Working toward the Future: Why and How to Collaborate Effectively

Article excerpt

Author's Note: This document was developed under grant number SJI-99 N-039-CO1-1 from the State Justice Institute. The points of view expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the State Justice Institute.

Corrections professionals increasingly are being called upon to collaborate with others in the criminal and juvenile justice systems. The efforts occur at multiple levels of practice, from multi-disciplinary case-management teams that can include treatment providers, victim advocates, family members and others, to broad-based policy development initiatives that address some of the most challenging issues facing criminal justice systems. Such policy-focused activities include: reentry policy teams to better coordinate institutional and community corrections policies and practices, jail crowding projects designed to evaluate and maximize use of jail resources, female offender initiatives that look at differences between male and female offenders and how well the system responds to those differences, and general criminal and juvenile justice system councils to review and improve the administration of justice.

According to experts in organizational development, collaboration requires at least two types of basic competencies: technical competency, which refers to substantive knowledge and skills related to the project at hand; and personal competency, which is the ability to work with others as part of a team. (1) Those who possess both competencies are best equipped to move the field forward as collaboration becomes progressively more important to the practice of corrections.

What Is Collaboration?

Collaboration has become something of a buzzword in the past several years. Federal grant programs often require evidence of a multidisciplinary project team as a condition of funding, and projects in both the public and private sectors are touted as collaboratives, as if this signifies particular creativity, efficiency or both. Collaboration has been recognized as an appropriate and effective strategy for addressing some of the country's most complicated, multidimensional problems, as well as for maximizing efficient use of available resources. However, this does not mean that everyone who uses the term collaboration is actually doing it.

In some jurisdictions, holding interdisciplinary meetings to share information passes for collaboration. In others, signing a memorandum of understanding supporting another agency's project is considered collaboration. But, these activities fall short of the commitment, investment and vision necessary for true collaboration. According to David Chrislip and Carl Larson, two prominent experts in the field, collaboration is: "a mutually beneficial relationship between two or more parties to achieve common goals by sharing responsibility, authority and accountability for achieving results. It is more than simply sharing knowledge and information (communication), and more than a relationship that helps each party achieve its own goals (cooperation and coordination). The purpose of collaboration is to create a shared vision and joint strategies to address concerns that go beyond the purview of any particular party." (2)

In the context of the criminal and juvenile justice systems, there are many concerns that affect each organization or agency that "go beyond the purview of any particular party." Collaboration makes change possible within the criminal and juvenile justice systems that otherwise would be impossible.

Although definitions of collaboration can vary according to the particular context within which they are applied, all researchers in the collaborations field identify the need for a shared vision or common purpose to both motivate and structure the collaborative endeavor. For example, Chris Huxham notes that when groups collaborate they exchange information, alter activities, share resources and "enhance the capacity of another for the mutual benefit of all and to achieve a common purpose. …