Is Inter-Organizational Collaboration Always a Good Thing?

Article excerpt

The human service literature suggests that the concept and outcomes of inter-organizational collaboration are not well understood. Nonetheless, inter-organizational collaboration has emerged as a statement of direction for social welfare policy and professional practice. In light of an unclear understanding of collaboration, this analysis suggests the concept has powerful symbolic qualities, which perpetuates its continued use. While the general notion of collaboration is promising, human service administrators and stakeholders must couple critical thinking and action to clarify the meaning, intent, application, and outcomes of inter-organizational collaboration. This article raises the question as to whether the popularity of inter-organization collaboration is grounded in its proven efficacy as a means of achieving specific human service recipient outcomes or symbolism and ideology.

Keywords: collaboration, cooperation, symbolism, inter-organizational relations, social policy


Policy makers, administrators, and the general public are vigorously promoting collaboration between human service organizations in the United States (U.S.) (Sandfort, 1999). However, the concept and outcomes of collaboration are not well understood (Alter & Hage, 1993; Morrison, 1996; O'Looney, 1997; Reilly, 2001). The promotion of collaboration may have roots in its value as a symbol of rationality, efficiency, legitimacy, and social responsibility (Morrison, 1996; Reitan, 1998; Weiss, 1981). In light of an array of emerging accountability expectations which link funding streams to an organization's achievement of specific performance standards (Cooke, Reid, & Edwards, 1997; GPRA, 1993), an unconditional and overzealous embrace of inter-organizational collaboration may result in a marked reduction in the already limited resources for human service stakeholders and possibly harm the most vulnerable groups in the U.S. Therefore, agency administrators, service providers, and stakeholders have an ethical duty to clarify the intention, application, and outcomes of inter-organizational collaboration for human service recipients.

The Emergence of Collaboration as Social Welfare Policy

Most human services administrators, interventionists, and an array of public servants that Michael Lipsey (1980) refers to as "street-level bureaucrats" will attest that they commonly encounter the term "collaboration" in their work. Inter-organizational collaboration is promoted as a rational and effective process through which the public expectation for accountability, results, and outcomes from human service organizations can be met (Alaszewski & Harrision, 1988; Austin, 2000; Chrislip & Larson, 1994; Gray, 1989; Page, 2003).

Hassett and Austin (1997) and Neugeboren (1990) note that collaboration and coordination in human services reflects a history of reform efforts to achieve "service integration." Harbert, Finnegan, and Tyler (1997) maintain that "interagency service coordination, integration, or collaboration are general concepts used to describe a variety of efforts to reform the existing delivery system of categorical social services" (p. 84) informed by the Social Security Act.

The more recent emphasis on collaboration between organizations reflects a public concern that human service agencies are not effectively "working together" at the national, state, and local levels (Austin, 2000; Gottshall, 2002; Shorr, 1998; Waldfogel, 1997). The predominant form of inter-organizational relations are believed to contribute to a public human service system characterized as fragmented, inefficient, wasteful (Berger & Neuhaus, 1996; Leon, 1999; Osborne & Gaebler, 1993; Walter & Petr, 2000), and allows those in need to, at times, "fall through the cracks."

Responding to these concerns, legislative bodies and a growing number of public and private funding initiatives have developed mandates, which require human service agencies to engage in inter-organizational "collaborative efforts," "coordination of services," and "partnerships" (Bush, 2000; CAPTA PL 104-235, 108-36; Farmakopoulou, 2002; Harrison, Lynch, Rosander, & Borton, 1990; Mattessich & Monsey, 1992; Springer, et al. …