rights of the private partners, the steward- ship responsibilities of multiple public partners, and the basic question of whether anyone can actually "own" government information.

Multi-organizational collaborations need an institutional framework. Because these initiatives stretch across the boundaries of distinct organizations, they need to establish a new kind of institutional legitimacy. Most often, legitimacy begins with a basis in law or regulation. This is commonly reinforced by the sponsorship of a recognized authority or by for- mal relationships with key external stakeholders. This formal institutional framework helps these dynamic initiatives weather political transitions and changes in key players. The formal structure also acts as the con- text for a rich array of complex, informal relation- ships. These informal relationships are the usual means for getting work done. They spur experimen- tation and creativity, and, for mature projects, are usually robust enough to resolve most problems.

Technology choices affect participation and results. Technology tools and infrastructure are important to project performance and IT is generally well-managed by the collaborators. Technology choices also have consistently important effects on the participants and the results. The nature, cost, and cost distribution of the technologies strongly affect partic- ipation due to factors such as availability, affordabil- ity, and adaptability to different operating environments. Service performance and communica- tion within the collaboration are strongly shaped by the capabilities of the chosen technical tools. More- over, the ability of the collaboration to evolve to meet changing needs is significantly shaped by the flexibility of the tools.

Sharon S. Dawes is an associate professor of public administration and policy and the director of the Center for Technology in Government at the University at Albany/SUNY, New York.

Lise Préfontaine is a professor of management technology and the director of Project Management Graduate Programs at the University of Quebec at Montreal, Canada.

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